- Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America
Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America defines a new subject of historical inquiry—the “civilized body”—and examines its development from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. A product of Atlantic contact, changing ideas about women, and shifting standards of cleanliness, this new, modern body was both an organic object to be cared for and a vital rhetorical trope used to define racial, class, and political boundaries. Most significantly, it resulted from unending female labor. Through analysis of medical texts, religious treatises, domestic manuals, personal correspondence, household artifacts, and art, Brown presents the history of “body work,” those “cleaning, healing, and caring labors” (5) done by women over four centuries that profoundly influenced racial ideology, public health policy, and scientific models of the human body. The result, she concludes, was nothing short of a new “ethos of the self in society” (357).
To write the history of the civilized body, Brown argues in her opening sections, “Atlantic Crossings” and “Genteel Bodies,” is to write the history of the linen shirt. Linen undergarments were essential to the changing bathing regimes of the early modern period. Late medieval Europeans had bathed in groups for sociability, sexual pleasure, and health as well as to clean themselves. Starting in the sixteenth century, epidemics of plague and syphilis spurred new laws clamping down on bathhouses. At the same time, medical theories suggested that water immersion exposed the human body to dangerous extremes of temperature, rendering one’s protective layer of skin vulnerable. By the seventeenth century, the preferred method of cleaning the skin was to rub it with linen cloth (or just wear a shirt) that would absorb oils and dirt. The [End Page 140] shirt, or shift, could then be washed clean. It took several centuries for water-based bathing to return to popularity, first as a craze, then as a home practice, and finally as a dedicated movement of self-discipline called the “water cure,” which its adherents believed was the answer to a variety of modern ills.
The linen shirt is also essential to understanding how something as seemingly mundane as bodily care hinged on Atlantic connections of commerce and culture. Owning and maintaining changes of clean linen required dominion over what Brown terms the “European linen-laundry complex,” an expansive network of farmers, slave laborers, weavers, traders, seamstresses, and laundresses, all backed by supportive trade laws, contracts with military and plantation suppliers, and new ideologies that linked white linen, white skin, and civilization. Intense focus on the linen shirt and the cleaning regime it supported allows Brown to think about eighteenth-century consumerism in new ways. Imported fabrics carried the assumptions of empire at the same time that they embodied human desire for comfort and fashion. Throughout her analysis, Brown demonstrates how physical needs, such as the human vulnerability to urban yellow-fever crises, and cultural needs, such as the desire to communicate moral worth to social equals, together produced new practices and attitudes regarding the connection between cleanliness and character.
The trajectory of cleanliness, godliness, and laundresses in the nineteenth century is more familiar, though Brown’s perspective opens up intriguing windows on subjects such as female reform movements and mistress–servant negotiations. White mothers took over responsibility for a clean, healthy citizenry after the American Revolution. In the process, Brown argues, free female bodies shed their association with sex and filth. Housewifery manuals and middle-class print culture commanded women to suppress their own physicality—odors, impulses, and grime—before cleaning up their children and communities. They took up the charge, turning washing into a ritualistic practice that left the older generation baffled and the poor excluded.
Brown’s central overlapping questions—what is the perceived relationship between outer bodily appearance and inner humanity and who does the laundry and what are the consequences—come together in the book’s final section, “Crusades.” By the mid nineteenth century, the United States was divided by regional cleanliness regimes. In the North...