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Foul Bodies

Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Kathleen M. Brown
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Foul Bodies
    Book Description:

    A nation's standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life, says Kathleen Brown in this unusual cultural history. Starting with the shake-up of European practices that coincided with Atlantic expansion, she traces attitudes toward "dirt" through the mid-nineteenth century, demonstrating that cleanliness-and the lack of it-had moral, religious, and often sexual implications. Brown contends that care of the body is not simply a private matter but an expression of cultural ideals that reflect the fundamental values of a society.

    The book explores early America's evolving perceptions of cleanliness, along the way analyzing the connections between changing public expectations for appearance and manners, and the backstage work of grooming, laundering, and housecleaning performed by women. Brown provides an intimate view of cleanliness practices and how such forces as urbanization, immigration, market conditions, and concerns about social mobility influenced them. Broad in historical scope and imaginative in its insights, this book expands the topic of cleanliness to encompass much larger issues, including religion, health, gender, class, and race relations.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16027-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. A Note on the Text
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    When Olaudah Equiano sat for his portrait sometime during the 1780s, the self-identified African and antislavery advocate appeared every bit the English gentleman. He wore his hair unpowdered and tied back in a style increasingly popular with gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic. A pristine white neck cloth covered his skin from chin to collarbone, offsetting his dark skin and garnet-red waistcoat and jacket. The white ruffles of his linen shirt were so fine that they appeared to be nearly translucent.

    Yet despite this willingness to conform to a genteel European idiom, Equiano elsewhere pointedly challenged European claims to...

  7. Part I Atlantic Crossings

    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 13-14)

      European traditions of body care and manners emerged during three centuries of trade, conquest, and migration in the Atlantic basin, spreading a concept of civility rooted in the body. From the earliest Portuguese voyages along the West African coast during the fifteenth century, Europeans came in contact with other Atlantic peoples who cared for the body in distinct ways. European, Native American, and West African habits of dress, grooming, and adornment differed greatly in practice and purpose, although there was some common ground. All three Atlantic cultures embraced traditions of body care intended to transform the physical body into a...

    • 1 Caring for the Early Modern Body
      (pp. 15-41)

      Religiously motivated cleanliness was perhaps the strongest formal tradition for body care in late medieval and early modern Europe. Depictions of the human body as spiritually and literally corrupt and in need of cleansing had deep roots in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. Ritual hand washing and bathing before prayer reflected long-standing folk and religious beliefs in water’s power to purify an unclean body. Immersing the body in water, moreover, occurred mainly at life’s dramatic transitions: at birth, before marriage, and at death.¹ Biblical metaphors drawn from both the Old and New Testaments built on this foundation to equate...

    • 2 Skin
      (pp. 42-57)

      A well-known proverb of the Elizabethan period equated futility with efforts to “wash an Ethiop,” whose immutable color was held up as an example of Nature’s supremacy over mankind. The printed proverb was often accompanied by engravings of people with white skins washing a dark-complected, nearly nude African. Although the saying could have been understood to sever the association between dark skin and uncleanness—it proved that the Ethiop’s complexion remained dark even after being cleaned—it presented dark skin as that which could not be washed white. Thus it supported other theories linking black skin to indecency (the curse...

    • 3 Corruption
      (pp. 58-94)

      In a 1685 catechism, Benjamin Harris included a poem attributed to the sixteenth-century Protestant martyr John Rogers that presented a familiar concept of cleanliness. Lust was foul and filthy, capable of corrupting an individual’s relationship with God, just as filth could corrupt a clean vessel. Sanctified Christians protected their vessels from such sinful pollution, rendering their bodies and souls pleasing to God. For New England’s Puritans, concepts of cleanliness and filth reflected a reformist vision of the sacred and the profane. Armed with a militant definition of the profane that included many traditional features of English popular culture and offered...

  8. Part II Genteel Bodies

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 95-97)

      On May 25, 1767, Harvard student Stephen Peabody and his school chums made the first of several trips to the Watertown springs, west of Boston, to investigate “the fine conveniences for drinking & Bathing.” Peabody and his friends had heard of the springs’ reputation as a place where people with chronic complaints might go to “get cured of their Diseases.” That night they simply observed the activity. After consulting with Colonel Brattle about the healthfulness of drinking spring water, Peabody and his friend Webster returned three days later for some sociable purging. “Mulliken, Webster & Chadwick set of[f] with me a little...

    • 4 Empire’s New Clothes
      (pp. 98-117)

      New circumstances for the production and commercial exchange of linens at the end of the seventeenth century wrought important changes in body care, the consumption of textiles, and the allocation of domestic labor. Exports of linen—a crucial prop in the European performance of civility—became subject to imperial regulation, turning the shirt into an imperial commodity. When England opened its Atlantic trade to Irish cloth, Irish linens began to circulate around the Atlantic basin, challenging the dominance of high-end Dutch “hollands.” The resulting linen trade made empire wearable; belonging to the British empire could be experienced sensually through the...

    • 5 Gentility
      (pp. 118-158)

      In 1744 the Maryland physician Alexander Hamilton left his home in Baltimore on an extended journey through the northern colonies to recover his health. When he reached the Susquehanna River, he stopped at the home of a ferry keeper, who was “att vittles” with his wife and family. The hospitable family offered to share their “homely dish of fish without any kind of sauce,” but Hamilton refused, telling them he had “no stomach.” The scene at the ferryman’s table struck Hamilton as one of “primitive simplicity,” reminiscent of the days “before the mechanic arts had supplyed them with instruments for...

