Local History: Keeping Warm in South Orange, 1888

A doctor wrote to the local paper giving advice for dressing wisely in November.

The Farmers’ Almanac predicts a “frigid” winter, and declares, “shovelry is not dead.” Is it coincidence then that what’s cool in fashion is long, warm sweaters? Or are such sweaters, which are often worn as jackets, a response to rising fuel costs? Either way, wool is just what the doctor ordered, a century ago in South Orange.

In November of 1888, the weekly South Orange News ran an unsigned editorial entitled “November Clothing.” Written by a doctor, the piece instructed readers to layer woolen “health wear,” perhaps a union suit or other unmentionables, under regular clothing. “Looseness of fit is essential,” the doctor explained, “for in such pliable folds as these garments are forced into by pressure of outer garb, body heat is entangled as in a net and retained, while outside, cold is barred entrance.”

The doctor recommends wool highly, though he—and I suspect that it was a man, since in 1870, just 18 years earlier, there were only 525 female doctors in the country—admits that “a good substitute may be found in vests and pants made of pure flannel.” Still, you can’t beat wool, and the good doctor believes that even the itchiest wool can be borne (and worn).

When his patients say, “‘Doctor, I cannot bear wool next to my skin. It causes intolerable itching and is uncomfortable,’” the editorial writer asks the itchy to try for 24 hours. “Inside the given time,” he explains, “cutaneous nerves have been accustomed to the newcomer, and have welcomed him as a far better friend than the one set aside;”—the flannel, presumably—“and in a week the most delicate patient would not change back again at all.”

Wool has more going for it than just warmth and fashion, of course. The doctor explains, “There is an electrical action aroused by friction of wool against human skin that promotes capillary circulation, keeps skin functions going and largely contributes to general health in that singular way which I have named for want of better term, vitilizing power.” Static cling as home remedy is unusual advice, and the doctor ends his editorial on a somber note. “Electricity is close to kin to life,” he writes. “How near no one can tell.” In the coming cold winter, with fears of frozen pipes and electrical blackouts, some of us might share his sentiments about a warm woolly sweater and a good pair of long johns.


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