We live in an age of obsessive cleanliness, surrounded by advertisements for deodorants, soap, shampoo, washing machines and luxury bathrooms. But what does it mean to be clean or unclean? Why are house cleaning and laundry generally done by women? And why does dirt inspire such disgust and fear? In this book, Kathleen Brown takes a historical approach to the body, reframes assumptions about the past and recasts our understanding of what it means to be civilised. Taking the body as historical entity and site of cultural production, she looks at concepts of cleanliness in artefacts, language and printed advice.
Brown shows how Atlantic expansion from the 15th century revealed differences in European, Native American and West African traditions of body care. She argues that this coincided with a growing European aversion to bathing, enhancing the significance of the shirt. In the early modern period, concepts of the foul or the filthy had influenced language, religion and views of unlawful sexual activity, and black and white had become synonymous with uncleanliness and cleanliness. These transatlantic encounters led to contrasts in appearances and practices, and to emerging racial categories, so that European domestic practices and care of the body became emblems of Western civilisation.
In the period 1690-1720, privacy and politeness became more central to concepts of civilisation and a new view of womanhood, with the rise of the Irish linen industry, the emergence of a consumer culture in North America and growing sensitivities about "decency".
Brown argues that the spread of the linen shirt was the cornerstone of a new interest in gentility. There was a growing aversion to bad breath: "to have (it) was not only to reveal the foulness of one's body in public, but literally to poison the atmosphere in which one conducted one's business". War, too, led to a growing focus on cleanliness, but soldiers remained reluctant to wash their own clothes.
Important connections were made in the early 19th century between cleanliness and nation-making, but "more curious still was the new prominence of the maternal body in medical advice books, children's literature and household management books". Sanitation efforts in Philadelphia were spurred by fears of yellow fever, and new domestic practices included taking a bath. This was the start of a trend, whereby "the housewife's responsibility for preventing disease grew and her authority as a healer declined".
Advice books warned of the dangers of damp, unwholesome air, and by the 1830s, "washing a child's body had become a way of loving it". While the household remained a crucible of racial and ethnic difference, "advice on laundry and housecleaning proliferated, revealing that concerns for tidiness had given way to near-obsessiveness over cleanliness by the 1840s".
In the reform culture of the 1850s, cleanliness became synonymous with respectability and moral virtue. The focus on the child's body was revealed by the emphasis on fresh air and in school architecture; washing and a change of clothes symbolised the transformation from street urchin to gentleman. Nevertheless, cleanliness exposed differences between North and South, and while civilising the body had become a new ideal for health, maintaining it remained the responsibility of mothers. Brown writes that by "situating our own ways of caring for the body in the history of that care, we confront the limits of our modernity, its debts to empire, its vulnerability to disease, and its ... reliance upon the domestic labour of women".
The history of cleanliness is not a new subject for historians, with earlier work by Georges Vigarello, Richard L. and Claudia Bushman, Virginia Smith and Mark Jenner's studies on dirt in early modern London. Theoretical perspectives have been offered by, among others, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin and Pierre Bourdieu. This is more a study of middle-class purpose than of lower-class practice, while Brown's accounts of the views of Native Americans, changes in native clothing and body care, and the perceptions of enslaved people of their masters are highly speculative. Nevertheless, this book enhances our understanding of what it means to be civilised, revealing transformations in popular knowledge and offering fresh perspectives on public expectations and household practices.
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Published 30 April 2009