Cincinnati’s Cure for Sickly Children: Open-Air Schools

Fresh air was prescribed to fight infectious disease 100 years ago, even during winter.

As our community wrestles with the details of reopening schools in the midst of a global pandemic, it might be instructive to look backward 100 years to the so-called Spanish Influenza of 1918-19 to see how schools coped then.

It is likely this postcard shows Cincinnati’s initial open-air classroom at the First Intermediate School in the West End.

Image courtesy of the collections of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

A century ago, many of your juvenile ancestors huddled frigidly in unheated classrooms open to the elements or even in classes conducted entirely outdoors. The belief at the time was that any fresh air was good, and the more fresh air the better. Entire schools were designed on this “open air” concept. What’s intriguing, however, is that these open-air schools had little or nothing to do with influenza. The impetus derived from an entirely different disease: tuberculosis.

The open-air idea originated in hospitals, specifically in the pediatric wards. In Cincinnati, Ward B of the Cincinnati General Hospital was assigned in 1902 to the pediatric medical staff. The pediatricians almost immediately created an open-air ward for tubercular children. The University of Cincinnati Medical Bulletin [June 1921] claimed a first for this idea:

“Shortly after Ward B was assigned to the Pediatric Service, Dr. [Benjamin K.] Rachford utilized the pavilion connecting Ward B with the Administration building as an open-air ward for children suffering with pneumonia and tuberculosis. This was the first open-air ward for children to he established in this country.”

An editorial in the February 1922 issue of the Medical Bulletin by Dr. David Lyman clarified that what is good for the sickly tubercular child is even better for healthy children:

“It was the work for the tuberculous child that was responsible for the open-air school now so generally used for sickly and backward children, and I own up to the ambition to live long enough to see those in charge of our educational institutions awaken to the fact that what increases the health and efficiency of the sickly child will also produce like results in the well ones.”

Cincinnati Public Schools got the message and trumpeted the implementation of their first open-air school in the annual report for 1911:

“The opening of the first open-air school late in the year was probably the most important step in the anti-tuberculosis campaign ever taken in this city. Experience has abundantly demonstrated that prevention is of vastly greater importance than cure. The children from the open air school will become fresh air missionaries in their homes, and a prolific predisposing cause of tuberculosis will be eliminated.”

That inaugural icebox school was First Intermediate School, located on Baymiller Street between Court and Clark in the West End. The Enquirer description [October 10, 1911] sounds somewhat less than encouraging:

“The children will be provided with ‘Eskimo suits’ and will study and recite their lessons in the fresh, life-giving air of winter, fully prepared to withstand the cold.”

By 1916, Cincinnati Public Schools operated open-air classrooms with maximum enrollments of 25 pupils at Guilford, Dyer, Sands, and Douglas schools. Much to the dismay of the city’s health officer, an additional rooftop open-air classroom at the new Bloom school was being used as a regular classroom due to overcrowding. Additional open-air classrooms were placed in operation by December at Rothenberg, Washington, and Cummins schools.

The fresh air fiend health officer was Dr. William H. Peters, who devoted decades to propounding the gospel of outdoor vigor on behalf of children. In a major address in the spring of 1919, with the city still reeling from the influenza pandemic, Peters called for more open-air classrooms as part of his plan to eliminate tuberculosis in Cincinnati.

A local family doctor, J.L. Teuchter, was such a big fan of the open-air school that he took his zeal to the Mississippi Valley Conference on Tuberculosis in 1915 and asserted that nostalgia for “The Little Red Schoolhouse” was misplaced. Those fabled, one-room country schools were breeders of tuberculosis, he insisted, in a speech titled, “Lessons From the Open-Air Schools.”

One enthusiastic believer in Peters’ and Teuchter’s message was Helen Gibbons Lotspeich, who opened the Clifton Open Air School in her own backyard in 1916. The school prospered and was renamed the Lotspeich School, becoming one of the founding entities merged into today’s Seven Hills School.

One significant weakness of the open-air concept, in Cincinnati at least, was that “open air” did not necessarily equate to “fresh air.” According to Janet A. Miller, writing in the Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin [Summer 1980]:

“In parts of the city, stale air in the rooms had to be endured because opening windows let in ‘great clouds and dashes of soot and dirt.’”

By the 1920s, with a recognition that tuberculosis was fairly contagious no matter the air quality and that, in fact, fresh air did little to prevent the disease, Cincinnati’s open-air classes were largely removed to Dunham Hospital, the city’s tuberculosis sanitarium.

It appears that Cincinnatians who really wanted their youngsters to enjoy the open-air educational experience made arrangements to attend the public and private open-air schools in St. Petersburg, Florida, where “Eskimo suits” were not a requirement.

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