Fresh air was the necessary antidote to miasma, or bad air, which doctors at the time of the earliest Floating Hospital sails warned was sure to waft from dirty, rotten, or unfinished things. New York City’s impoverished neighborhoods, with their still unreliable sanitation and plumbing systems, were rife with sources of dangerous miasma. Many lived, crammed like sardines, in congested tenement apartments whose windows (if they had any) let in more soot and odors than they did breezes.
Standing at the rail of the Floating Hospital, this little girl felt the fresh, salty air of the New York Bay whipping at her cheeks and ruffling her hair. The date of this photograph is unknown, but if it reached viewers before the turn of the twentieth century, they would likely have seen multiple layers of meaning in this image. To them, this picture would depict a highly effective medical treatment, not simply a child marveling at the expansive sea and sky before her. To nineteenth-century Americans from across the class spectrum, fresh air was a curative force that could clean lungs and strengthen weakened bodies.