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From “White Plague” to “Tailors’ Disease”

Since antiquity, doctors puzzled over a condition known as “consumption” while their patients lost strength and struggled for breath. By the 1800s, most believed it was hereditary and that it primarily afflicted the upper class. After the consumptive deaths of many famed artists and writers, consumption even seemed to be a sign of intelligence and creativity. Stylish men and women adopted a pale, thin appearance to mimic the “White Plague,” so-called due to its victims’ pallor.

A microbiologist in Berlin’s Imperial Department of Health, Jewish physician Robert Koch, upended this perception in 1882 when he proved that consumption —now known as tuberculosis — is a contagious bacterial infection and not a hereditary trait.

In fact, the working class had been dying at an alarming rate for generations; the upper classes had simply not noticed their plight. The once-fashionable disease soon became known as the “Tailors’ Disease” due to its prevalence among garment workers.

An Airborne Pandemic

Beginning in the 1700s, millions left their fields and villages for factory work, settling in cities all over Europe and the US. Like COVID-19, pulmonary tuberculosis travels in exhaled droplets, so it easily spreads in crowded urban lodgings and poorly-ventilated industrial workplaces.

By the late 1800s medical professionals, social reformers, and everyday citizens joined together to fight what had become a pandemic. Even before a cure was discovered in the 1940s, infection rates in America declined dramatically due to quarantines and other contagion controls.

Top image: Sweatshop workers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1910, anonymous photographer, National Museum of American Jewish History 1982.25.6

Image at right: Annie Maier working in her basement apartment, New York, New York, 1911, Lewis Hine, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection