No Place Like Home: Dr. Joseph P. Widney’s “Sanitary Defects in Houses and Manner of Living” from the Los Angeles Commercial, 8 May 1881

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Los Angeles Commercial is not one of the Angel City’s better-known papers of the late 19th century, but the issue of 8 May 1881 that is the featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post, while it lacks much content of note and interest, does have a remarkable and lengthy article by Dr. Joseph P. Widney, one of the more interesting figures in Los Angeles during his very long life, spanning 96 years from 1841 to 1938.

Widney, whose uncle was Robert Maclay, founder of San Fernando, was the brother of Robert Maclay Widney, a prominent real estate developer, lawyer, and judge. The Widney brothers were also key figures in the establishment and initial development of the University of Southern California, with Joseph an early president.

In recent years, however, the memorialization of the siblings has been called into question at U.S.C. Robert, for example, has been accused of being involved in vigilante activity, including the lynching of Michel Lachenais in December 1870, though it is also known that he protected Chinese residents during the horrific massacre of the following October.

As for Joseph, it has been pointed out that he was the author of Race Life of the Aryan Peoples, published in 1907, and which very clearly discussed the claim of the superiority of white people, while asserting they could not live in equality with Blacks. He suggested that the two races could live together with the former as masters, but such a condition would actually be harmful to whites than to Blacks.

An ad for the forerunner to Long Beach on the Rancho Los Cerritos, once owned by Jonathan Temple.

With this troubling history in mind, Widney’s article in the Commercial reflected another crucial matter for him, which was hygiene, and he began his piece with the observation that he’d noted “weak points in our system of house building and living” while making the rounds in his medical practice and noted that “even among the well educated, each man is too apt to think himself entirely competent to plan and build his own house without consulting his family physician aa to its sanitary excellencies or defects.”

The problem is that it was only when “diphtheria has stricken the anxious household with dismay” that doctors were called “into the innermost recesses of the house and inspect its most secret corners, that the source of disease may be traced out and the cause removed. Widney continued,

Possibly, when we reach that stage of civilization when the community will submit to a law requiring that every building shall be planned and erected under the supervision of a competent sanitary officer, the house of rejoicing will less quickly be turned into a house of mourning, and many of the diseases which seem to riot amid the conveniences and comforts of our so called improved manner of living, will again become strangers at our firesides.

There were seventeen areas the doctor defined as important to contend with in making the needed hygienic improvements. First was that houses were frequently crowded too closely together, especially in larger metropolises, “but in the smaller cities and villages there is no good reason why each house should not have around it sufficient yard room, so that fresh air and sunshine shall be the daily portion of its inmates,” while flowers and trees were not just “birthrights only of happy dwellers in far-off Arcadian fields.” It was vital, Widney continued, that “we should be a cleaner, healthier, better, and more moral people.”

The Adelphi occupied the former Merced Theatre, the building of which still stands next to the Pico House hotel structure off the Plaza.

Next was that houses on narrow lots “should be built upon the side of the lot furthest from the sun,” so that the north line was the spot for east-to-west facing properties “to secure the greatest amount of sunlight” and avoid having “old sol” from being blocked by adjacent structures. Third, only those trees and vines that shed leaves in the winter should be planted near a house—this was to allow for “grateful shade” in summer, but, in the winter, “the light and heat of the sun are not shut out.”

As to roofs, flat ones and those of the mansard type were “entirely unsuited to a warm climate,” with the exception “of the old Spanish houses” in which “the roof has a thick layer of non-heat conducting material.” Otherwise, indoor spaces were basically an “almost uninhabitable furnace” in which “the family swelter through wearisome nights in the vain endeavor to sleep” while infants developed cholera. Also important was to have soil banked against the residence to keep water from getting under it and causing stagnant pools, while plants were to be kept from walls to avoid water from getting the foundation and walls wet “and render them unhealthful” and walks placed around the structure.

This hotel was on the east side of Main Street just south of where US 101 passes through downtown.

