Things weren't always the way they are today
Though we’re only a few months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, there have already been plenty of changes made to our everyday life. Handshakes and hugs are out; social distancing is in. Crowded in-person events have been put on hold in favour of group Zoom calls. Face masks have become ubiquitous and may become a permanent lifestyle accessory, even once the pandemic is over. We’ve gotten into the habit of thoroughly washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, one of the developments that will ideally be the norm from now on. But this isn’t the first time an infectious disease has had a major impact on people’s daily habits. In fact, some things that are commonplace today weren’t always that way and actually have origins in major health crises.
White tile and lino became popular in houses
The widespread acceptance of germ theory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in a shift in interior design – both in public buildings like hospitals and in private homes. Victorian-era homes were known for their ornate wooden decorations, heavy draperies, and patterned wallpaper and flooring designed to hide dirt and grime. But once people understood that dirt and dust could contain germs that cause infectious disease, there was a shift from dark colours, fabrics, wallpaper, and flooring to stark white interiors, where any dirt was clearly visible.
“I think common sense dictates that if you want to know if the surface is clean, the visual cue is that you’ve used a light colour and there are now dark spots on it. [You can see if] it’s looking grimy,” explains Dr Kelly Wright, who teaches history and specialises in the historic use of colour in architecture. In addition to that, white tiles and linoleum floors were easier to clean than wood, with its natural crevices.
Tuberculosis influenced women's makeup trends
When a person came down with tuberculosis – once known as ‘consumption’ – their skin became pale, and they lost weight as they literally wasted away. While that doesn’t sound like something anyone would find aspirational, between 1780 and 1850, there was “an increasing aestheticisation of tuberculosis that [became] entwined with feminine beauty,” says Dr Carolyn Day, assistant professor of history and author of Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease. Why? Partially because upper-class women’s predisposition to developing tuberculosis was thought to be based on their appearance. “Tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women,” she explained, such as thinness and pale skin.
As a result, the rise of the ‘consumptive chic’ look became popular in the mid-1800s. It involved women trying to look as though they had tuberculosis by using makeup to make their skin appear paler, putting blush on their cheeks and red colour on their lips. Once doctors started to prescribe sunbathing as a treatment for consumption, makeup trends went the other way, favouring more tanned skin.