BackStory investigates why a well-to-do woman at the turn of the 19th century would choose to go twenty-eight years without a bath.
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.