Posted in 17th century America, 18th century America, 19th century America, assimilation, Christianity, class, gender studies, historiography, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, migrants, religion, urban studies

Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Brown, Kathleen M. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

In Foul Bodies, Kathleen Brown uses social and cultural history methods to reimagine five hundred years of history as a history of civilizing the body. Challenging notions that “significant historical change takes place mainly in public areas,” Brown contends that “[d]omestic life—always in dynamic relationship with public culture—is also a site of cultural production that undergoes profound historical transformation.”[1] She examines “the relationship between household practices” of cleaning bodies and “public expectations for a civilized body,” through evolving views about cleanliness, privacy, and health.[2] Her work shows that “national standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life.”[3] Brown’s research certainly was inspired by Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, which identified attitudes towards purity and pollution at the heart of every society. Whereas, Douglas’ work focused on ritual, religion, and lived experience, Brown asks important new questions related to pollution and the body, expanding the research into the realms of health, gender, class, and race relations.

Brown’s research in Foul Bodies has been cited in numerous recent works. Google Scholar identified over sixty publications. Some of the results were duplicates. Some were erroneous. Of the remaining fifty works, six are dissertations or theses, eighteen are journal articles, and the rest books. At least one book, Gretchen Long’s Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation, lists Foul Bodies in its bibliography, but does not directly cite any content. Notably, over half of the authors are women (or have names generally attributed to females). Several publications will be discussed in the upcoming paragraphs. A more complete list of works can be found in the bibliography.

Holly Dugan, in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, referred to Brown’s “linen-centered” models of cleanliness to support her argument that body odors were a reflection of one’s social position.[4] Sophie White, in Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana, discussed archaeological finds of household goods from colonial sites in the Illinois Country. She explained that “households included embroidered linen napkins and tablecloths that either someone in the household or a paid village washerwoman would have maintained using skilled and labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques.”[5] The attached footnote refers readers to Brown’s concept of “body work” in Part III of Foul Bodies without further explanation.

In Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference, Jenny Shaw explores the construction of difference through the everyday life of colonial subjects in the second half of the seventeenth century. In Chapter 1, Shaw discussed English disapproval of Irish clothing choices, which were interpreted as the “Irish preference for comfort over prestige.” Her focus in this section of the book was on a piece of clothing called a mantle: “Perhaps the real English concern with the mantle was related to its ability to conceal the sexual misconduct of Irish women, thus enabling the garment to become an easily recognized symbol of the general degeneracy of the Irish population.”[6] Shaw cited Brown’s exploration of “the language of cleanliness with regard to Moryson’s assessment of Irish barbarism.”[7] In Chapter 6, Shaw returned to the same section of Brown’s work in order to offer further support for her examples of people using poor Irish women as servants in the Caribbean to in order to demonstrate a privileged position. Shaw referred readers to Foul Bodies to learn more about the kinds of labor involved in starching and washing.[8] As Brown notes, many social factors contributed to how these tasks and who performed them are understood. “The laundress’ ability to be a mobile, independent, wage earner tarnished her reputation for chastity. . . At the end of the sixteen century, laundress and nurse were terms rife with sexual innuendo, and connoted whore and bawd.”[9]

In Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, Kathryn Meier explores how soldiers survived the conditions of war through forming universal self-care habits, including boiling water, eradicating insects, and supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables. “In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand.”[10] Meier referenced Brown’s work along with research from environmental historians who have investigated nineteenth century bodies.

In Chapter 1, Meier covers the topic of American healthcare before 1862. She explains how wealthy Southerners would travel to cooler climates to recover from illness and cited Brown’s related discussion about families traveling with ill loved ones.[11] Later in the same chapter, Meier turns to more personal aspects of recovery. She revealed class differences in her discussion about Americans having little contact with doctors, with the exception of wealthy families, who could travel for medical advice. In addition, Meier mentioned that family members, most often mothers, sisters, and wives, provided care in the home, citing Brown’s research.[12]

Common people during this era were encouraged to participate in their own health care. Many households owned domestic medicine manuals. Meier cited Brown as when she wrote, “Women often proved the dispensers of such knowledge, sometimes authoring or compiling their own recipe books of remedies.”[13] Finally, in this chapter, Meier discussed the social reform movement that advocated the belief that “water, diet, and exercise could prevent and cure most sickness,” citing multiple passages from Foul Bodies.[14]

Although this essay has delved into only a few examples of current scholarly use of Brown’s work, we can see a broad spectrum of academic research incorporating Foul Bodies.  One was just a simple reference within a history of scents. Next we saw an attempt to reconstruct a model of colonial life through understanding what “labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques” entail. Shaw’s book focused more on the social and cultural aspects that Brown’s research on laundering revealed, helping readers understand how difference is constructed. And Meier, citing multiple aspects of Brown’s research on health, introduced readers to pre-Civil War attitudes and habits of medicine.

[1] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Publication’s promotional abstract.

[4] Brown, 41; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (JHU Press, 2011), 107fn39.

[5] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 45.

[6] Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 27.

[7] Brown, 32; Shaw, 28.

[8] Brown, 31-32; Shaw, 167.

[9] Brown, 31.

[10] Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (UNC Press Books, 2013). Book’s promotional abstract.

[11] Brown, 303; Meier, 18fn12.

[12] Brown, 303, 230–31; Meier, 22fn24.

[13] Brown, 213–14; Meier, 22fn29.

[14] Brown, 290–93, 308, 16; Meier, 31fn67.

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