Concerning spaces under the houses, structures “should be set well up from the ground, with thorough ventilation under the floors” through “openings that will allow a free sweep of wind, so that the air shall be pure and sweet.” Moreover, there needed to be plenty of room beyond the narrowest of crawl spaces, so that a person could remove dead animals, inspect leaky water pipes, and examine sewer and drain pipes.” With respect to cellars, a substantial drain, well or pipe was important, as was the necessity of “thorough ventilation, especially when used as a storage room for vegetables and fruits.”

Inside the residence, it was vital that living rooms should be on warmer, sunnier sides and halls and seldom used rooms be left on those portions that were shadier and cooler. For those spaces with insufficient exposure to the sun they “may be made pleasant by having folding doors opening . . . into an adjoining room which has the sun.” This was not just “a matter of health and comfort, but also of economy in the consumption of fuel.” Having good shutters also was deemed important.

in the 1880 federal census, Henry Dalton, owner of extensive lands in the Azusa area of the San Gabriel Valley, told the enumerator that his occupation was “fighting for my rights” and here is one reason why, as he and son-in-law, Lewis Wolfskill, former co-owner of lands where Temple City is now with William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, faced a sheriff’s sale for about 5,600 acres of land.

When it came to brick structures plaster should not be applied to outer side of the walls, unless hollow brick was utilized, but a space should be left and then the lath-and-plaster placed, for “in no other way can dampness be effectually guarded against during the driving storms of winter. Widney noted that he’d been in houses “where the moisture had penetrated until the paper was molded and rotting on the walls.” He suggested that the outside walls be painted instead.

Another recommendation was that “large rooms are always desirable, and conducive to health, especially in a warm climate,” though smaller rooms could have “folding or sliding doors” so that in warmer weather, “several rooms may be thrown into one.” The doctor added that he had his house arranged so that three first-floor rooms and a hall could essentially be converted into what we might call a “great room.” He noted, “one who has never tried it would be astonished at the difference it makes in the comfort and coolness of the house.”

Concerning kitchens, Widney observed that it was usual in greater Los Angeles to have these detached from the house, but he warned that this was conducive to introducing illness “for the passage way is much of the time swept by a cold cross current of air, which to persons heated by the fires of the kitchen is a constant source of colds, often of serious illness.” He recommended having a passage open on just one side to eliminate such drafts, while “folding doors upon the open side may in Winter convert this area into a close room, if desired.”

Interestingly, the doctor also suggested that for sleeping rooms in houses in warm climates “the rush matting of Chinese or Japanese manufacture is far preferable to carpets” because, not only was this material cheaper and easier to keep clean, but moths were not a problem, nor were there fibers “to catch and retain the germs or contagious principle of disease.” Too many people sleeping in a room was a clear danger, though even “the wealthy and well housed are the offenders,” not just the poor. Widney pointed out that” the peculiar, sickening order of the close, ill ventilated, over-crowded bedroom is familiar to every physician.”

Typically, bathrooms were placed in locations that were “ordinarily cold and cheerless, with little or no sunlight, and absolutely no method of warming it, while the slopping of water keeps up a perpetual dampness,” thereby leading to frequent colds. The best solution, he advised, was to place bathrooms and kitchens side-by-side with a connecting doorway “for the kitchen fire insures a warm bathroom” even if bathrooms “in fine houses” had their own heating source. Not only this, but homeowners were requested “to see that the plug is kept in the vent of the bath tub when it is not in use” because of “the free escape of sewer gas back into the house.”

Even in greater Los Angeles, Widney suggested that “for nearly six months of the year fire is pleasant in the morning and evening, and during the winter months is absolute essential, to health, unless for the very robust.” During rainy weather with dampness a constant, “the public does not realize the harm of sitting in a cold room with bodies half chilled,” with this condition being “the handmaiden of pneumonia and phthisis [tuberculosis.]” Bedrooms should have fireplaces for this reason and he argued that a two-story residence should have “flues so that at least a pipe hole may be in sleeping rooms above.”

