Rinse and Repeat: Cleanliness in America
Cleanliness is next to godliness, we say, and Americans have long associated good hygiene with moral and spiritual purity. On this episode, we dig into the changing ways we’ve defined what it is to be clean.
We’ll meet an 18th-century Pennsylvania woman who didn’t immerse herself in water for 28 years, and ask how Americans like her kept clean without getting wet. We’ll also hear about the campaign to clean up New York City in the mid-19th century, and question the extent to which germ theory really revolutionized sanitary practices. And we’ll consider a dark chapter in the history of cleanliness, when social reformers in the early 20th-century set out to “sanitize” America’s racial profile.
- Kristen Egan, Mary Baldwin College, on a 1915 novel about a very, very clean utopia.
- Jennifer Marshall, University of Minnesota, on Depression-era soap carving contests.
- Charletta Sudduth, University of Northern Iowa, on the racial valence of cleanliness in the Jim Crow South.
- Owen Whooley, University of New Mexico, on what 19th century Americans knew — and didn’t know — about the connection between filth and cholera.
Listen to individual segments from the episode.
Resources galore! Peruse a list of outside sources used in the making of this episode, and get some hygiene tips from earlier generations of Americans.
Music from the Episode:
A full listing of the tracks, and links to buy them yourselves.
The listener discussion that helped shape the show.