Your mother (or grandmother, or great-grandmother) should know: gloves and the flu
An article appeared in this Sunday's NY Times advising us that our relations with our neighbors may need to change if the much-feared bird flu pandemic ever arrives. This is what will be necessary if we want to protect ourselves from contagion:
To the pantheon of social arbiters who came up with the firm handshake, the formal bow and the air kiss, get ready to add a new fashion god: the World Health Organization, chief advocate of the "elbow bump."...If the avian flu goes pandemic while Tamiflu and vaccines are still in short supply, experts say, the only protection most Americans will have is "social distancing," which is the new politically correct way of saying "quarantine."
But distancing also encompasses less drastic measures, like wearing face masks, staying out of elevators — and the bump. Such stratagems, those experts say, will rewrite the ways we interact, at least during the weeks when the waves of influenza are washing over us....the social revolution is likely to focus on the most basic goal of all: keeping other people's cooties at arm's length. The bump, a simple touching of elbows, is a substitute for the filthy practice of shaking hands, in which a person who has politely sneezed into a palm then passes a virus to other hands, whose owners then put a finger in an eye or a pen in a mouth. The bump breaks that chain. Only a contortionist can sneeze on his elbow.
It's a sobering prospect indeed. But everything old is new again, and as I read the article, an image from childhood came to my mind: the top drawer of my mother's bureau, fully one-third of which was filled with gloves.
No, not gloves like those we wear today: bulky, thinsulate, or fleece, made to shield from the cold and wet. Her gloves were fashion statements: the thinnest and supplest of leather (kid, I suppose), soft and silky materials, a rainbow of colors, short and medium and long.
The longest were actually the best: gloves meant to be worn with sleeveless ball gowns. In addition to being elegant, they did the double duty of hiding any jiggling imperfections of the upper arm (although, of course, as a child, such things never occurred to me). They sported a row of tiny buttons that opened them up in the middle as they stretched their seemingly endless way from fingertip almost to armpit.
Oh, the glamour, and the fun I had as a little girl rooting around in there and trying them on! Even then, I suppose, the fad for gloves was fading, and many of these were already relics, from my mother's young womanhood during the 30s and 40s.
But gloves as proper fashion statement were still around; I myself was outfitted as a tiny girl with short, white (and, one memorable year when I was four, little pink) gloves for dress-up occasions, making me feel sophisticated beyond belief. Oh yes, and hats, too, with bows on them.
I never for a moment stopped to think that these glorious gloves (now gone the way of the dodo) might have had a protective function, as well--after all, what did grownups or old people know that we didn't? Much as the parasols and sunhats of those fussbudget Victorians ended up having an actual purpose (as some of us discovered, much to our surprise, when skin began to collect the debt owed for all those year of sunbathing coated with baby oil)--so, perhaps, did the lowly glove. Might it not have acted to prevent the spread of illness through hand-to-hand contact, when contagious disease was so prevalent and difficult to treat?
I couldn't find too much on the subject when I researched the role of the glove, but my guess is that slowing down the spread of disease has always been one of its functions. At the very least, wearing gloves may have given people the reassuring idea that they were protecting themselves, whether they actually were or not.
On the latter point, my mother tells a story that occurred when she was in her twenties, during the 1930s. She and a friend were traveling from New York to California on a cruise ship that made the journey via the Panama Canal. They were two attractive women--my mother's friend, in fact, was exceptionally beautiful--and they received a certain amount of attention from the ship's crew and the officers, who were a rather handsome bunch themselves.
The evening before the ship was to dock for a day visit in Havana,Cuba (isn't this story quaint?), my mother and her friend were talking with some of the officers when my mother mentioned that one thing she'd really love to see was a Cuban house.
"Really?" asked the officer, raising an eyebrow. My mother nodded.
"Well, it can be arranged," he said, with a charming and mysterious smile.
The next day several of the officers escorted my mother and her friend to a Cuban house, and started showing them around. The place seemed a bit strange; there were a number of women lazing about, and the officers explained that there were rooms decorated in the fashion of different countries of the world: would they like to view them?
The truth dawned on my mother and her friend at around the same time: they were actually in a Cuban brothel. They two young women made eye contact and then, both minds with a single simultaneous thought, opened their purses, took out their white gloves, and put them on for the remainder of the tour, satisfied that they were protected from whatever dreadful diseases might be swirling around the place.
So I advocate the return of the glove: it might work even better than an elbow bump in the event of the feared pandemic. Your mother--or perhaps your grandmother, or even your great-grandmother--should know.