Rinse and Repeat

Cleanliness in America

Published: December 7, 2012

“You need only one soap — Ivory Soap!” Lithograph, 1898. (Library of Congress)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities across America built dozens of public baths to serve “the great unwashed” — poor immigrants who were crowding into rickety tenements. The Chicago Free Bath and Sanitary League declared unequivocally that the public bath was “the greatest civilizing power that can be brought to bear on these uncivilized Europeans crowding into our cities.”

Cleanliness is next to godliness, we say, and Americans have long associated good hygiene with moral and spiritual purity. But what is “clean?” What did cleanliness mean before germ theory, when water tended to spread disease rather than prevent it? And what’s the dark side of cleanliness — the links between personal hygiene, social hygiene, and eugenics?

Please help us shape this show! Wondering about the connection between soap operas and, well, soap? Are your ideas about hygiene different than your parents’ or grandparents’ notions? And when is it okay to be dirty? Share your thoughts, questions, and stories with us below.

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