Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Improvement in American Health
By James Ford Rhodes (1848–1927)
From ‘History of the United States’

ENGLISH travelers, with hardly an exception, were struck with the lack of health of Americans. “An Englishman,” wrote Lyell, “is usually recognized at once in a party by a more robust look, and greater clearness and ruddiness of complexion.” He also noted “a careworn expression in the countenances of the New-Englanders.” Harriet Martineau said we were distinguished for “spare forms and pallid complexions”; and that “the feeling of vigorous health” was almost unknown. Thackeray wrote from New York, “Most of the ladies are as lean as greyhounds.” Our shortcomings in this respect were fully appreciated by ourselves. The Atlantic Monthly pointed out that in the appearance of health and in bodily vigor we compared very unfavorably with English men and women. George William Curtis spoke of the typical American as “sharp-faced, thought-furrowed, hard-handed,” with “anxious eye and sallow complexion, nervous motion, and concentrated expression”; and he averred that we were “lantern-jawed, lean, sickly, and serious of aspect.” Emerson mentioned “that depression of spirits, that furrow of care, said to mark every American brow”; and on another occasion he referred to “the invalid habits of this country”; when in England in 1847 he wrote home: “When I see my muscular neighbors day by day, I say, Had I been born in England, with but one chip of English oak in my willowy constitution!” The Atlantic Monthly declared that, “in truth, we are a nation of health-hunters, betraying the want by the search.” It was admitted that the young men were coming up badly. Holmes wrote: “I am satisfied that such a set of black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage.” In the “Easy Chair” Curtis observed, “In the proportion that the physique of Young America diminishes, its clothes enlarge.” The students in the colleges were no better than the young men of the cities. The women sadly lacked physical tone. Dr. Holmes spoke of the “American female constitution, which collapses just in the middle third of life; and comes out vulcanized india-rubber if it happen to live through the period when health and strength are most wanted.”  1
  Curiously enough, we advertised our ailments. The hearty English salutation of “good-morning” had given way to an inquiry about one’s health, which, instead of being conventional, like that of the French and Germans, was a question requiring an answer about one’s physical feelings and condition. Pleas of ill-health in the national Senate and the House of Representatives were not infrequent.  2
  Our physical degeneracy was attributed to the climate. Yet it is difficult to reconcile this opinion with the enthusiasm of many European travelers over certain aspects of nature in America. The bright sunshine, the blue sky, the golden, Oriental sunsets, the exhilarating air, were an astonishment and delight. “The climate of the Union,” wrote de Tocqueville, “is upon the whole preferable to that of Europe.” We have now come to recognize the fact that a climate to be salubrious need not be moist; that between the dryness of Colorado and the humidity of England, there may be a mean—such as is found in the larger part of the Northern States—better adapted to health than either; and that the greater amount of sunshine compensates for the wider variations in temperature.  3
  But without begging the question of American ill-health by ascribing it to climate, it may unquestionably be found to be due to bad diet, bad cooking, fast eating, and insufficient exercise in the open air. The appetizing forms in which the genius of New England cookery displayed itself, provoked an inordinate consumption of sweets, hot breads, and cakes. With what surprise does this generation read that our greatest philosopher always ate pie for breakfast! The use of the frying-pan in the West and the South pointed well the quaint remark that “God sends meat, and the Devil sends cooks.” Men ate too much animal food, and especially too much pork. The cooking and the service at hotels and other public places made dinner “the seed-time of dyspepsia.” A fashionable tendency prevailing in the cities to live in hotels and large boarding-houses, promoted unwholesome living. The use of wine at table was rare, the drinking of drams before dinner habitual. Tobacco was used to excess, and chewing was as common as smoking.  4
  Boys at schools and colleges, young men who were clerks and salesmen in the cities, and the sons of rich parents, alike formed these bad habits. Neither men nor women took exercise in the open air. No one walked when he could ride. The trotting-buggy took the place of the horse’s back. The Americans were gregarious, and loved town life, having no taste for healthful country recreations. Their idea of the country was the veranda of a large caravansary at Saratoga or Newport. Athletics were almost unknown. “There is no lack,” said Edward Everett in 1856, “of a few tasteless and soulless dissipations which are called amusements; but noble athletic sports, manly outdoor exercises, which strengthen the mind by strengthening the body, and bring man into a generous and exhilarating communion with nature, are too little cultivated in town or country.” “We have a few good boatmen,” wrote Holmes in 1858; “no good horsemen that I hear of;—I cannot speak for cricketing, but as for any great athletic feat performed by a gentleman in these latitudes, society would drop a man who should run round the Common in five minutes.” Athletics were not a prominent feature even of college life.  5
  The improvement in these respects since the decade of 1850–60 is marked: and despite the large element of truth in the precise observations of Emerson, Everett, Holmes, and Curtis, they do not embrace with scientific breadth the whole subject, for the experience of our Civil War gave little indication of physical degeneracy in the Northern people; signs of improvement were already manifest before this period closed. The gospel of physical culture had been preached with effect, and “muscular Christianity” was set up as an ideal worth striving to realize. “Health is the condition of wisdom,” declared Emerson in 1858; and not long after, the world of fashion, discarding the Parisian model of life and beginning the imitation of the English, shortened the city season, acquired a love for the country, for outdoor exercise, and athletic sports. But the French cuisine, almost the sole outward trace left of the period of French domination, was a potent and enduring influence. Any one who considers the difference between the cooking and the service of a dinner at a hotel or restaurant before the War and now, will appreciate what a practical apostle of health and decent living has been Delmonico, who deserves canonization in the American calendar. With better digestion and more robust bodies, the use of stimulants has decreased. While wine at table is more common, tippling at bars has come to be frowned upon; lager beer and native wines have to a considerable extent taken the place of spirituous liquors; hard drinkers are less numerous, total abstainers are probably on the increase, and tobacco-chewing is dying out. The duration of life is now at least as long in America as it is in Europe.  6
  During the last forty years the American physique has unquestionably improved. A philosopher now, contrasting Englishmen and ourselves, would not make the comparison to our so great disadvantage as did Emerson from his observations in 1848, when he wrote: “The English, at the present day, have great vigor of body and endurance. Other countrymen look slight and undersized beside them, and invalids. They are bigger men than the Americans. I suppose a hundred English, taken at random out of the street, would weigh a fourth more than so many Americans. Yet I am told the skeleton is not larger.” “I used to think myself,” said Edward Atkinson, “only an average man in size, height, and weight at home; but when I made my first visit to England (in 1877), I was rather surprised to find myself a tall and large man by comparison with those whom I passed in the streets.” The American schoolboy and college student are to-day equal in physical development to the English youth. This is due in some degree to the growth of athletics. But a superiority in physique of American to English students was observed as early as 1877.  7

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.