How France used fashion to spread the message to vaccinate

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Marco Werman: Wearing an image can send a really powerful message, and I’m not just talking about tattoos. Imagine for a moment if all parents who supported vaccinating their kids wore a conspicuous symbol, something that would indicate “I’m a concerned parent and I don’t want my kids to get sick and die.” You think I’m crazy? Well, something like that actually happened during a smallpox scare in 18th century France. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell recently wrote an article about that for The Atlantic.


Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell: Well, smallpox had been a scourge for a long time in the 18th century, but people really sat up and took notice thanks to one smallpox death--the king, Louis XV died of smallpox.


Werman: How bad was this epidemic in the 18th century? Because, as you said, it had been going on for awhile.


Chrisman-Campbell: It was much worse than measles, and it was widely feared. It was highly contagious, grossly disfiguring, and if it didn’t ruin your complexion, it would kill you. But it was also preventable. Smallpox inoculation had been practiced in Asia and the Middle East for centuries, but it was a fairly new thing in western Europe. It had been introduced in about 1718 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was the English ambassadress to Turkey.


Werman: And how did this inoculation work?


Chrisman-Campbell: It was absolutely a risky procedure because it involved actually catching smallpox, and this was done by inserting the pus of a smallpox victim under the skin. Once you had it, you were immune, but the trick was to get a very mild case that wouldn’t kill you in order to get the immunity, and it often went bad. So, there was a lot of fear surrounding the procedure. In fact, it was the medical establishment in France who argued against it, as opposed to today, when the medical establishment is telling us all to get inoculated--or vaccinated.


Werman: What about the rest of Europe? Did they take to this inoculation or did certain countries reject it?


Chrisman-Campbell: England adopted it first in about 1719. But 1774, it was fairly common throughout northern Europe, but France was one of the last holdouts.


Werman: So, Louis the XVI did support the inoculation, and then this hat business started thanks to these hat makers in Paris. So, make the connection for us.


Chrisman-Campbell: Well, Louis the XV had died on May 10th, 1774. His grandson, Louis the XVI became king. There was enough concern about smallpox at this time that he actually took the controversial step of becoming inoculated in June, 1774, and his two younger brothers were inoculated at the same time, so the entire line of succession was now immune to smallpox.


Werman: And where do the hats come in?


Chrisman-Campbell: Well, the milliners of Paris were always looking for a way to make a quick buck, and one of the quickest ways was to introduce a new hat or hairstyle based on current events. So, they commemorated this historical event with an allegorical headdress that they called the pouf à l'inoculation.


Werman: What did it look like?


Chrisman-Campbell: We don’t have a picture of it, but we have several descriptions and it sounds completely fabulous. It was a tall powdered hairstyle and in it was the serpent of Asclepius, representing medicine; a club, representing conquest; a rising sun, representing Louis XVI; and a flowering olive branch, symbolizing the peace and joy resulting from the royal inoculation.


Werman: Was there any evidence to show that these headdresses then got other people to get inoculated?


Chrisman-Campbell: Absolutely. They were reported widely in newspapers in Paris, and the fact that these were being worn by the most fashionable, most elite people in town--it didn’t just send the message that inoculation was safe and normal, it made it look cool.


Werman: One really interesting thing in your article in The Atlantic is that you write that making support for inoculation visible, like with this headdress, made all the difference in vaccinations being accepted. Can you imagine a similar plan or incentive or statement of vaccination pride today and what it would look like?


Chrisman-Campbell: Absolutely. I’m a historian but I’m also a mommy, and when the news of this Disneyland outbreak broke--very close to home, I live about an hour from Disneyland--my first thought was “Oh, if only we had a pouf à l'inoculation to get the word out that vaccination is actually quite safe and very normal.” Of course, when I googled pro-vaccination fashion, I found that I was not the first person to think of this. What surprised me though is that most of the t-shirts and hats that I came across were designed for adults. The pouf was effective because it was the person who had been inoculated who was wearing it. So, I did find a couple of t-shirts for little kids saying “Fully vaccinated, you’re welcome,” things like that.


Werman: Maybe Disney ought to get on the stick and create some mouse eat MMR swag.


Chrisman-Campbell: I would love to see that. I don’t think it’s going to happen.


Werman: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, her latest article for The Atlantic is about how fashion helped defeat 18th century anti-vaxxers. Kimberly, thank you very much.


Chrisman-Campbell: Thank you Marco. Pleasure to be here.