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  • Soap and Water: Cleanliness, Dirt and the Working Classes in Victorian and Edwardian Britain
  • Pamela K. Gilbert (bio)
Soap and Water: Cleanliness, Dirt and the Working Classes in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, by Victoria Kelley; pp. xii + 240. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010, £56.00, $96.00.

Soap and Water at first glance appears to hike a well-trod path, telling of the importance of cleanliness in the later Victorian and Edwardian period. Many studies have emphasized the state's role in creating an apparatus for enforcing cleanliness and mobilizing consent through educational approaches. Studies such as Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather (1995), moreover, have paid close attention to the complicity of commodity culture with this mindset and its contributions to the twin histories of consumption and cleanliness.

That said, as Victoria Kelley notes, such studies have often tended to be Foucauldian in approach, seeking evidence of successful discipline and surveillance. They have been historically based or textually driven, but rarely both at once. Few of these have been histories from below. Kelley places her work at the intersection of design history and social history, but charges social historians with a focus on the abjection of the poor and dirty that is driven in large part by its archive of middle-class commentaries on the sanitary project. Likewise, design history has tended to rely on a middle-class "archive" of "lavish, and symbolically rich" consumer goods (4). Although it does not present the poor as abject through middle-class eyes, as social history does, it tends to elide them altogether. Kelley attempts to put these traditions in dialogue with each other, working from the assumption that the culture of cleanliness was significantly shaped by working-class agency in adopting and adapting the rhetorics and consumer products of the cleanliness regime. Using the journalistic and legislative [End Page 753] archive of social historians, working class memoir, and the design history archive of soap advertising—in a more comprehensive and data-driven analysis than earlier studies, which focused on representation in the advertising text rather than patterns of consumption—Kelley aims to recover the practices and attitudes of the working consumer and householder. She focuses on the housewife, by whose efforts cleanliness was achieved (or not) and deployed to indicate social status and to protect the health of families. In short, Kelley examines cleanliness as both a practical and historical matter and one that is always already caught up in webs of classed and gendered signification.

The book is divided into three long chapters and a brief introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1, in particular, offers a nice summary of existing research and provides a broad range of reference suitable to graduates and advanced undergraduates alike. Chapter 2 covers the newest material, offering an extended reading of working-class domesticity and gender. Students will find useful the detailed summary of what "dirt" comprised and from whence it came; the precise description of laundering is filled with useful details and examples from material history, including descriptions of prices and devices that enable a clearer understanding of what this Herculean (or Sisyphean) task involved. Although the section on motherhood relies heavily on Kathleen Woodward's Jipping Street (1928), often via Carolyn Steedman's commentary, these texts are placed in a wide range of reference that takes us toward a broader historical reading. Kelley does a fine job of showing how cleanliness was both a harsh taskmaster and a means of asserting pride: "Cleanliness was about familial care and social display. . . . The tasks of cleanliness could be both an instrument and a sign of . . . restriction. However, to ignore the extent to which women creatively expressed love, energy and initiative through their household practices surely does a disservice to those women, belittling their labour and the aspirations that motivated it" (112).

Chapter 3, on soap advertising and consumership, faces perhaps the toughest challenge, as Kelley must clear a space among formidable forebears to say something new. She opts to distinguish herself from these (often literary) scholars by emphasizing context over close readings of advertising content, and this generally serves her argument well. Kelley uses information garnered from the advertising industry to examine...


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