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Soap Opera

How and why Americans got so clean.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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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.