As autumn drifts toward winter’s chill, we snuggle further beneath our down-filled duvets, crank our electric blankets, and gently nudge our thermostats upward. In doing so, we ignore the posthumous judgement of our ancestors, who have just one word to spit upon us:
A little more than a century ago, in the early nineteen teens, Cincinnati got caught up in the rage for fresh air. Reading the old newspapers, you’d conclude that coal furnaces and central heating constituted a veritable death sentence. Here’s the Cincinnati Post [2 July 1913]:
“Every home ought to have its sleeping porch. Where there’s room, a better plan would be for all the family to sleep in the yard. Eight hours of breathing fresh, pure air each day make a pretty effective antidote for most of the poisons we take into our systems during the work hours of the day.”
A glance at the classified advertisements in the years leading up to World War I suggest that no credible realtor would offer a house for sale without boasting about its sleeping porch—no matter how small it might be. And, yes, people actually slept on their sleeping porches in winter as well as summer, to the extent that merchants sold winterized nightshirts with “foot pockets” to keep your toes warm on chilly nights. If the foot pockets weren’t sufficiently cozy, the Enquirer [8 November 1913] offered an alternative—the foot muff:
“And then there’s the foot muff. It’s a fur arrangement usually, and you put both feet into it. It’s really just a big, warm slipper built for two feet.”
The impetus for this nocturnal polar bear regimen was tuberculosis, which ravaged Cincinnati at the time. Health authorities preached outdoor sleeping as a preventive measure, especially in the crowded tenements of the West End and Over-the-Rhine, where the “white plague” was especially rampant. But the major proponents of fresh air appear to have been well-to-do residents of some of the city’s tonier hilltop neighborhoods. Take John B. Osthoff, of 459 Purcell Avenue, for example. He was a salesman for a diamond merchant and owned a winter home in Florida and a hunting lodge in North Carolina. However, according to the Cincinnati Post [23 December 1909]:
“Mrs. Osthoff prefers the backyard tent of her Cincinnati home to all other places as a health resort. The tent is large enough to accommodate two beds, in which Mrs. Osthoff and her young daughter sleep, even on the coldest nights.”
No word on Mr. Osthoff’s sleeping arrangements.
Although the poorer classes resisted the argument that shivering the night away was a grand idea, Cincinnati’s upper crust became veritable fresh-air fiends. No lesser authority than Helena Rubenstein pushed this angle in a column published in the Post [5 May 1922]:
“Those who have ever slept outdoors for any length of time are unanimous in their testimony that even the best ventilated sleeping room is far inferior in healthfulness to an outdoor sleeping porch, or an open tent or a window tent. Time was, not so long ago, when outdoor sleeping was prescribed only for such diseases as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Of late, the value of outdoor sleeping for well persons of all classes and ages has come to be recognized.”
Apparently, Cincinnati’s Sinton Hotel didn’t get the memo. When actress Margaret Wycherly showed up in town for a run at the Grand Opera House in January 1914, she asked the Sinton to provide her with a tent on the roof of the hotel at Fourth and Vine streets. Assistant manager Jack Brannin suggested that Miss Wycherly take a good look at the weather forecast and reconsider. Wrong answer, according to the Enquirer [5 January 1914]:
“After a short consultation with Manager [William J.] Fleming, Mr. Brannin returned with the information that Miss Wycherly could use the tent if she so desired. It will be the first time in the history of the hotel that one of the guests was permitted to sleep on the roof. Miss Wycherly, who is the wife of Bayard Veiller, the playwright, spends practically her entire time, except when in the theater, out of doors.
By December 1924, the Cincinnati Post reported that local stores prominently displayed outdoor sleeping accouterments in their windows and messages promoting outdoor sleeping were distributed via motion pictures and stereopticon slides. This gladdened the heart of Dr. Ray G. De Voist of the Anti-Tuberculosis League:
“Fresh air invigorates during sleep and night air is specially healthful. In spite of the theories of our grandparents it is even more purifying than day air as it is less laden with dust and humidity. Cold air, moreover, according to recent experiments, has been found to be even more health-giving than warm air.”
United States Surgeon General Hugh S. Cumming emphatically concurred, in an op-ed published August 24, 1925 in the Cincinnati Post:
“Every night properly spent in the out-of-doors is a health asset. Many a man who never has slept in the open, who never has experienced the feeling of well-being that results from outdoor sleeping in the fresh air, wakes from his first experience in amazement. The effects of such nights spent in the open, sleeping under the stars and in the fresh air, are truly wonderful.”
One cannot help but wonder where Dr. De Voist and Dr. Cumming really spent their hours of slumber.
You can still find references to sleeping porches among today’s real estate advertisements, although the reality of such amenities is probably analogous to that of butler’s pantries in an age when very few actually buttle. Does anybody really sleep on the sleeping porch these days?