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A pandemic connection across a century in a hidden space in one Cambridge house

Juliette Kayyem, who has been writing a lot of late about the current pandemic, reports on how the discovery of an old photo in a space nobody in her family knew about until they opened a bathroom ceiling due to water damage led her on a search that ended with her connecting online with the great niece of a woman whose daughter lived in the house until she died there in the third wave of the 1918-19 flu pandemic.

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Pandemics leave lasting scars. I know the names of my kin who died in the 1918-1920, and many others born a half century later know theirs.

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This story is fascinating! Thankfully with so many genealogical and related records available online, the simple fact that the old cabinet card had a name written on back that was less common than say Mary Sullivan, and with so many people interested in/ and skilled in ancestry research, it was rather quick to solve this mystery. Wonderful local news bit!

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One of the suggestions during that pandemic was to greatly increase fresh air circulation which led to the advisement that building windows be left open, even in the winter.

Buildings got cold with opened windows so the heating systems (which was mainly stream) was sized to provide enough heat to keep people warm even with open windows. Radiators were often put under windows for similar reasons.

After the pandemic people wanted to close the windows again. But now the buildings got too hot. So people made the radiators less efficient (not as warm) by painting them silver and gold. After a while, people became so accustomed to silver and gold radiators it was just assumed that was the normal color.

So when you see an old radiator which is painted a metalic color, know that it's one of the legacies of the 1918 pandemic.

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Too bad office buildings don't have opened windows any longer. Due to heating/cooling I can see why not, but boy when someone coughs down the cube row, you just know it's coming your way.

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Out west, homes were outfitted with year-round sleeping porches - basically a screen porch crossed with a bunk room. Houses built in the 20s and 30s featured them, and they were intended for use all year to ensure that fresh air was available to all.

While these were usually no longer in regular use in private homes by mid century (except for summer sleepovers), they were standard in many congregate living situations well into the late 20th century and still endure in some areas. Many frats and sorority houses still had them in use until insurers found them to be a hazard and cracked down about fifteen years ago.

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A friend's family home in NH has one. And I've certainly seen references on southern novels. Every summer, we threaten to build one, but getting a/c would be cheaper and easier.

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I live in a house built in 1910. The home was built with steam heat. (meaning like many, it wasn't added later as my pipes exist in my walls and not exposed). I also have the original iron radiators, which are still not silver or gold. I wish my heating system put off so much heat I have to open the windows in the winter

My home is also a mass-built home (a triple decker) as many homes near by are the same style and layout.

You've horned in on the 1918 pandemic as the reason, but my house says otherwise. But what you are forgetting that similar situations that would mimic a pandemic (while not meeting the criteria for a pandemic) caused changes.

The point I am trying to make is TB played a far bigger factor in home design. Much of the homes designed in the late 1880s were built to provide airflow and sunlight, as at the time those were the best treatment for TB.

To Swirls' point below, sleeping porches were not only used to escape summer night heat, but as a place to sleep when you had TB.

Just look at how hospitals were built around this time. Danvers State Hospital (or now AvalonDanvers .. barf) was originally built as a TB hospital and designed in such a manner to promote airflow and sunlight.

now getting back to my 1910 era home. I have front and back porches. Facing East and West. I get the best sunlight on these porches in the morning, and then in the afternoon (sunlight). I can open my front door and rear door, and get a full breeze thru the unit. (airflow)

The style was liked so much it was mirrored in some localized versions such as the San Francisco Style Victorian.

All because of TB..

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Here's another short discussion of the radiator color topic. You can read more in the "The Art of Steam Heating" which is the bible on the history and construction of Steam Heating systems in America.

Of course, not all radiators were repainted silver nor were all buildings built during and after the 1918 pandemic designed to have excess heat. But it was a pretty common consideration, particularly for higher end apartment buildings in cities.

The sunlight and airflow of architecture had many sources too. In the days before any type of central cooling and limited electric lighting, people were building structures that took care of that naturally. It's really only post-WWII that people lost their minds and forgot how to build buildings which took advantage of the environment.

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Never seen gold radiators, but most certainly silver over the years -- who knew!

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My old apartments in Cambridge and Somerville both had silver radiators, classic triple deckers. I never thought about the color, I figured it was a design choice.

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