“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” we say, and Americans have long associated good hygiene with moral and spiritual purity. But we haven’t always thought of what it is to be “clean” in quite the same ways.
So in this episode, we dig into the changing ways Americans have defined what it is to be clean. We’ll meet an 18th-century Pennsylvania woman who didn’t immerse herself in water for 28 years, and ask how Americans like her kept clean without getting wet. We’ll also hear about the campaign to clean up New York City in the mid-19th century, and question the extent to which germ theory really revolutionized sanitary practices. And we’ll consider a dark chapter in the history of cleanliness, when social reformers in the early 20th-century set out to “sanitize” America’s racial profile.
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BRIAN : This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. In the 1920s, the makers of Ivory soap were worried. Cosmetics were suddenly all the rage. My people start spending their money on looking clean and smelling clean instead of actually being clean. So the company came up with a novel way to push their product, a contest for the best sculpture carved from white soap.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: It just so happened that the only real white soap in any kind of mass circulation was Ivory soap.
BRIAN: Today on the show, cleanliness in America. We’ll consider what it meant for New Yorkers in the 1860s.
OWEN WHOOLEY: They removed over 160,000 tons of manure from vacant lots. They cleaned over 6,000 privies.
BRIAN: And we’ll look at even uglier scenario relating to cleanliness.
KRISTEN EGAN: Perhaps the most sinister form of cleanliness in the text, which is a form of racial cleansing.
BRIAN: A history of m today on the show.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endownment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.
BRIAN: So, guys.
BRIAN: Have you been able to dodge the flu this year?
PETER: I don’t know. What is the flu? I’ve had terrible colds.
ED: And I feel like I’ve been on the verge of something for months, but it hasn’t actually nailed me yet.
BRIAN: Yeah. So that’s probably because you guys haven’t been washing your hands enough.
PETER: You know, well you think we’re the dirty hands people.
BRIAN: You might be.
BRIAN: Well, you know, you can’t–
PETER: –daily, man.
BRIAN: You know you can’t wash your hands enough. And the reason we think that is because of the germ theory of disease which, as you guys know, goes back more than 100 years.
ED: Must be true then.
BRIAN: But guys, as recently as the 1950s, some Americans were twisting that theory in ways that would strike a lot of people today as nonsensical.
CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: You would think that you would want someone to wash their hands before they prepped your food, anyone.
BRIAN: This is Charletta Sudduth.
CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: If I was going to allow you to cook for me, I definitely would want you to wash your hands.
BRIAN: A few years ago, she conducted oral histories with a number of African-American women who had worked as maids in the Jim Crow South. One of those women was named Vinella Byrd.
CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: Maybe I’ll just read a little piece of it, like her little introduction. And I’ll just start here. It says, Vinella Byrd, from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, born 1922.
“I work for two families. The men were farmers. For the two families, I cooked and did housework. I cooked a lot of vegetables and stuff.
They had a wash pan where you washed your hands. The man didn’t want me to wash my hands in the wash pan. After that, I didn’t wash my hands at all.
I would just go in and start cooking. He didn’t want me to use the same one that he was using.”
BRIAN: Can you explain to me why the head of the household wouldn’t let Miss Byrd wash her hands in his wash pan?
CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: Well, you know, in those days, there were a lot of unspoken rules and norms. And one of them was the notion of, I believe, blacks being somewhat unclean. I don’t know if they thought the black would wash off.
But the man felt so strongly that he didn’t want her to use the same wash basin as he did. Hey, just come right in from the field or wherever you’re coming from, and prepare our food.
BRIAN: Purely because of her color.
CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: Purely.
ED: You know, as strange as this seems to us, Brian and Peter, this is the entire pattern of the segregated South, this idea that black people and white people integrated the most intimate parts of their lives and yet segregated because of the white belief, maybe based on germ theory in some perverted form that black people were just dirty, even if they were cooking your food and taking care of your children.
PETER: Yeah. In a way, race is a vector, right?
ED: Yeah, that’s right, Peter.
PETER: This is a kind of a theory of disease, isn’t it?
ED: And what’s hard for us to wrap our minds around is that this was a relatively new idea. This isn’t just old-fashioned ideas about race. In the second half the 19th century, white South basically invented a whole system of social organization based on the idea of preventing contagion in places where–
PETER: –that segregation is a sort of a public health measure, huh?
ED: Yeah. And that’s one reason that you see so much focus on water fountains, restrooms, waiting rooms, any place where there might be a contagion based on this new theory of germ theory.
BRIAN: Yeah. And the labels were things like white and colored, but behind that colored label was these people are dirty.
PETER: Well, today on the show, we have for you an hour we’re calling “Rinse and Repeat.” We’re going to explore some of the other strange twists and turns American thinking about cleanliness has taken over the course of our history. As always, I, Peter, will be holding down the 18th century.
ED: While I, Ed, will be speaking for the 19th century.
BRIAN: And I, Brian, will be covering the 20th century.
In a little bit, we’re going to look at how it was that Americans started washing up in the first place. But first, we’re going to step back from personal cleanliness and take a look at cleanliness on the broader social level.
ED: This next story takes place in the 1860s. It was then that people were starting to think about urban sanitation in ways that seem familiar to us today. But they were doing so for reasons that would strike us as completely alien.
PETER: February, 1866, residents of New York City received some terrible news. Cholera was showing up in several European cities. Now the upshot was clear. It would only be a matter of months before the disease made landfall in New York.
ED: And it wouldn’t be the first time. In the 1830s and 1840s, New York had suffered through two other cholera epidemics. More than 15,000 people had died, some in a matter of hours, and all in the ways that would leave a profound impression on survivors.
Victims were stricken with endless diarrhea, bluish skin, and voices that were reduced to dry, ghostly wails.
PETER: The official response to these epidemics had been meager, to say the least, which was to be expected. After all, the prevailing understanding of cholera at the time was that it particularly afflicted the disorderly, even morally dubious segments of the population.
And on the occasions when city workers had tried to act, they had been hamstrung by the cronyism and corruption that plagued Manhattan at that time.
ED: And so in 1866, with cholera looming on the horizon again, state lawmakers decided they needed to get involved.
OWEN WHOOLEY: We need to create an independent, permanent board of health, one that’s not connected or tied to local city politics.
ED: This is Owen Whooley, author of a new book about cholera in the 19th century. He points out that although germ theory hadn’t come along yet, this board did embrace a new theory about cholera’s causes. They thought that it had something to do with filth.
OWEN WHOOLEY: Now the exact relationship between cholera and filth is kind of up for grabs. Is cholera just filth? Does filth cause cholera? Does filth provide an environment for cholera? Or does filth somehow undermine individuals’ predisposition towards the disease?
PETER: Whatever that relationship was, one thing was clear. New York was a filthy place.
OWEN WHOOLEY: We’re talking cesspools in the street. We’re talking pigs and goats roaming around. We’re talking tons and tons of manure baking in the sun, no proper sewage, water is dirty, overcrowding, you name it. It was pretty, pretty horrible.
PETER: And so armed with unprecedented police powers from the state, the board went to work. Because cholera could have come from anything, in their view, they cleaned up everything.
OWEN WHOOLEY: They removed over 160,000 tons of manure from vacant lots. They cleaned over 6,000 privies. They removed inhabitants of dank cellars and relocated them. They closed down offending businesses like bone boiling, fat rendering businesses.
They condemned tenement houses, apartment buildings that would have been deemed too filthy. They picked up the garbage. They removed wandering pigs and goats. So this was a broad-scale program that naturally offended many of the people living in Lower Manhattan.
ED: In April of 1866, just over a month after the formation of the Board of Health, cholera did hit New York. And when it came, the unthinkable happened. It was contained at the ports. Mortality numbers, which people feared would be in the thousands, rose no higher than 600. And in the eyes of New Yorkers, the new Board of Health had defeated cholera.
BRIAN: So what do we think today? I mean, were they doing the right thing?
OWEN WHOOLEY: Yes, but they didn’t know it. Today we know that cholera is a waterborne disease. And so the most effective way to prevent cholera epidemics is to provide basic clean water infrastructure.
Now when these reformers go down to Lower Manhattan in 1866, that’s part of their program, is to drain cesspools, is to clean up privies, to do all these things with water. But it’s a small part of a more general program.
So even though they didn’t know that it was spread by water, they kind of unintentionally, in cleaning up the whole area, are credited with having prevented a severe outbreak of cholera during that epidemic.
And subsequently, other municipalities, other cities, other states, look upon New York as this kind of shining example of what could happen if you have an independent board of health taking care of the sanitation in the city.
PETER: It’s hard to imagine any of this would have happened if the doctors on the Board of Health had known how cholera was actually transmitted. More than a decade earlier, in London, the epidemiologist John Snow helped stem the tide of cholera, not by cleaning up every single sign of filth in the city or by stamping out government corruption, but by removing the handle from a single water pump.
ED: But American doctors, famously and even defiantly behind the curve on European medical developments, continued to operate under an older idea, that disease was caused by noxious air, or miasma.
And the result? A city widely regarded as the filthiest place in America got a little bit cleaner, both in the streets and in the halls of government. It’s not the story about knowledge and progress we might expect. But Owen Whooley says it offers an important lesson nevertheless.
OWEN WHOOLEY: The popular medical histories, especially around medical discoveries, do us a bit of disservice in that they tend to suggest that once these discoveries are made, you move from kind of ignorance to enlightenment, problems get solved.
But when you go back and look at it, you really see much more of a messy picture. In medicine, there’s no certainty in knowledge. I mean, even the best doctors will tell you this. So what do you do in absence of having complete, certain knowledge? Well, you kind of muddle along.
And so the idea that there’s kind of this linear progress in medical knowledge, it’s a bit misleading in that what you really need to start to look at is how these things play out in practice.
ED: In the case of cholera, maybe the false beliefs that inspired these practices were just as powerful in bringing about positive change as the true beliefs about germ theory would eventually be years later. Maybe they were even more so.
PETER: Helping us tell that story was Owen Whooley. He’s a sociologist at the University of New Mexico and the author of Knowledge in the Time of Cholera: The Struggle over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century.
