The Magazine

Soap Opera

How and why Americans got so clean.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Foul Bodies

Cleanliness in Early America

by Kathleen M. Brown

Yale, 464 pp., $45

An outbreak, as it were, of recent books on personal and public hygiene in the Anglo-Saxon world reminds us 21st-century folk of some discomfiting truths: Not all that long ago life in towns and cities in England and America, if not "nasty, brutish, and short" in the Hobbesian parlance, was at least noisy, boorish, and smelly. Emily Cockayne's Hubbub described how disgusting a walk through London could be as recently as three centuries ago, with hogs rummaging through the streets, tanneries stinking out entire residential neighborhoods, and horse-driven transportation in most urban neighborhoods deafening the residents and imperiling them with frequently out-of-control horses. Now comes an even more intimate tale: Kathleen Brown's Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America.

Cockayne's book confined itself to England, whose urban uncouthness surprised and offended most foreigners, at least until the mid-19th century. At this point, the combination of evangelical zeal and public sanitation had cleaned up London significantly, to the point that even foreigners were impressed. Brown's book, by contrast, takes a broad, transatlantic panorama and focuses not so much on such externals of human life as dwellings and neighborhoods, as on the closely personal details of individual hygiene. This deeply researched and richly detailed story asks, and in part answers, the question: How did Anglo-America come to be dominated by a cult of personal hygiene that, even today, surprises many foreigners?

Almost as interestingly, the book analyzes the concept of "civilized" in terms of personal standards of hygiene and dress, and makes some interesting points. Native Americans, it turns out, had much higher standards of bodily cleanliness than the white settlers whose arrival in sailing ships pushed them into the interior of the continent. Brown quotes an early 18th-century Anglo-American observer of Indian culture expressing unqualified admiration of Native American ways of keeping themselves and their infants clean.

Noting how Indian cabins were refreshingly lacking in unpleasant body odors, the observer commented: "These Indians [are] .  .  . some of the sweetest people in the world."

Similar favorable comments were sometimes made by whites of African slaves who had been transported across the Atlantic. Despite the unspeakable squalor of transportation across the Atlantic in the Middle Passage, some enslaved Africans had come from cultures far cleaner in personal habits than that of the traffickers who had brought them from Africa. Olaudah Equiano, the former slave of West African origin who wrote a powerful testimonial against the slave trade that was first published in 1789, noted that his own Ibo tribe always washed their hands before a meal and considered personal bodily cleanliness a matter, literally, of religion. He dryly commented that the closer he and fellow captives got to the slave embarkation ports in Senegal and to the European overseers of the trade, the dirtier everything became. In effect, Europeans who both dislodged and "civilized" the Native Americans and Africans they had enslaved often demonstrated a culture of cleanliness far inferior to that of the peoples they had conquered.

The core of the personal hygiene revolution that eventually triumphed in Anglo-America, Brown believes, was twofold. First was the rediscovery of personal bathing. In medieval Europe, bathing in water had been considered desirable and acceptable. The Crusades had discovered, and brought back to Europe, bath houses that were popular in the Muslim world and in the Byzantine Empire.

With the rise in personal wealth and the popularity of clean linen as a badge of genteel and "civilized" living, however, upper- and middle-class society on both sides of the Atlantic came to believe that clean linen next to the skin was an effective way of wearing away skin dirt and toxins. (Brown notes that the laundering of linen was an exclusively female chore, with the added stigma that the word "laundress" acquired in due course an unsavory reputation; personal services sometimes provided by laundry women went beyond the mere washing of men's clothing.)

Only gradually, towards the end of the 18th century, was bodily immersion in water rediscovered in England and America (actually in England first). This quickly led to the acquisition by many houses of personal bathtubs and the custom that mothers adopted of washing the whole bodies of their children once a week.