Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Gustav Jaeger And The Undead Fads Of The Past

Gustav Jaeger (1832-1917) trained for the priesthood, started a zoo, settled for a position as a professor of zoology, eventually hung up his academic robes, and became a practicing physician.  Jaeger's mind was fertile.  He wrote about the impact of Darwin's theory on morals and religion, he pondered the mysteries of heredity, and, in a book modestly entitled the Discovery of the Soul, he came up with ideas about what are now called pheromones.  Yet none of those ideas are the reason why he deserves a blog post today, almost a century after his death.

After a bout of ill-health brought on by a long period of inactivity, Jaeger became obsessed with health.  Jaeger reasoned that the animals he had studied in his zoological positions were healthier than humans.  Animals do not get love handles, they do not complain of aches and plains, they do not  wince when they stand, they never (as far as we can tell) suffer from vague dyspepsias.  The difference, Jaeger reasoned, is hair.  Modern humans dressed in unnatural vegetable fibers, while animals were clothed in their natural hair.  All humans needed to get healthier was to change their couture.

Jaeger's solution was animal hair for everything.  Animal hair shirts, pants, and underwear.  Animal hair hats, coats, underwear and bedding.  Jaeger tried it first himself, and declared his health returned.  He laid out his system in another modestly-titled book (My System, 1880),  for all the world to see.
Jaeger, in all his whiskered glory
My System was a success.  Oscar Wilde was a proponent of Jaeger's all-wool hygienic clothing idea, a fact Jaeger's British agents did not know what to do with.  The socialist and textile designer William Morris was also an avowed fan.  Yet even more enthusiastic a supporter was G.B. Shaw, dramatist, socialist, and co-founder of the London School of Economics, who wore a specially-made woolen one-piece suit, sans collar and tie.  Thus, according to the Dictionary of National Biography (paywall):
He was likened variously to ‘a brown gnome’ and a ‘Jaeger Christ'. Seen walking down Regent Street in this suit his tall leggy figure and red hair suggested to one observer that he looked ‘exactly like a forked radish’.
A proponent of the "woolener" craze, Lewis Tomalin, was in 1883 licensed by Jaeger to manufacture and sell clothes based on the principles of My System in Britain.  Soon one store turned to two, and then the idea caught on in the whole of the British commonwealth.

In 1983 the clothing store which is the grand-child of My System, Jaeger celebrated its centenary.  The high-street store does not limit its clothing purely to wool anymore--although the majority of its clothes are woolens--and all memory of its namesake's now-obsolete ideas have been stripped away by the inconsiderate passing of time--though the store still bears Jaeger's name.  A shadow of Jaeger's all-wool health fad remains in the 90-odd stores Jaeger boasts world-wide.

Old ideas stalk the living, like slowly loping yet inescapable zombies.  How many other dead, obsolete, debunked, and careworn ideas still exert themselves over us, their anachronism buried under decades or centuries of habit?  Graham crackers famously began their lives as a diet regimen to prevent 'self-abuse'.  The inventor of the birth control pill established a period of week-long placebos every month in order to ensure women menstruated--arguing that "women would find the continuation of their monthly bleeding reassuring."  Though some contemporary doctors argue that such fastidiousness unnecessary, we still do it--because that's what we do.  More seriously, penitentiaries originated as a humane alternative to torture and the workhouse--a place of refuge for prisoners where they could learn the errors of their ways through peaceful thought.  Today prisons are society's living-room rug, under which we sweep those we no longer want to deal with.

Feel free to comment with more zombie ideas.