TEITUR: [SINGING] We’re still the same. Nothing has changed. We still drink the same water. We’re still the same. Nothing has changed. We still drink the same water.
BRIAN: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, how Americans learned to stop worrying and love soap and water.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
TEITUR: [SINGING] It’s still the same where nothing has changed. We still drink the same water.
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, the 20th century guy.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th century guy.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th century guy.
We’re talking today about notions of cleanliness in America. We’re trying to figure out how and why standards of hygiene have changed over all three of our centuries.
BRIAN: Hey, Peter.
BRIAN: I know everyone in your century was dirty and they smelled. But what I did not know was that they had this real aversion to bathing. I have a passage here. It’s from the diary of a well-to-do Pennsylvania woman named Elizabeth Drinker.
And the passage is dated 1799. For a year, Drinker had been nervously eyeing this new contraption in her backyard her husband had installed. What was it? A shower. Here’s what she writes.
“Nancy came here this evening. She and I went into the shower bath. I bore it better than I expected not having been wet all over at once for 28 years.”
PETER: That’s a long time.
ED: OK, I agree. So just take a few minutes and explain to me why this woman was so terrified of water. I mean, didn’t these people want to be clean?
PETER: Oh, yeah. Elizabeth Drinker wants to be clean. She’s an upright Quaker woman. But here’s the deal. None of the things that we associate with getting clean in a shower existed at this time. I mean, she doesn’t have soap. They don’t use soap.
So she’s standing there in her gown, wondering why is it good for me to get wet all over? She associates immersion, all that water, with disease. And there’s a good for reason for this, because water tends to be filthy. It’s the great medium for the vectors in all the great contagions. Because of the disease environment that Europeans encountered in their own world and in the New World–
BRIAN: –and helped create–
PETER: –and helped create, that’s right. They were intensely aware of the dangers of disease. And that was reinforced by urbanization. She’s a city woman. So this is the big challenge. How do you keep clean? And in the 18th century, it’s not associated with bathing.
Instead, it’s clothes. Linen, that layer of clothing that’s like a second skin, that absorbs the filth, absorbs the bad things.
And yes, there’s stench all over people. But the way you relieve the stench is to wash the clothes.
BRIAN: OK, I got it.
BRIAN: But Peter, when is her next shower, the next day?
PETER: Well, you have to understand the resistance to this, Brian. So it took about a year before she would do it again.
ED: A year?
PETER: Yeah. And Ed, there’s a lot of things that have to happen before we get to our daily showers.
ED: I would tell you this. It takes the whole 19th century before we get there. But there’s a steady drip, drip, drip in progress on this subject. And so what happens is that the elite people like Drinker–
PETER: –right, right–
ED: Other elite people say I’m going to the springs this summer at Saratoga or at the Warm Springs of Virginia, right. And that’s really good for you. You’re supposed to drink the water, but also bathe in it. We’re still in gowns.
BRIAN: So we’re still segregated.
PETER: So these are elite folks. And we have, as you describe it, a kind of trickle down theory.
ED: And it’s also trickling over from Europe. And so that sanctions this idea.
ED: And then you start having popularizers, like Catharine Beecher, who’s the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who’s sort of the Martha Stewart of the time. And she says, you know, folks, look what the elites are doing. It’s good for them. It would be good for you to stay clean if you could find ways to do this.
But the Americans say, OK, this is good. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to find ways to do this in your home and in your hotel. And that’s actually where it starts. In the group home that is a hotel, a luxury hotel, they start saying, you can come to an American hotel here in New York City and get a hot bath in your room.
And the English have to admit, god, they’re better at that than we are. And from then on, Americans become famous world over for our plumbing.
ED: But what kicks it off is the American Civil War, in which the ideal of cleanliness really becomes institutionalized. The United States Sanitary Commission says, dirt seems to be killing as many soldiers as the bullets. And so they make a great effort to establish cleanliness as a crucial element of the Union war effort. And studies show that it’s remarkably successful.
So you have these tributaries, strangely enough, sort of flowing together from the elite experience of ideals that Peter was telling us about. If you wanted to be in the top ranks of the society, you’re clean.
PETER: Um, hmm.
ED: But you’re now having it sort of from the engineers and from the sort of social reformers and the idea coming out of the Civil War, if you want to be healthy, you want to be clean. You’ve got these two things working together across the second half the 19th century.
They experiment with public baths. Eh, we don’t really like those so much. You know, it kind of goes back to Drinker, Peter, that the idea in America is privacy, individualism, being on our own. Being somewhat prudish about our bodies seems to be the American way.
PETER: Yeah. And, of course, that also requires a public water supply.
PETER: And so its massive engineering. The can-do Americans can produce these great infrastructure–
BRIAN: –what we call sanitation engineers in the 20th century.
PETER: –yeah, to deliver the clean water that enables you to have this private space and to be clean.
ED: Right. And then, the last thing we have to do is to get these technologies into the hands of common people. Sears Roebuck is great for that. You could be at a remote farmstead and buy a bathtub. And increasingly, by the turn of the century, Brian, as we hand the baton of cleanliness to you, that is what begins to happen.
BRIAN: You give us a bathtub, we’ll give you the toiletries Ed.
And speaking of toiletries, that brings us to soap. One of our producers, Jess Engebretson, has been looking into the early days of soap in America. Here she is to tell us what she found.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Back in the early 19th century, soap didn’t have quite the aura it has today. Sure, people used it for laundry. But it wasn’t something you wanted on your skin. It was, well, kind of gross. See, soap was made from tallow, the rendered fat of sheep or cows. So the soap making trade tended to operate near slaughterhouses.
The work was hot and exhausting, and it smelled foul. The final product was a big slab, like an enormous piece of cheese. If you wanted to buy some, you just asked the grocer to slice off a hunk for you.
And forget about Dove or Irish Spring. These soaps had bland names, like Number 1 and Extra Number 1.
But by the mid-19th century, all that began to change. New magazines targeted at women were taking off. Some of them offered novel hygiene tips, like wash your face with soap and water to help remove oil.
American soap makers began looking to their Parisian counterparts, who had long produced delicate facial washes made with ingredients like almonds and adder of rose. Those soaps had been seen as cosmetics, not cleaning agents.
American entrepreneurs like Proctor & Gamble saw an opening. What if they could make a soap that was both cosmetic and cleansing? It would be delicate enough for the face but strong enough for the laundry. That soap was Ivory.
When it first came out in 1879, it was a revolutionary idea and required some explaining. A Procter & Gamble booklet of frequently asked questions posed the conundrum, is the Ivory a toilet or a laundry soap? The answer was, marvelously, both.
–Laundry soaps have an unpleasant odor and are too strong to use on the skin. And toilet soaps are too expensive to use in the laundry. But Ivory soap is so perfectly made that there is no better for the toilet and bath. And it’s sold at such a reasonable price that it can be used economically in the laundry.
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JESS ENGEBRETSON: Soap was no longer just for the elegant Parisian lady or the laundry maid. It was for the modern middle-class American woman. Other soap makers jumped on the bandwagon. And soap production doubled between 1870 and 1890. Even men were using it. For the next few decades, soap looked like an unequivocal success story.
Then, in the 1920s, another fad grabbed hold of America, cosmetics. Suddenly American women had new ways to make their faces fresh and lovely. Soap manufacturers worried that powders and face creams might usurp soap’s dominant place at the bathroom sink.
At the same time, fewer men were working as farmers or laborers, the kind of jobs that really made you sweat. And the streets were cleaner, too, thanks to city sanitation campaigns. What if people just weren’t dirty enough to keep buying soap? The soap makers began to worry that their product might just be a fad whose time had past.
PETER: That’s Jess Engebretson, one of our producers.
BRIAN: In hindsight, it’s clear that soap was emphatically not a fad. And part of the reason why is that the soap industry exerted some serious marketing muscle to make sure soap stuck around. It even created something called The Cleanliness Institute that pushed public schools to make cleaning up part of the curriculum.
Jenn Marshall is an art historian at the University of Minnesota. She told me about a particularly innovative soap campaign that was launched by Procter & Gamble in 1924. It was a nationwide competition for the best soap sculpture.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Supposedly, the idea comes from Edward Bernays, Ed Bernays, who is behind so many sort of mass marketing campaigns in this period, and so adept.
BRIAN: Really the father of public relations.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Yes, very well known as such.
-We worked for Proctor & Gamble for several decades. I think it was 30 years.
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JENNIFER MARSHALL: Bernays talks about getting the idea from a professional sculptor. In fact, a woman named Brenda Putnam–
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JENNIFER MARSHALL: –who was an elected member of the National Academy of Design. And she supposedly wrote to P&G and asked for just sort of a gigantic, uncut block of Ivory so she could work that in her studio. Maybe an apocryphal story but a good one.
So Bernays thinks that’s genius and thinks that this could really sort of be a contest that P&G could run, that could really sort of spark the curiosity and the artistry of, again, the household wife and mother but also her children and even perhaps her puttering husband.
-Within a year’s time, children in the public schools were sculpting in Ivory soap and loving it as not only a creative medium but also as a medium for cleanliness.
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JENNIFER MARSHALL: The year of the first annual contest, in 1924, they received 500 entries. And all of these would be assigned numbers and looked over carefully by judges. The academic and much beloved sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh weighed in. Gutzon Borglum, who carved Mount Rushmore during the same period, he was a judge.
BRIAN: So these were big names in the art world.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: And it legitimizes the contests. C
BRIAN: I’ll bet.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: It turns out then that by 1931, they’re getting over 5,000 entries.
BRIAN: Describe some of these sculptures for me.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: There’s a fair amount of devotional art, a fair amount of sort of Virgin and Child, a fair amount even of crucifixes. But the ones that really sort of win these contests, and the ones that are reproduced in the art magazines of the time, are largely Classical Revival style.
So a whole lot of headless torsos, bodies with no arms and legs, no heads. But look, especially when they’re cropped and reprinted in the pages of Art and Archaeology Magazine, they look like they could easily be just pieces of classical marble.
BRIAN: Do we have any idea about the people who were carving these sculptures? Were these housewives? What was the gender breakdown?
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Yeah.
BRIAN: Who were these people?
JENNIFER MARSHALL: It is certainly broken down fairly evenly between men and women, I would say. Soap carving was also heavily promoted as a therapeutic tool for helping at-risk youth. The YMCA is using it in their urban centers.
There’s an article in 1936 that touts its benefits in keeping kids who were otherwise in gangs, giving them something to do with their hands and their minds, so that they might discipline themselves and become sort of saved from the criminal tendencies they were otherwise prone to.
BRIAN: And why soap? I mean–
JENNIFER MARSHALL: –why soap: Right.
BRIAN: –why couldn’t carving a block of wood serve therapeutic purposes for these kids?
JENNIFER MARSHALL: The official line is that soap is easy and affordable. It doesn’t incur the same risks to your fingers as wood carving does, because you don’t need such sharp implements. You can do this with a butter knife. This is a very forgiving medium in that sense.
And you can use the mistakes. You know, you can still shower with it. So that’s the pragmatic answer.
But I think if it’s supposed to improve your mind, if it’s supposed to improve your sense of discipline and deliberation and moderation, it’s cultivating a sort of hand-mind habit that’s elevated and good and therapeutic and a sort of process of self-improvement that you’re going through with the carving.
Yes, that’s true for other media. But soap already promises to do that anyway. It’s already a medium that promises self-improvement, that promises self-purification in the ways we think of from hygiene. So it’s nicely metaphoric.
BRIAN: So it’s as though some of the purity and cleanliness of soap might rub off on–
JENNIFER MARSHALL: –yes, right–
BRIAN: –the people carving it.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Right, right, right.
BRIAN: Well, Jenn, thanks so much. This has been truly illuminating.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Yeah, no, it’s a great story.
BRIAN: Jenn Marshall is a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota.
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking about the history of cleanliness in America. As we do each week on our show, we’ve been fielding your questions and comments at backstoryradio.org. And today, our producers have invited a few of you to join us on the phone.
PETER: Hey Backstory hosts, gather around. We have a call all the way from Charlottesville, our hometown. It’s Ozan. Ozan, welcome to the show.
OZAN: Hi there, how are you?
PETER: Well, we’re great. And we’re happy to have you with us. What do you have for us?
OZAN: Well, I moved to the States when I was seven years old, and I had a hard time making friends for a while, because all the kids would generally tease me and say that I was smelly.
PETER: Oh, no.
OZAN: And I was wondering if there was any history of that in the States, or is this just a case of kids being awful?
PETER: Oh, you mean smell prejudice?
ED: May I ask–
OZAN: –um, hmm–
ED: –not to be too personal, when this was and where you came from before then?
OZAN: I came from Turkey, and this was in 1981. And it was in northern Virginia. It was really isolating, because, I guess, I did smell different. I mean, we still ate Turkish food, which is more spicy than–
OZAN: –standard American fare.
BRIAN: I want that’s the guys, is one of the ways that they’ve ostracized immigrants, going back to the 19th century, by castigating the way they smelled or the smells coming out of immigrant neighborhoods?
ED: You know, I would say, off the top of my head, or the inside of my nose, that that was not the language that people were using very much. Now there was the phrase “the great unwashed,” right?
And I think that the idea was that people were just dirty. And people were being judged by their clothes, the way they looked. And if the cleanliness of their clothes–
PETER: –OK, that’s the clothes. That’s right here.
ED: Yeah, because it was hard in the days before mechanized hot water for everybody to assume that they were without odor all the time. And I don’t know, Peter, it strikes me that all of these European visitors who loved putting down the United States when they visited, they put us down for spitting on the floor–
PETER: –sure, sure–
ED: –they put us down for, you know, eating with our hands and all these kinds of things. But smell just does not seem to have been a prevalent line of critique back before the 20th century.
PETER: You don’t hear a lot about it, Ed. And I think you’re exactly right. It’s the way people dress. And there’s a lot of intimacy, that is, people are thrown together in ways that we would consider intolerable. We have a much wider body space that we think we have some kind of control or sovereignty over if you get too close to somebody.
BRIAN: Except in Manhattan.
PETER: Yeah, well, there are places, like the subway, where it doesn’t happen. Though by world historical standards, we have so much space around us. The idea that somehow you are distinct from the rest of humanity is a very late, modern idea. It’s a fulfillment, you might say, of a notion of selfhood that comes out of the Enlightenment and all of those great things.
But the fact that you could actually mark out some space, be within it, and be clean within it, that’s absurd.
ED: But, Ozan, I think that it’s interesting what children say. They’re like canaries in the coal mine. They’re an especially sensitive cultural barometer of what people care about. And the fact they would have internalized so early that a taboo is how you smell tells you a lot about the culture as a whole, of how it was that it organized things at home to say, oh, don’t go out this way. You’ll embarrass the family. You’ll embarrass yourself.
BRIAN: Well, I just want to ask you, Ozan, have you overcompensated for this? Is smell something that, today, you think you might be overly sensitive about?
OZAN: You know, actually, no. I’m not really a big deodorant user. I probably shower three times a week. I work from home. I have a lot of kids. I’m very busy. It doesn’t bother me if I have a particular odor, like smell is natural.
PETER: I think Ozan’s fellow Americans are catching up with her.
