Rural retreats have been popular since at least the first century bc, when wealthy ancient Romans waited out the annual malaria season in country villas. Similarly, an estimated 80 percent of Philadelphians fled the city during a 1798 outbreak of yellow fever. The wealthy shacked up in nearby villages, while the lower classes set up tent camps.
Although historians have disputed the theory that the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” originated during the 1665 Great Plague of London, posies—bouquets of herbs or flowers—were believed at the time to have medicinal value. In the early seventeenth century, doctors began to wear beak-like masks filled with sweet herbs when treating plague patients.
Surgeons began wearing face coverings in the early twentieth century to protect against “invisible sputum.” A 1910 outbreak of pneumonic plague in Manchuria led physician Wu Lian-Teh to devise a mask of gauze and cotton to be worn by both doctors and the general public.
Drawing on eighteenth-century medical advice about the curative power of perspiration, wrapping oneself in strips of flannel was thought to protect against dysentery and cholera. In Paris in 1832, Heinrich Heine remarked, “I myself am up to my neck in flannel and consider myself cholera-proof. The king himself wears now a belt of the best bourgeois flannel.”
During the influenza pandemic of 1918–19, sales of mentholated ointment nearly tripled in a year. Demand for the product, which required Vicks to keep production running around the clock, might have been propelled by the company’s attention-grabbing ad copy: druggists! please note vick’s vaporub oversold due to present epidemic.
While U.S. clothing sales declined overall in spring 2020, online searches for sweats jumped 50 percent. Sales of an $84 pair of sweatpants from the retailer Vuori increased 1,100 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, with the biggest spike in orders occurring shortly after lockdowns went into effect.
In early modern Europe, Christian and Jewish communities alike made paper amulets invoking divine protection against plague, which they hung in their homes or carried on their persons. During a nineteenth-century outbreak of bubonic plague in China, people hung on their doors amulets inscribed with the name of the war god Guandi.