Tracing the history of cleanliness

"Foul Bodies" book jacket

Each day in homes around the world a familiar morning ritual plays out. We wake, bathe, groom and beautify ourselves. Rarely do we pause to consider why.

In her new book, “Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America,” Penn Professor of History Kathleen M. Brown argues the very private act of caring for our bodies reveals much about society’s most basic beliefs about manners and civilization.

By tracing the historical trajectory of the cultural “body” to the time when Europeans crossed the Atlantic, Brown explores, for the first time, how the manner in which we care for our bodies is not simply a private affair, but an expression of cultural ideals that reflect the fundamental values of our society.

“I had the idea of traveling—much as you would to a foreign country—to the past, to try and understand it on its own terms,” Brown says. “[Readers] can try to look back at the past and see it through their eyes, where you didn’t bring your assumptions that everything was dirty and less healthy.”

Brown, who specializes in gender and race in early America and the Atlantic World, argues that what we really do in our private lives is always with an eye to our bodies on public display. And our standards of cleanliness evolved along with our culture.

“Part of the fascination with yucky things by modern people has to do with the fact that we find our bodies more loathsome than early modern people found their bodies, and that’s surprising. ... Their bodies were much more disgusting than our groomed and cleaned and manicured and scented bodies are. But in fact, our threshold for tolerating what the body might be in its uncared-for state is much, much lower,” Brown explained during a recent public talk about her book for the School of Arts and Sciences.

At America’s founding, contact with Native Americans and West Africans, combined with a fear of losing loved ones to illness, motivated American settlers to re-evaluate cleanliness practices.

“That’s really what a lot of domestic labor is: you do the same thing over and over and over again,” Brown says. “And fueling some of it, certainly, is the desire to be seen by your neighbors, your peer group, as decent, respectable, in the same social bracket they’re in. But part of it is a basic fear that you don’t have control over when people close to you will get sick and die.”

Brown adds she was surprised by some of her findings, particularly the role gender played in the evolution of cleanliness.

“I was surprised that in the 17th and 18th centuries, people most obsessed with [cleanliness] were not women, but elite men,” she says.
Other studies often depicted women as “having the foulest of human bodies,” Brown writes. But that perception of women and cleanliness changed much over the course of three centuries. Women became “the standard bearers and enforcers of a new ethos of bodily refinement and domestic purity,” she says.

As America grew and prospered, industrialization and economic development also have impacted the way people cared for their bodies. By the 19th century, a public health crusade, led by middle-class reformers, aimed to get people to take better care of their clothes and bodies. Bathing grew in acceptance as a means of reinvigorating the body. Health officials advocated for the reopening of public baths.

“There was now this belief that bathing could stimulate the body and better prepare it to go about business in a challenging world,” Brown says.

While no one would dispute we are a much cleaner, polished and well-groomed society today, previous historical accounts of early America had barely taken notice of such a basic aspect of daily life.

“[This] was more a thought experiment about how far my historical imagination could go as for what was open for historical inquiry,” Brown says.

This is Brown’s second book. She is also the author of “Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia,” which won the Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association for best book by a junior scholar.

Originally published on April 9, 2009