BRIAN: I agree.
PETER: Come on.
BRIAN: Well, thanks for leading us into the 21st century, Ozan.
ED: By the nose.
OZAN: No problem.
PETER: Thanks, Ozan.
OZAN: Thanks. Bye, bye.
PETER: Bye, bye.
BRIAN: Bye, bye.
We’re going to take a short break. When we get back, a vision of clean that feminists, environmentalists, and eugenicists will all love.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh.
Today on the show, what it’s meant to be clean through three centuries of American life. And we’re taking some calls from our listeners.
PETER: Hey guys, rally around. We got a call from my old hometown, big D, Dallas, Texas. And it’s Mary. Mary, welcome to BackStory.
MARY: Hi, Backstory hosts.
PETER: Hey, y’all. Hello to you. And we’re doing clean.
MARY: All right. Well, when I heard that you guys were talking about hygiene, the first word that popped into my head is feminine hygiene.
PETER: And you thought you’d embarrass us by asking us, right?
MARY: Absolutely. I had this conversation with my auntie. I’d say she’s in her 70s. And she was absolutely scandalized because a practice known as douching is no longer in style.
MARY: She asked me, and it was really kind of awkward. Uh.
BRIAN: So you thought you’d ask a national radio audience. That’s very thoughtful of you, Mary.
MARY: Yeah. In the 17th century–
MARY: –did women do that?
BRIAN: So the interesting question is, when did they begin to do so, right?
BRIAN: There was a history to this, I believe.
PETER: All right, let’s give it some perspective. I’m afraid we’re going to have to begin with you, Ed, in the 19th century.
ED: Yeah, you’re right, Peter. I’ll have to fess up. Douching is really a 19th century innovation. But it was devoted to a different purpose than we’ve come to associate with today. It was considered an act of contraception.
In a day before there were many other widespread contraceptive devices or techniques, douching seemed a way that a woman might be able to prevent a pregnancy.
And so as we hand it over to the 20th century, Brian, it strikes me that companies that want to emphasize the other benefits of douching have to overcome that stigma.
BRIAN: Well, Mary, one thing that helped them overcome that were more modern, if you will, techniques of contraception and specifically the diaphragm, which was introduced widely in the 1910s. And that pretty much ended the practice of douching as a form of birth control.
But it really began the life of douching connected with the term you used, feminine hygiene. And certainly, by the 1920s, you have major companies that are advertising the douche as a way to deal with women’s intimate problems, as they put it, of hygiene.
They preyed upon women’s insecurities.
MARY: Yeah. The feminine hygiene industrial complex.
BRIAN: No, that’s a very good way to put it. So a lot of the ads really focused on, you might think you smell fine–
BRIAN: –but, you know, your husband is actually embarrassed to tell you this. And this kind of problem could destroy marriages, according to these advertisements.
MARY: Oh, that’s insidious.
BRIAN: I’m actually going to turn to a primary source.
ED: Whew, evidence.
BRIAN: I just want to read you the first couple of lines. And there is a woman here, by the way. She is pulling at the door. And superimposed on the doors are all kinds of locks. And one lock is doubt. Another lock is inhibition. Another lock is ignorance. And this is locking her out of her relationship with her husband.
And listen to these first couple of lines, Mary. It says, “a man marries a woman because he loves her. So instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself.” That is the gist of all of these ads. If there’s something wrong, you better question yourself first, woman.
PETER: Yeah. And why should women have to question themselves? Why shouldn’t we question ourselves? Well, I’ll tell you why.
It’s because of Eve. Let’s go back to the beginning. It’s the assumption that, of course, it’s women who are drawing us into the filth of carnality. Our fallen women bring men down to their low level.
You know, it’s only in the modern period– and this is important– that we have a new idealization of female purity– that it’s the guys who are filthy, which is, of course, a given, because they really are– but in the 19th century, this idolization of female purity– I mean, the idea of the angelic prepubescent girl– is the epitome of virtue. In a way, it’s all downhill– and that as you regress to the Eve image, if you’re not careful on maintaining a high moral and hygienic level.
ED: So basically, it’s the 19th century’s fault for cooking this up and then the 20th century’s fault for making it possible.
PETER: And profitable.
BRIAN: And profitable. And to be very specific, Mary, that ad I read to you from is from the 1940s.
ED: Just at the time, shall we call her, Aunt Kathy, would have really been defining her sense of self. So it’s an innovation–
ED: –you know, that sort of defining themselves, that, I think, as we’re all appalled once we adopt something, to find that the younger generation is turning away from it.
MARY: I’m sorry to interrupt. But nowadays, we’re pretty much told to not do that.
PETER: No, it’s not good for you.
MARY: And it can actually cause more trouble.
PETER: That’s right. That’s right.
ED: And I think this tracks the history of many things across the 20th century that the quest for banishing all forms of bacteria–
ED: –we now see, wait a minute. Maybe, that’s not the best idea in the world and that there’s a reason that all of these things have evolved.
PETER: One day they will write our history. And they’ll see that we, too, were victims of our own culture.
MARY: Victims of our own culture. What a great show. If y’all need a History Gal, let me know.
PETER: All right. Thanks, Mary. Thanks for the call.
