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.

The second aspect of the revolution in personal hygiene was the rise in the role of women as upholders of civilization's standards of health and cleanliness. In Brown's story, women's bodies were regarded, by reason of normal female functions, as "disgusting" and even "impure" in early colonial America. But by the early 19th century women were upheld as the keepers of standards of cleanliness, not just for their family, but for society as a whole. The revolution that took place in this social perception was, in part, a recognition that only female labor could maintain cleanliness in clothing, and that women were often the first line of defense against their families' succumbing to infectious, and other, diseases.

Parallel with the emergence of the view that women were family defenders against disease through the imposition of standards of private cleanliness for the family was the rise of public responses to the vulnerability of American urban life to epidemics of fatal disease. In 1795, Philadelphia was afflicted by an outbreak of yellow fever, a catastrophe that led to swift improvements in public sanitation and keeping the city clean.

Brown's book is full of tidbits of information that would function well in any new version of Trivial Pursuit. Some examples: At the time of America's War of Independence, fully four-fifths of all Britain's linen exports went to America. Clean linen clothing, Brown notes, was the "trump-card of personal cleanliness for ambitious, cosmopolitan-minded colonials." The ubiquitous phrase "cleanliness is next to godliness" was coined by John Wesley in 1786. As late as 1850, according to one contemporary investigation, 25 percent of New Englanders never bathed in the course of an entire year. And so on.

Amid a plethora of minute, if revealing, detail there are some intriguing insights into Anglo-American differences. An English book by Frances Byerley Parkes entitled Domestic Duties, published in 1829, advised readers that it was possible to tell a white lie when refusing a social call. By the time the book reached these shores, however, the American editor provided an asterisked comment that telling falsehoods could have a harmful influence on the honesty of servants. Transatlantic cosmopolitanism, it seems, went only so far.

Another English Frances, barely a decade later, the actress Frances Kemble, complained that Americans seemed to like traveling in overheated and unventilated railroad cars, and that the "utter disregard" for the need for fresh air was a source of amazement for all the other foreigners with whom she had conversed on the subject. Kemble noted with disgust the poor hygiene standards of African slaves on her husband's Georgia plantation, where she lived for a year in 1839, but sensibly (by modern standards) attributed the filth to the conditions of slavery rather than to anything inherent in African culture. She also charged southern whites with hypocrisy for treating blacks with disdain; many of them, she said, had fathered illegitimate children with black women, demonstrating double standards in sexual purity.

Brown's book dabbles in the notion of "purity" as an expression of both Christian spiritual holiness of living and supreme personal hygiene. She also refers to the Wesleyan notion that personal hygiene was one of the fruits of godly living as surely as joy and faithfulness. But though she provides additional illustrations of the growing association of personal cleanliness with personal Christian piety from the beginning of the 19th century onward, Brown seems to shy away from important cultural and spiritual generalizations at the last jump.

Obviously, as she ably illustrates, Native Americans and Africans often demonstrated higher personal cleanliness than citizens of the "civilized" nations that conquered them: "Thus the civilized body appears both less modern and less Western than we expect," she writes. But she still doesn't quite account for the emergence of a "cleanliness" factor in 19th-century Christian evangelicalism that was absent in 17th-century Puritanism.

This book might also have had a broader cultural resonance if practices of public and private cleanliness in other cultures had been brought in to provide standards of comparison. Why were the Romans so obsessed with bathing and so good at keeping their marching armies free from infection and impure drinking water? Why did the Japanese attain superlative, almost universal, standards of personal hygiene hundreds of years ago when their neighbors on the Asian mainland, not to mention the uncouth northern Europeans who "discovered" them, fell conspicuously short?

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Delusion of Disbelief.

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