    • 6 Virtue
      (pp. 159-190)

      In 1783 the American sailor Andrew Sherburne and his uncle took their first shaky steps as free men on the shores of Rhode Island. Weakened from months spent aboard theJersey, a British prison ship that Sherburne described as “extremely filthy,” “loathsome,” and full of vermin, Sherburne and his uncle had finally been released with the coming of peace. Detention in British prison ships—little more than floating dungeons—was a horrible experience and became, in postwar narratives, the touchstone of British brutality and American suffering. After being ferried by hospital ship to Rhode Island, the two began their journey...

  9. Part III Transforming Body Work

    • [Part III Introduction]
      (pp. 191-194)

      By the early nineteenth century, the domestic sources of cleanliness had become more prominent in public discussion and explicitly connected to the important task of nation making. Having been presented as a matter of male military success and pride during the war, bodily cleanliness retained its patriotic associations, appearing in American medical advice books as a prerequisite for a successful democracy because it promised to protect the state from the burden of “weak” and “effeminate” citizens. Increasingly, the individuals charged with disciplining the bodies of male citizens were neither generals nor quartermasters but mothers, upon whose shoulders the fate of...

    • 7 Reimagining Sickness and Health
      (pp. 195-211)

      Mary Tyler’s effort to stake out terrain for maternal healers came in the wake of debates about public health that featured competing theories about disease transmission and the rising influence, if not actual legitimacy, of university-trained physicians (still only a small minority of doctors). These debates continued the slow but inexorable shift in healing authority from its roots in domestic practice to a growing interest in public health. Philadelphia’s 1793 epidemic was the city’s sixth episode of yellow fever in the eighteenth century and the first of four outbreaks during the 1790s. It was also North America’s first major urban...

    • 8 Healing Housework
      (pp. 212-232)

      How did the new interest in bathing affect the responsibilities of northern housewives for the health of their households? Did concerns about health hazards in cities recast housewives’ priorities? Answering these questions requires that we take stock of domestic practices during the early nineteenth century and examine the relationship between healing and other housekeeping duties.

      Northern cities like Philadelphia and Wilmington confronted yellow fever earlier than their southern counterparts during the formative decade in nation making, a fact that was to have a lasting impact on northern domestic life. During the same decades, literate white northern women were receiving British...

    • 9 Redemption
      (pp. 233-250)

      Mary Tyler’s effort to carve out some healing authority for women might at first glance seem to have defied emerging trends in medicine, domestic labor, and motherhood—all the harbingers of a coalescing bourgeoisie. But in fact, her vision of increased maternal scrutiny over children’s bodies was in keeping with new expectations for body work that transformed both motherhood and female bodies during the nineteenth century. Presiding over a household that reflected her own character, the ideal mother was defined less by the amount of cloth she produced—the traditional measure of the goodwife’s virtue—than by the appearance and...

    • 10 Laborers
      (pp. 251-290)

      In 1827 a butler in the household of the prominent Massachusetts Federalist Christopher Gore published a book of advice for men entering domestic service. Appearing a decade before the best-selling household management guides by Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Beecher, and Eliza Leslie, Robert Roberts’sHouse Servant’s Directoryfound a receptive audience, prompting two subsequent editions. In addition to being in the vanguard of the American house books, Roberts’s manual stood out among antebellum advice manuals for its author’s social and racial position. Roberts was not the master of the house, writing to assist other masters and mistresses in the task...

  10. Part IV Crusades

    • [Part IV Introduction]
      (pp. 291-292)

      By the mid-nineteenth century, cleanliness did not simply signify moral good but had become an important means of achieving it. Reformers of various kinds depicted the imposition of filth on innocents (schoolchildren, enslaved people) as subjection to unnatural conditions and violations of humanity. Advocates for the water cure, meanwhile, claimed that by drinking pure water and immersing the body regularly, an individual could combat disease, chronic pain, nervous disorders, and reproductive afflictions, many of which had become staples of nineteenth-century life. Although not motivated solely by the desire to clean the body, the water cure habituated its devotees to the...

    • 11 Immersion
      (pp. 293-324)

      On July 8, 1840, thePennsylvania Inquirerprinted a report from Cape May, New Jersey, about the beginning of “the season” for travelers to seaside resorts. Noting that three boarding houses were already accepting guests, the reporter commented, “With reference to the pleasures of sea bathing and the invigorating influence of the sea air, it is not necessary to say much. A large number of our citizens had tried them, and in most instances, with the happiest results.” Four-fifths of first-time visitors “are anxious for a second” visit, he claimed, “not so much on account of the ‘fashion and frolic’...

    • 12 Mission
      (pp. 325-356)

      By 1850 the American Sunday School Union (ASSU) had a booming business publishing and distributing pamphlets among the poor to induce conversion to Christianity.Little Bill at the Pump, published in that year, expressed how mainstream Protestants in the North had come to see the relationship between cleanliness of body and purity of spirit. The pamphlet told the tale of a minister’s successful efforts to save the soul of Little Bill, a ragged and dirty boy discovered playing marbles with some other boys by the public pump. All the other children fled, but Bill remained behind. When invited by the...

  11. Afterword: Toward the Modern Body
    (pp. 357-368)

    Civilizing the body was not simply a process. It was an ethos of the self in society, spread and reinterpreted by many different historical actors and spurred, on occasion, by epidemiological ones. Its aesthetics and practices would become ingrained in those reared to live by its rules. Initially, its advocates were doctors and elite men, but eventually its most vociferous practitioners became middle-class mothers and social activists, interested in bringing the lives of their children, the poor, and the enslaved into conformity with its standards. Intrinsic to this civilized ideal was a new ideal for health, focused less on protecting...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 369-430)
  13. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 431-436)
  14. Index
    (pp. 437-450)