BRIAN: Thanks for being one today.
MARY: You’re welcome.
PETER: Thanks for challenging us on that.
ED: Bye, bye.
PETER: Bye, bye.
PETER: We’ve got another call. And it’s Beau from Chicago. Beau, welcome to BackStory.
BEAU: Hi, guys. How are you?
PETER: Yeah, hi. We’re great. What do you got for us today, Beau?
BEAU: Well, certainly apropos to your conversation, I have just returned from Disney World at the height of flu season. So I have been awash in a sea of Purell for the past seven days.
BEAU: I was intrigued by the conversation, especially thinking about the very fact that we’re sort of a melting pot and an alloy of people and places. Do you guys think that our fixation on being clean is this ability to become almost invisible and classless? You can wash away the dirt, the labor of the day, and become just like everybody else.
PETER: Yeah. That’s brilliant. I think that’s exactly the case. I think it has deep roots in our very notion of a democracy. Think of the idea of the citizen who has got the same rights as every other citizen. We consent. We’re fully autonomous. We’re independent. But, you know, the thing about us is that we’re all the same at some basic level.
BRIAN: Yeah, I always thought that those highfalutin upper class people back in your century kind of held cleanliness over and above lots of people. I always thought that it was kind of a class marker, a sign of distinctiveness. People who couldn’t afford to bathe all the time or people who actually were out there working in the soil and were, for the most part dirty.
PETER: Right. But in order to rise up, of course, you have to rise to the level of your social superiors. The big movement in American history is the movement to the city, whether it’s from abroad or whether it’s from the hinterland and country.
And this is where people– people to fit in, people to arrive, people to rise up to the universal middle class– because we’re all supposed to be middle class, right? You’ve got to be clean.
BEAU: –I agree–
ED: –you’re throwing so many things on the pile here, Peter, it’s hard to know how to untie–
BRIAN: Yeah, go ahead, bury him, Ed.
ED: Yes, the cities. But the cities are dirty before they’re clean.
PETER: It’s dialectical, dude.
ED: Yeah, but back in the 18th century, a city would have been a nasty, nasty place.
PETER: That’s exactly right.
ED: But cities have lots of other advantages. And so how do you make them– two things– one, clean as a totality? A city where people are just dumping their sewage out the window leaves certain things to be desired on every level of cleanness.
But once you start putting in sewers, and once you start having cart men, garbage men, carrying things away from where people actually live, then you can begin thinking about having a standard of cleanliness that people could not have imagined before.
ED: Then, the next big innovation is how can this middle class stay clean? Well, they don’t have servants, which had been the old way of staying clean.
ED: Somebody to draw the bath, right? Think about that. Can you please draw a bath for me? It’s a concept you don’t hear, because you start having plumbing and other servant substitutes. So this is all leading to Purell.
BRIAN: It is.
ED: OK, I just want to let you know that we’re heading in that direction. And so the idea of cleanliness is imaginable only when it is achievable.
ED: So what you’re talking about is a standard of cleanliness that’s not imaginable, I don’t think, Brian, before World War II.
BRIAN: Well, I think, Ed, it’s imaginable through mechanical devices.
ED: Oh, OK. Yeah, yeah.
BRIAN: Before we get to the magic of Purell, we have the washing machine. We have the vacuum cleaner. We’re beginning to get these machines that can remove dirt from our clothes, from our homes. And yes, we get all of these products after World War II that are going to produce a clean slate in every home, regardless of the income of that house.
BEAU: You say democratized. Does that mean marketed?
PETER: Well, yeah.
ED: What’s democracy about?
PETER: Well, it’s mass consumption.
ED: And which takes us to Disney World, or Disneyland, right, Beau? Which one was it? I’ve forgotten.
BEAU: Oh, it was Disney World.
ED: Of course. Thank you. There we go.
BEAU: We went whole hog.
ED: I started to say, go for the full thing. Your family deserves nothing less. And so what we’d want to think about is how this democratic impulse– and I think there are a few places in our imaginations, at least, that are more democratic than the world Disney has conjured.
PETER: No, I think that’s right.
BRIAN: And more classless.
PETER: And cleaner.
ED: Yeah, exactly.
PETER: Hey, Beau, thanks for your call.
BRIAN: What a great question. Thanks.
BEAU: Thank you for your time, guys.
ED: To wrap things up today, we’re going to spend a few minutes looking at a novel that in a lot of ways encapsulates how Americans thought about cleanliness at the turn the 20th century. The novel is called Herland. And it was published in 1915 by an author and social reformer named Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The book may not have been a commercial success, but it did lay out a blueprint for a perfectly clean society, one that would have resonated with a lot of Americans.
BRIAN: The story starts with three male explorers who stumble onto an astonishing sight, Herland, a nation consisting entirely of women.
There are neat towns with sturdy houses, orchards of fruit trees, well-built infrastructure. Most of all, it’s clean.
KRISTEN EGAN: They comment about how there’s no dirt, there’s no smoke, and there’s no noise.
BRIAN: This is Kristen Egan, a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College.
KRISTEN EGAN: And they just can’t get over how clean it is. And they even say things like, “the streets of Herland were as dustless as a well-swept floor.” And they’ll say that the country itself is as neat as a Dutch kitchen.
