Why You Need to Open Your Windows

No Victorian-era homemaking book would be complete without a chapter on ventilation.

The Victorians often attributed poor health to “bad air.” Florence Nightingale, acknowledged by many as the founder of modern nursing, stressed the need for fresh air over and over in her book Notes on Nursing (1859). The prevailing theory on disease at the time held that decaying organic matter (from chamberpots, sweat, or dirt) poisoned the air, generating illness in those who breathed it in. The solution, according to the Victorians, was ventilation: let the fresh air in so the miasma—the bad air—will be pushed out.

There are at least two full chapters in The American Woman’s Home devoted to the science of ventilation, and Beecher stresses the importance of pure air throughout the rest of the book as well. Sleeping in bad air makes people lethargic, Beecher warns her readers. People who spend all day in poorly ventilated rooms find it hard to think clearly; they feel cross and irritable, and they have less willpower to resist temptation. Their health is undermined, making them more susceptible to catching cold when they do venture out into the winter air.

Beecher’s solution is clear: get as much fresh air as possible, as often as possible. Open windows, even overnight; icy water pails on frosty mornings are better than chronic illness. If you can, outfit your home with ventilation systems that filter the bad air out and allow the fresh air in. Regardless of how scientific your ventilation setup, spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Sunlight and pure air, Beecher insists over and over. Sunlight and pure air are the essential to a healthy life.

“…it will be assumed that the family state demands some outdoor labor for all…so divided that each and all of the family, some part of the day, can take exercise in the pure air, under the magnetic and healthful rays of the sun.

Catherine Beecher, The American Woman’s Home, p. 24

Eventually, though, scientists discovered germs. Diseases were caused, not by “bad air”, but by pathogens. Miasma theory, now discredited, fell by the wayside, and along with it the Victorian obsession with proper ventilation. All this talk of “pure air” was just another mistaken idea from a previous generation.

Except…it wasn’t.

“Old-fashioned” does not mean “wrong”

Enter the the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of a sudden, ventilation jumped into public consciousness in a way it hadn’t since the Victorian era. Suddenly, we’ve become acutely aware of the potential for disease to be lingering in the air around us. We don’t want to be in crowded, enclosed rooms, breathing and rebreathing potentially contaminated air. We’d rather be outdoors, where fresh air dilutes the virus and the rays of the sun kill whatever pathogens remain.

Sunlight and fresh air. Essential to health.

Sound familiar?

The Victorians may have been wrong about miasma theory, but their observations were spot-on: stagnant air is unhealthy, and ventilation is important, not because there is “bad air” that needs to be filtered out, but because fresh air dilutes the germs in the air.

The Victorians were right about other things as well. Modern research on indoor air quality has found that stagnant air makes it harder to think clearly. Students in poorly ventilated rooms don’t perform as well on tests. Lack of fresh air is linked with an increase in respiratory symptoms—exactly as Catherine Beecher reported 150 years ago.

The Victorians, as it turns out, were right all along. But we’re only just realizing it now.

It’s not the first time we’ve had to relearn something our ancestors knew as a matter of fact. Enamored with our modernity, we quickly discount historical ideas that don’t line up with the way we see the world. We assume that “old-fashioned” automatically means “outdated” and “wrong,” and we stop listening to voices whose insights don’t seem new and shiny.

But just because the Victorians’ explanation for disease was wrong doesn’t mean their observations weren’t worth paying attention to. Nineteenth-century people knew from experience that those who had well-ventilated houses and who spent more time in the fresh air were healthier. And if we had the humility to consider the possibility that the observations of a past generation have merit—well, maybe we would have looked for a reason why ventilation worked instead of discounting it altogether.

“Modern” does not mean “right”

Our immediate criticism of what sounds old-fashioned is not limited to Victorian health advice.

I’ve noticed a tendency among my peers to discount the opinions and perspectives of the old. We consider our generation to be special. We are more enlightened, more knowledgeable, more tolerant, than any generation that went before us. And when someone older says something that conflicts with the way we see the world, we discount it immediately. “They just don’t know how the world works,” we think. “We live in a more complicated era. They just don’t know how things work now.”


Or maybe they know something we have forgotten, something we would do well to reconsider.

I’m not saying the old are always right—far from it. Nor am I suggesting we should follow Victorian advice to the exclusion of modern science. The Victorians were wrapped up in their own branch of intellectual arrogance, busy discarding the time-honored knowledge of their forebears in favor of what was newly discovered. To value the new above the time-tested is hardly a modern phenomenon, nor is it one that will end with our generation.

And that, readers, is exactly why we need to stay humble. No generation before us has ever gained anything without discarding something else in the process, something for a later generation to rediscover and re-embrace. The pendulum has swung back and forth on so many issues, time after time, generation after generation. We know, and we forget; we discover, and then disregard; and on it goes, from one era to the next and then back again.

The perspectives of the past are not without value.

And our own are not without error.

So let’s begin a practice of listening before we judge, considering before we discard.

Let’s temper our certainty with curiosity, open to the possibility that there are things we do not yet know—and things which, perhaps, we have forgotten.

Let’s celebrate the progress we have achieved, the advances we have made, grateful for the privilege of living in the age in which we live.

But while we do, let’s open some windows.


  1. Danielle Banerjee said:

    Great message! I’m all for fresh air. I have found myself feeling tired if I spend too much time indoors and refreshed, clear headed as soon as I step outside. Thanks for this reminder and for the history behind it all too.

    February 19, 2021

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