By Meguey Baker
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Meguey is a museum curator and material historian specializing in textiles.
Part 2: Babies, Washing, & Staying Healthy
Why is there a section about babies and fertility in an article about thread? Because the production of thread and fabric is a tremendous task, consuming vast amounts of time and work, and therefore, issues of fertility, birthing, and parenting are impacted directly by that demand for labor. Further, textile production has throughout time been predominantly considered “women’s work” once the fiber needed leaves the animal or plant from which it comes. Which is a bit weird, because it’s actually everyone’s work, in some way, no matter how you divide the labor.
Consider that breastfeeding was How Babies Were Fed up to the mid 1800s. Babies and nursing don’t need to be the focus of your world, but they sure as breathing are there if you have humans in a pre-1850 tech level. Consider that people have always found ways to control their own fertility, but until the mid 1600s, that was most often by natural child spacing, meaning, the suppression of ovulation that breastfeeding tends to give. This leads to births very roughly 3 years apart, if the infant is allowed to nurse until they are around 2, which is typical for most of human history. So: nursing everywhere. As part of life. Nothing worth even blinking at.
A nursing infant is extremely portable, and breastfeeding can happen pretty much anywhere the nursing pair is. It’s totally reasonable to breastfeed an infant while walking, or working, or living, basically. When you think about your worldbuilding, ask yourself: what does the society I’m building value in terms of the most vulnerable people, the very young and very old, and how are the people who care for them treated? Do infants stay with their parents, as a biologically related nursing pair? Is cross-nursing between families common or strange? Are there wet-nurses, whose sole job is breastfeeding babies? If infants are sent to wet-nurses, why?
Is a baby’s and/or nursing parent’s value inherent as a person, or are they commodified as pawns/cogs, in which case birth is prioritized, breastfeeding is deprioritized, and natural fertility suppression is intentionally broken. In what ways does your world support breastfeeding parent-child pairs, and if it doesn’t, why not? Make thoughtful and informed decisions in your world-building!
It’s hilarious to me that the idea that people and clothing in Any Place Or Time are unwashed. If we assume fuel that smokes (coal/wood/oil), then yes, staining and smog, but also grit in cloth = skin irritation = infection = death, so the effort to keep the clothing next to the skin clean is a constant, like washing hands and face and body folds. This ties into the textile threads, because washing one’s body and clothes is 100% part of life. It’s part of why we gravitate to elevated places with running water nearby, to carry away dirt from washing. How do people in your world deal with their waste water?
The shift to consider is the ability to dry things out. If you have running water and a space open to air and sunlight, you have clean clothes, at least the layer that goes next to your skin, and that is changed fresh regularly even if you only have two chemise and/or breech-clothes. So, the advent of dense cities does not mean people didn’t wash, it meant it was harder to dry things well, and damp clothing chafes, and then we’re back to infection = death. Consider a t-shirt you hiked in all day, washed roughly in a stream to get the sweat out, then hung to dry by your campfire. The next day it might smell a bit like smoke, but it would be cleaner and drier than when you took it off the night before. What do people use to clean and dry their bodies and clothing?
And while we’re still thinking about campfires, which means woodsmoke, and also, conveniently, wood ash. Until the switch to coal for heat and cooking, clothes (and dishes, and most everything else) were washed with cold water and wood ash. So the source of the dirt and the solution for the dirt were right together. And as wood ash works easily in cold water, no one was spending masses of resources heating water and hauling wet fabric around, which was a whole job in the coal-driven 1700s. Coal smoke is sticky, and to remove it takes hot water and soap — which takes more time and energy to make, or costs more money — just to stay clean. (Yes, people used coal before this, but not on the levels that the industrial revolution would bring!) Where do people wash? How far do they have to take the dirty things in order to get them clean? Is washing a specialized fabric-related job?
Or, perhaps closer to home, if you’ve ever hand-washed anything at a convention and hung it to dry overnight, it works. (And by the way, wring it out in a towel and hang it in the main part of your room, not the bathroom; more airflow = better drying.) Just working water purposefully through cloth will go a long way. Using any agent to scrub it does two things: loosens more dirt and creates more wear. Which is why outer layers get washed less, and the topmost layer is sometimes darker or more vivid (coats, jeans, scarves) or lighter due to wear or purpose (old shirts worn as smocks, old jeans worn to paint in, aprons).
Washing the body is a given for the same reasons as washing clothing: sweat and grit lead to skin irritation. There’s a billion different things people have used over human history to remove grim, from water to bone to salt, and wood ash soap is pretty darn old. If you are doing world-building with the assumption that people and clothing are unwashed, how do they stay free of skin irritation = infection = death? (Please note: smelly =/= unwashed. If you mean smelly, say smelly! The world before 1800 was ABSOLUTELY more pungent!)
People always washed. We got marketed that our bodies were the problem, not lack of access to clean running water, air, and sunlight! And even that is a little dicey, given how easily wood vanishes from the archaeological record. There could have been open-air wooden tubs surrounded by curtains outside every other “Dark Ages” home, and we might never know. But bathing in rivers/lakes/streams goes back forever, and Romans built bath houses with radiant heat in the floors all over Britain. Is washing the body or clothing considered private or communal? What are the taboos and traditions around washing? Bathing is all over the artwork, for all walks of life, and we really can understand the difference between washing body parts as often as needed and submerging oneself in a tub of water that is very expensive to heat to a comfortable level. It’s bizarre that we somehow bought the line that “nobody bathed in Medieval times” for so long. It gave justification for a) marketing cleaning products and b) feeling superior and ‘scientifically advanced’ during the discovery of germs. We could blame the massive deaths of prior generations on their ignorance and poor hygiene, instead of on capitalism forcing overcrowding.
Also, of course, the racist and imperialist filters on “those people are not clean” are THICK, and deserve persistent and intentional challenge.
Washing leads directly to health. It’s amazing to me how few people know that penicillin was figured out in 1928, and before that people died of infection Extremely Often. It’s not “what would you have died from in medieval times”, it’s “what would you have died from 93 years ago?” Everyone chiming in with major surgery or accidents and I’m like; my grandmother is 92. She is among the first who grew up with antibiotics even being an option from the first round of strep throat in childhood. Before that, if you got an infected hangnail, you could wind up dead. If you’re looking at morbidity and mortality in your imaginary people, what are they doing about infection? And, no shock, people have been treating for infection literally forever. (CW: mummies)
And for the love of all, PLEASE leave off the idea that childbirth is somehow especially deadly. It’s a vulnerable time, and things can go very wrong, but most of the time it works. The main killer is infection. (CW: medical stuff. pregnancy)
How do the people in your imagined world handle routine infection and common injury? A healed break, especially in a leg bone, is a reliable indicator that the healed person is part of a community that can care for someone who is incapacitated, at least for a while. Who has access to medical care? How does the world you imagine handle large scale epidemics? Could you maybe help combat this one? Get your vaccine, wash your hands, wear your mask, and maybe learn from everyone over 60 who has a dime-sized smallpox vaccine scar. Just to reiterate: the availability of effective antibiotics changed the world completely after WW1, and its INCREDIBLY EASY to miss in our narrow focus on what’s happening now. (CW: child mortality, in data)
My mom was born in 1950 and is allergic to sulfas, which were the standard treatment for infection prior to ~1940. Any of her childhood infections would have killed her in 1928. Folks born after 1940 just had a better chance of living. (Hence, the current makeup of congress.) We go about our lives in the Now because we have to, but the past is Right There, looking over our shoulder, nudging our hands. We’re foolish if we don’t look around sometimes and try to get a longer view.