Segment from Rinse and Repeat

Listener Calls

Brian, Ed, and Peter take a couple more calls from listeners.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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PETER: 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.

PETER: Right.

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–

PETER: –right–

MARY: –did women do that?

PETER: Nope.

BRIAN: So the interesting question is, when did they begin to do so, right?

PETER: Yeah.

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.

PETER: Right.

ED: Yes.

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–

MARY: –right–

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–

MARY: –yeah–

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: Right.

BRIAN: Yeah.

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–

MARY: –right–

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.

MARY: 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.

ED: Yeah–

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.

PETER: Yeah.

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.

PETER: Right.

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.

PETER: Yeah.

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?

ED: Yes.

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.