Americans in the early 19th century were, as one foreign traveller bluntly put it, "filthy, bordering on the beastly"-perfectly at home in dirty, bug-infested, malodorous surroundings. Many a home swarmed with flies, barnyard animals, dust, and dirt; clothes were seldom washed; men hardly ever shaved or bathed. Yet gradually all this changed, and today, Americans are known worldwide for their obsession with cleanliness-for their sophisticated plumbing, daily bathing, shiny hair and teeth, and spotless clothes. In Chasing Dirt, Suellen Hoy provides a colorful history of this remarkable transformation from "dreadfully dirty" to "cleaner than clean," ranging from the pre-Civil War era to the 1950s, when American's obsession with cleanliness reached its peak. Hoy offers here a fascinating narrative, filled with vivid portraits of the men and especially the women who helped America come clean. She examines the work of early promoters of cleanliness, such as Catharine Beecher and Sylvester Graham; and describes how the Civil War marked a turning point in our attitudes toward cleanliness, discussing the work of the U.S.
Sanitary Commission, headed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and revealing how the efforts of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War inspired American women-such as Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, and Louisa May Alcott-to volunteer as nurses during the war. We also read of the postwar efforts of George E. Waring, Jr., a sanitary engineer who constructed sewer systems around the nation and who, as head of New York City's street-cleaning department, transformed the city from the nation's dirtiest to the nation's cleanest in three years. Hoy details the efforts to convince African-Americans and immigrants of the importance of cleanliness, examining the efforts of Booker T. Washington (who preached the "gospel of the toothbrush"), Jane Addams at Hull House, and Lillian Wald at the Henry Street Settlement House. Indeed, we see how cleanliness gradually shifted from a way to prevent disease to a way to assimilate, to become American.
And as the book enters the modern era, we learn how advertising for soaps, mouth washes, toothpastes, and deodorants in mass-circulation magazines showed working men and women how to cleanse themselves and become part of the increasingly sweatless, odorless, and successful middle class. Shower for success! By illuminating the historical roots of America's shift from "dreadfully dirty" to "squeaky clean," Chasing Dirt adds a new dimension to our understanding of our national culture. And along the way, it provides colorful and often amusing social history as well as insight into what makes Americans the way we are today.
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(204mm x 135mm x 15mm)
Oxford University Press Inc
Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
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US Kirkus Review »
A nosedive into the American obsession with cleanliness that explains how this middle-class attitude was formed. Although social reformers had crusaded for better sanitation in the first half of the 19th century, it was the Civil War that impelled America on the road to cleanliness, asserts Hoy, coauthor of From Dublin to New Orleans (not reviewed). Quoting liberally from contemporary sources to give a sense of time and place, she concludes that it was the desire to cut death rates in army camps that spurred creation of the US Sanitary Commission. British experience in the Crimean War had strongly suggested that sanitation was essential to the survival of troops, and by the Civil War's end military personnel and civilians alike had absorbed the lesson that dirt was linked to sickness. In subsequent decades, periodic outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid drove home the message. Hoy depicts settlement workers in the big cities teaching immigrants - the "great unwashed" from the European countryside - that cleanliness was the American way. Middle-class social reformers directed similar efforts at African-Americans moving to northern cities from the rural south; cleanliness was seen as the way to assimilation and acceptance. In the 20th century, soap manufacturers and their advertising agents joined with educators and health officials in promoting hygiene as the key to success, and according to Hoy the message was irresistible. The author sees America's quest for cleanliness as peaking in the 1950s, when women still had the time and the means to pursue it. Today, she states, the dirt theory of disease has been replaced by more scientific explanations, busy working women care less about spotless households, and factors other than a whiter-than-white shirt are seen as essential to financial success. Occasionally repetitious and overly detailed, but in toto a spirited account of changing American mores. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Suellen Hoy
Suellen Hoy teaches American History at the University of Notre Dame. She is the co-author of From Dublin to New Orleans: The Journey of Nora and Alice.