J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Revolutionary parenting advice: cold baths & bare feet

Josiah Quincy, future mayor of Boston and president of Harvard College, was born in Boston in 1772. After his father, the fiery cross-eyed lawyer of the same name, left town on a last-ditch political mission to Britain in late 1774, Josiah's mother took him to his grandparents' home in Braintree. There she set up what seems like an odd ritual:

Mrs. Quincy caused her son, when not more than three years old, to be taken from his warm bed, in winter as well as summer, and carried down to a cellar-kitchen, and there dipped three times in a tub of water cold from the pump. She also brought him up in utter indifference to wet feet,—usually the terror of anxious mammas,—in which he used to say that he sat more than half the time during his boyhood, and without suffering any ill consequences.

One child who didn't share Quincy's equanimity about cold feet was Mary Palmer, born in 1775. During the war her family also moved to Braintree, closer to her grandparents, and she remembered similar experiences: “My parents, especially my mother,...began that winter by letting us all run out upon the first snow and ice without shoes or stockings, intending to make us hardy and proof against the cold.” The Palmers weren't kids playing barefoot on a warm or even a cool day, like the young reenactor pictured above, at Hartwell Tavern in Minute Man National Historical Park.

Nor was the Palmer family poor at that time. Like young Josiah, Mary and her siblings were raised in the upper crust of Braintree society. Abigail Quincy and Elizabeth and John Palmer were all loving parents, trying to give their offspring the best possible upbringing. And who offered the finest advice of the day? Both Josiah and Mary reported that their mothers were following John Locke (1632-1704).

We think of Locke as a political philosopher whose ideas of natural rights and men coming together to form governments inspired the Declaration of Independence. But in pre-Revolutionary Boston he was apparently just as respected for his advice on raising and educating children in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692). Locke's stature as a parenting expert was not hurt by the fact that he was a lifelong bachelor who never had children of his own. He came by his opinions through tutoring other people's sons and through reading.

In particular, Locke was impressed by what classical historians wrote about the Scythians:
The first thing to be taken care of, is, that children be not too warmly clad or cover'd, winter or summer. The face when we are born, is no less tender than any other part of the body. 'Tis use alone hardens it, and makes it more able to endure the cold. And therefore the Scythian philosopher gave a very significant answer to the Athenian, who wonder'd how he could go naked in frost and snow. How, said the Scythian, can you endure your face expos'd to the sharp winter air? My face is us'd to it, said the Athenian. Think me all face, reply'd the Scythian. Our bodies will endure any thing, that from the beginning they are accustom'd to.
Those lightly-clad Scythians lived around the Black Sea. Climatic and topographical differences didn't deter Locke from cajoling parents:
Give me leave therefore to advise you not to fence too carefully against the cold of this our climate. There are those in England, who wear the same clothes winter and summer, and that without any inconvenience, or more sense of cold than others find. But if the mother will needs have an allowance for frost and snow, for fear of harm, and the father, for fear of censure, be sure let not his winter clothing be too warm: And amongst other things, remember, that when nature has so well covered his head with hair, and strengthen'd it with a year or two's age, that he can run about by day without a cap, it is best that by night a child should also lie without one; there being nothing that more exposes to headaches, colds, catarrhs, coughs, and several other diseases, than keeping the head warm.
Locke went on at greatest length about the value of cold, wet feet:
I will also advise his feet to be wash'd every day in cold water, and to have his shoes so thin, that they might leak and let in water, whenever he comes near it. Here, I fear I shall have the mistress and maids too against me. One will think it too filthy, and the other perhaps too much pains, to make clean his stockings. But yet truth will have it, that his health is much more worth than all such considerations, and ten times as much more. And he that considers how mischievous and mortal a thing taking wet in the feet is, to those who have been bred nicely, will wish he had, with the poor people's children, gone bare-foot, who, by that means, come to be so reconcil'd by custom to wet in their feet, that they take no more cold or harm by it, than if they were wet in their hands. And what is it, I pray, that makes this great difference between the hands and the feet in others, but only custom? I doubt not, but if a man from his cradle had been always us'd to go bare-foot, whilst his hands were constantly wrapt up in warm mittins, and cover'd with hand-shoes, as the Dutch call gloves; I doubt not, I say, but such a custom would make taking wet in his hands as dangerous to him, as now taking wet in their feet is to great many others. The way to prevent this, is, to have his shoes made so as to leak water, and his feet wash'd constantly every day in cold water. It is recommendable for its cleanliness; but that which I aim at in it, is health; and therefore I limit it not precisely to any time of the day. I have known it us'd every night with very good success, and that all the winter, without the omitting it so much as one night in extreme cold weather; when thick ice cover'd the water, the child bathed his legs and feet in it, though he was of an age not big enough to rub and wipe them himself, and when he began this custom was puling and very tender. But the great end being to harden those parts by a frequent and familiar use of cold water, and thereby to prevent the mischiefs that usually attend accidental taking wet in the feet in those who are bred otherwise, I think it may be left to the prudence and convenience of the parents, to chuse either night or morning. The time I deem indifferent, so the thing be effectually done.

How common was it for Lockean parents to subject their children to cold baths and wet shoes? As I wrote above, the Quincy and Palmer families both lived in Braintree, and raised their children about the same time. Abigail and John Adams were part of the same set, related by marriage and friendship to both Quincys and Palmers. But I haven't found John Quincy Adams writing about childhood wet feet and cold baths the same way. Perhaps he escaped this treatment by being raised a few years earlier. Perhaps Abigail and John were less anxious than their neighbors about following the latest parenting trends.


Amanda M said...

Today naturopaths use a wet sock treatment: http://www.originsnaturopathic.com/home.htm

Sounds odd, but it worked for me.

Also, the Adams are my ancestors, nice to read about them - I remember seeing Braintree on the famil tree. Nice post.

Jane Shevtsov said...

Parents in the former Soviet Union were (and maybe still are) advised to get kids habituated to very cold showers. You were supposed to start with cool water and then work your way down to more extreme temperatures. It was supposed to prevent colds and is called zakalka (tempering).

J. L. Bell said...

John Locke would probably have noted that the Soviet Union contained the old Scythian lands, and posited an unbrokwn parenting tradition from one era to the other.