“I will say, the nurse became very concerned and anxious about the baby… and I was instructed to ride my bike to Easton Village where she lived, and wait whilst she made him a pneumonia jacket, which was stitched up of cotton wool like a waistcoat.”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve had the pleasure of transcribing the handwritten stories of an uncle who recently passed away at the age of 87. Some time in the 1990s he had written these stories on the backs of 61 pieces of wallpaper – for what reason, I’m not sure, except I imagine it was a frugal act. Uncle Alfie Petvin grew up in rural Somerset County, England, near Wookey Hole. He and his 9 brothers and sisters lived with their parents in a small cottage with little else except each other, and without electricity or indoor plumbing. The children always say they didn’t have much, but they have happy memories of childhood.

Some of Uncle Alfie’s tales of family life are particularly dramatic, and when he described his baby brother’s battle with a deadly bout of pneumonia in the late 1930s, I came upon something I’d never heard of before. While transcribing these “wallpaper stories,” I often come across unfamiliar terms and practices. In part, this is due to my growing up mostly in America, while my relative lived in England. But this is also due to the passage of time. When I run across something unfamiliar, I stop to look it up.

One of the 61 pages that make up the “wallpaper stories.”

Pneumonia jacket? I’d never heard of it. What is that? It turns out to be a padded jacket, meant for keeping in body heat. This was in the days before antibiotics, and was meant to hasten the process of the illness and stimulate respiration. I was able to find a photo of one that probably looks much like the one Alfie’s baby brother wore. This one is in the collection of the Museum Victoria in Australia.

I found one reference to a pneumonia jacket in some medical literature from 1897, but in this instance, the jacket had rubber tubing through which heated water was pumped. After the turn of the century, the use of a pneumonia jacket without circulating water appears to be more common. One can imagine that using an alcohol lamp to heat the water was tricky and dangerous! In 1919, New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison proudly reported that all 14 of its pneumonia patients were saved during an influenza epidemic through the use of “supportive treatment,” which included the wearing of the “regulation” pneumonia jacket. Once penicillin arrived on the scene in the 1940s, I expect that the use of the jacket faded.

Happily, Alfie’s baby brother survived his illness. “Our mother sat up constantly all night for 3 weeks until he recovered,” writes Alfie, and he added “occasionally mother would put a little brandy on his lips.”