BRIAN: Egan says the men noticed two kinds of cleanliness right way. There’s the domestic side, starched linen and sparkling dishes. But there’s also the world outside the home.
KRISTEN EGAN: In addition to the lack of pollution, the women practice composting. They practice sustainable agriculture. They only grow fruit-bearing trees. They don’t bury dead bodies. They only cremate people. It just goes on and on. So they’re doing everything they can to create an environment that is sustainable.
ED: The connection between cleanliness and what we’ve come to call environmentalism has lasted right on up to the present day. Don’t litter. Keep America clean. They’re slogans we can all get on board with. But in Herland, the idea of cleanliness also pointed in a darker direction, toward policies that didn’t wear quite as well.
BRIAN: To understand this third take on cleanliness, you need to know a little more about Herland’s history. Thousands of years ago, the nation was home to men, too. But the men marched off to fight a war and, well, a sudden volcanic eruption killed them all off.
The women back home survived.
KRISTEN EGAN: And you might assume that a nation full of only women would die out at some point because of some obvious biological limitations. However, this is a utopia. So there’s going to be some stretches of the imagination, some miraculous things that have to happen in the plot line in order to have the utopia.
And the miraculous thing that happens here is that the women end up suddenly possessing the power to reproduce parthenogenetically.
ED: That it is to say they could reproduce without men. Apparently, one of the original women who survived the volcanic eruption was able to become pregnant on her own. She had five daughters. And then each of those daughters was also able to have five daughters of their own. Soon enough, the society was reproducing rapidly and happily without men.
KRISTEN EGAN: And that gets us to the third form of cleanliness and, perhaps, the most sinister form of cleanliness, which is a form of racial cleansing.
The women are described as being of Aryan heritage. And they practice eugenics.
So we know that they have parthenogenetic powers. But if a woman is undesirable in the country, she is asked not to breed. She is essentially asked to abstain from procreating.
And if, for some reason, the undesirable woman decides to procreate anyway, the child will be taken from her. She won’t be allowed to raise her own child. And instead, the women at the community that are deemed most fit to raise the child will raise the child. And so, in that way, they’re performing cleanliness in the sense of racial purity.
ED: Now the prospect of eugenesis utopia of this sort sounds really creepy to us today. But in the novel, the three male explorers didn’t bat an eyelash at the idea. And they were probably just like most readers of the book. Eugenics was mainstream.
KRISTEN EGAN: It was clearly a reactionary impulse in response to all the immigrants that were coming into America around the turn of the century and during the progressive era. And there was real fear that we would have a kind of racial contamination, that the Anglo-Saxon roots of the race would die out. And in its place, instead, all these immigrants would be taking over, and their bloodlines would be taking over the country, so to speak.
ED: Fears of racial contamination were taken seriously, seriously enough that in the early 20th century 33 US states legalized compulsory sterilization for various so-called undesirables. By the 1960s, more than 60,000 Americans had been sterilized. Supporters saw the programs is a step toward a pure society.
BRIAN: There’s an interesting ending to the novel. One of the explorers has married a Herlander woman and wants to return to the United States with his bride. But the Herlanders have heard stories about America, stories of pollution and epidemics.
So in the end, they asked the happy couple to keep their location secret. Opening up the nation to dirty outsiders is not a risk the Herlanders want to take.
ED: Americans of the era apparently thought along the same lines. In 1917, Congress passed an immigration law that barred, quote, “all persons mentally or physically defective” as well as nearly all would-be be immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.
A few years later, another law dramatically restricted Jewish immigration. The law’s purpose was to, quote, “maintain the racial preponderance,” end quote, of Anglo-Saxon blood, in other words to keep America clean.
BRIAN: Helping us tell that story was Kristen Egan, an assistant professor of English at Mary Baldwin College.
JOE PURDY: [SINGING] And I have sins, Lord, but not today, ’cause they’re gonna wash away. They’re gonna wash away.
PETER: Well, that’s our show for today. But you can find a whole lot more about the history of cleanliness, including 100-year-old instructions on how to wash your hair at backstoryradio.org.
You’ll also find all our old shows there as well as descriptions of what we’ve got in the works.
ED: And remember that you can chat with us throughout the week. We’re on Facebook and Tumblr, and we tweet @BackStoryRadio.
PETER: We’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening. And don’t be a stranger.
BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Chioke I’Anson, and Eric Mennel. Jamal Millner is our technical director, and Allen Chen is our intern. Our senior producer is Tony Field. And our executive producer is Andrew Windham.
ED: Special thanks today to Elizabeth Royte, Ben Campkin, Kathleen Brown, and Steven H. Corey.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endownment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond.
BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
BRIAN: On the next BackStory–
During World War II, FDR needed to stay on good terms with Stalin, so he sent him a movie, a Hollywood movie about Russian history.
PETER: Yeah, it became a bit of a parlor game to decipher Stalin’s grunt. He apparently grunted several times during the showing of the film. And so people were trying to figure out, is this is a good grunt? Is this a bad grunt? What’s going on?
BRIAN: History at the movies on the next BackStory.