Remember what 'Aunt Sammy' said . . . about babies and drafts?

National Public Radio recently aired a segment headlined “South Korea’s Quirky Notions About Electric Fans.” It looked at the widespread belief that sleeping with electric fans blowing in the room could be dangerous.

Is this totally a South Korean phenomenon? I ask because in 1930, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Radio Service show, Housekeepers’ Chat, aired a segment with Aunt Sammy answering questions that included: “Is it all right to use an electric fan in a baby’s sleeping room?” Yes, she answered, but advised aiming the fan so that “the current of air blows upward – towards the ceiling, not the baby.” The advice came straight out of the U.S. Children’s Bureau publication Infant Care, and the scripts about child rearing came straight from the Children’s Bureau. Did Americans once fear electric fans blowing on them or their babies as they slept? Did South Koreans’ continuing ideas about fans and sleep get imported from the U.S. long ago? And what should we do about fans and air conditioners in babies’ rooms, anyway? Today the professional advice is yes to fans, after the finding that babies who sleep in rooms with fans have a lower rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. (The American Academy of Pediatrics posts tips for reducing the risk of SIDS).

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Americans once got a lot of health care advice over the radio—some of it from advertisers, some from local health departments, and some from Housekeepers’ Chat. Those of us who remember Aunt Sammy probably recall her recipes, which were collected into a book, Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes – here’s a slide show with a few of them– published in 1927, but she had more to teach Americans than how to make baked tomatoes and pepper pickles. She taught home economics: canning and preserving, making clothes, gardening, and pest control. In the 15-minute weekday broadcasts she educated Americans about nutrition, vitamins, infant care, and child rearing. She warned her listeners about quack medicines, like the useless flu remedies that came on the market during epidemics. In an era when both underweight and overweight were problems, she had suggestions for combating each. Her advice in “Food for the Weighty” is pretty much the same as what experts today advise: fewer calories. Many of the scripts for Housekeepers’ Chat are archived here

Aunt Sammy (actually scripts read by broadcasting from local stations) left Housekeepers’ Chat after eight years of service (1926-1934); the show continued without her until 1946. And what about those electric fans? They went out of production after the United States officially entered World War II in December 1941 because the metal they required was need for military uses; production resumed after the war ended. In the years that followed many American homes added air-conditioning (which appears to be beneficial in lowering mold levels and allergens). Science has grown in leaps and bounds since Aunt Sammy’s work was on the air but on this issue the advice is the same: The pediatrics academy, as part of its Sleep Position guidance, says: “Keep the temperature in your baby’s room comfortable and do not place her near air-conditioning or heating vents, open windows, or other sources of drafts.”


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