As to sewer systems, the doctor contended that, when it came to the complications of modern living, “the danger is that it may master us” because the world had become “polluted with our sewers, our offal, and our garbage.” While cities lacking sewers were ravaged with typhoid, those that did have them “are scourged with epidemic diphtheria” as “the dark labyrinth of the sewer” was “the haunt and lurking place of myriad demons of death” waiting to invade houses “and feed upon the lives of our best loved.” The problem, he noted, was that “the trap that will at all times keep out its poison gases, when once the pipes have entered within the walls, does not seem to have been yet invented.”

Houses were so constructed that “the householder finds the space under his floors flooded with a foul liquid, the most dilute breath of which is poison” while even well-placed pipes were such that “the filth comes oozing back from his lower basins and drains.” while others simply emptied into a vault which filled and then back-flowed into the house. Poorly constructed joints between pipes led to situations he saw in which

the whole blast of foul air from the sewer or the vault was pouring back under the floors, and making its way up through every crack and crevice, until the entire house was poisoned. And yet the inmates had not the faintest suspicion that they were suffering from the effect of sewer gas, because the traps to their brains [drains!] were in good order.

Widney resorted to conducting his own inspections when visiting patients and concluded “the only safe plan is not to carry a sewer pipe under the house at all, but to stop it outside the foundation walls, and to extend the metallic escape pipes outside the house before tapping it.” He added that for infrequently used basins, evaporated water gases were released back into rooms and having plugs were to no avail “because the overflow guard of small holes near the upper rim of the basin has no stopper.”

Beyond this, there were the problems of pipes rusted out, corroded by gases, but the doctor did feel that pipes should be relocated from being between floors and ceilings, or walls, or walls and the lath of outer walls, and “drainage pipes should be arranged so that they may be open to inspection along their entire course.” Aesthetically, this was not desirable, “but it is safer.” When a patient in a nice, newly built house developed a fever, Widney noticed a light stain on the dining room ceiling and then saw that a bathroom was above and the pipes were in the wall and ceiling. Tearing these open, he saw that “the pipes, both of bath-tub and the water-closet, were found eaten through, and the foul fluid escaping. The fever was explained.”

Notably, the doctor’s residence only had drainage from the detached kitchen add elsewhere “the old fashioned bowl and pitcher are used, and the slops are carried out.” This archaic method “is some trouble, but then we have no sewer fevers.” Recognizing this was not likely to happen in many other modern houses, Widney called for “pouring a pail of boiling water, charged with some efficient disinfectant, into the basins.” He also advised against having toilets “within the walls of a dwelling” because “the average householder will not give it the constant attention needed to make it safe.”

Other advice including daily cleaning of faucet filters because “otherwise, a few hours make the clear, sparkling stream of water only an infusion, under high pressure, of the hundreds of water insects, small fish, and sediment;” and regular disinfecting, such as with sulfur, and cleaning of water tanks; scalding of the insides of water jars; keeping areas outside the kitchen free of scraps and slops by using a covered bin or box; and treating toilets and vaults [septic tanks] “with suitable chemicals, or by shoveling in a layer of dry earth.”

Moreover, he directed the attention of readers to the necessity of keeping water-closets and wells well separated and dictated “let the well go upon the higher ground” and cited the unfortunate example of “a country school-house where . . . the well [was] poisoned, to the serious injury of the children who drank the water” too close in proximity to the privy. Widney wrapped up by cautioning:

In conclusion, it is well always to remember that while civilization has freed us form many of the perils and sources of disease incident to the savage state, it has yet brought to us others no less deadly; and I think he will prove the wiser physician who watches how people live, as well as how they sicken and die.

Dr. Widney’s remarkable essay is an interesting and informative look into hygiene in houses at a time when tremendous change was occurring in scientific research and medical practice and standards that would be exemplified in increasingly comprehensive and complex building codes were fast transitioning.

While other content of note in this issue of the Los Angeles Commercial was lacking, this lengthy article does stand out for showing us the state of residential construction and health issues just a little over 140 years ago.

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