Now is the season of our discontent, as we make our annual pilgrimage through the dog days of August. Some head indoors, others to the pool, but Ben Franklin took a decidedly different approach.
The term “dog days” did not originally refer to dogs, though it has become associated with thick-furred hounds cowering in the shade and panting hoarsely around their lolling tongues.
Rather, the term is astrological and refers to the time between July and August when the dog star, Sirius, appears just before sunrise. Ancient astrologers believed the light of Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, made these days hotter. The ancients also believed that the position of the planets gave rise to the illnesses of late summer: typhus, malaria, and polio.
In the 18th century, people sought to protect themselves from fevers by regulating their temperature. One way was through bloodletting. A more salubrious method was cold baths. Benjamin Franklin didn’t approve of either, but developed his own approach.
“You know the cold bath has long been in vogue here as a tonic; but the shock of the cold water has always appeared to me, generally speaking, as too violent, and I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bathe in another element; I mean cold air.
“With this view I rise almost every morning and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing. This practice is not in the least painful, but, on the contrary, agreeable; and, if I return to bed afterwards, before I dress myself, as sometimes happens, I make a supplement to my night’s rest of one or two hours of the most pleasing sleep that can be imagined.
“I find no ill consequences whatever resulting from it, and that at least it does not injure my health, if it does not in fact contribute much to its preservation. I shall therefore call it for the future a bracing or tonic bath.”
The fact that Benjamin Franklin later became an honored and admired American implies that Franklin either kept the shutters on his windows in good repair, or he had highly tolerant neighbors.