PBS

The cast of the period drama has been told not to get all touchy-feely because there wasn’t all that much physical contact during the early 20th century. One reason why? The fear of spreading disease.

November 12, 2014

Anyone who follows the popular Brit import Downton Abbey can attest to two things: The show is astonishingly addictive—and that Crawley clan is one seriously uptight bunch.

Well, it would seem that there’s a reason for that brood's walking-stick-up-the-butt ‘tude. Turns out, the cast of the period drama has been told not to get all touchy-feely because there just wasn’t all that much physical contact during the early 20th century.

Alastair Bruce, whose job it is to maintain the historical accuracy of each episode, said he has instructed the actors to stay hands off and keep hugs to a minimum, according to The Telegraph. “I don’t want any hugging, no physical contact; they just didn’t do that in those days,” Bruce told BBC radio 2's Arts station. “The reason they didn’t is because it wasn’t that long before then that disease was spread so much more easily.” Veddy, veddy interesting, right?

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Well, check this out: Bruce is right about real-life, upper-crust Brits being more reserved and less demonstrative back then, but the buttoned-down behavior had more to do with class structure—and less to do with catching germs. “While it’s true that there was much less touching in public situations, it was more of a class-based notion of maintaining outward appearances and not displaying emotion," says David M. Morens, MD, a senior adviser to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. And while there was less close physical contact in public situations, the hands-off attitude didn’t necessarily apply to family members, Morens notes.

As for the fear of spreading disease, Morens isn’t quite buying it. “It’s true—in that era there weren’t antibiotics in the way that we think of them today, but there was medical knowledge on how to prevent and control a number of infectious diseases. For example, there were treatments for diphtheria, as well as certain types of pneumonia and meningitis, beginning in the 1890s. A vaccine for diphtheria was developed in 1913. There were also chemical treatments for syphilis in the early 1900's that worked remarkably well."

So maybe it’s time you loosened up a little, Lady Mary.

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