Published: February 15, 2013

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.