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Naturally clean

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | June 2, 2011

In the category of things we take as “natural” is how great it feels to be clean. I noticed a few online discussions about morning versus evening showering and one striking feature of the comments is how many people assert that taking anything less than a daily shower – or even two showers – leaves them feeling “funky” or “yucky.” Being unclean seems to spur a primal, natural reaction in us.

Tenant farmer washes


Of course, it is not primal or natural. Children have to be taught to feel yucky about being dirty. That feeling is not even natural for adults. Americans who today have the urge to get clean had great-grandparents who felt that bathing once or twice a week was just about right. And those folks, in turn, had great-grandparents who suspected that bathing was a danger, a cause of illness, and thought that honest workingman’s dirt never hurt anyone.

Being dirty

It was hard to be clean in 18th and 19th century America. [This source is a good overview.] Most Americans lived on farms and had to deal with the dirt, the animal and food wastes, the flies and other vermin, and all that was part of farm life. Water had to be lugged in buckets from a well; soap had to be made by hand; clothes and towels could only be occasionally (and laboriously) laundered – usually on wash day (Monday). A good scrubbing-up, if possible, might serve for Sunday church-going, but day in and day out, dirt and odor were part of real folks’ lives.

Townspeople had their own struggles with dirt. Notably, the streets were often mixtures of mud, urine, and horse droppings so that being sprayed by filth was a normal experience. And then there was the smell of sweat on bodies and rarely-changed clothes. Water for washing might, by the end of the century, be available indoors (in about one-fourth of American homes), but usually only in small amounts, for a wash basin.

And it was not that important to be clean. Ben Franklin made Cleanliness one of his 13 virtues, but what even elites of Franklin’s era thought was clean would be socially embarrassing today. Early in the 19th century, most Americans, according to reformer Catharine Beecher, regularly washed only their faces, necks, hands, and feet. Some believed that dirt was healthy and frequent washing dangerous. Bathing was suspect and when it started becoming a middle class fad, it was as a plunge into cold water, as an ordeal that provided an invigorating shock to the system, not for soaping or washing. [See e.g., source.]

Cleaning up

Ivory Soap Ad


A few developments combined over the 19th century to make bathing for cleanliness not only acceptable but desirable, first among the middle classes and then later everyone.

It became more feasible. As cities built systems of pipes that brought water – and eventually, water that had been purified – into neighborhoods, builders started adding “water closets” to expensive homes and apartments. Later, central heating systems made it easier to have a hot water spigot and to luxuriate in a warm bath (and generations later to enjoy a warm shower).

Health knowledge improved. Experts realized that washing removed the carriers of disease, germs. Public information campaigns and, notably, schools stressed the importance of washing. One important target of such campaigns were immigrants. Middle-class Americans saw them as, by nature, dirty, so reformers made the inculcation of hygiene part of their Americanization efforts.

Businessmen saw opportunities to sell bathroom fixtures and cleaning agents of all kinds. Twentieth-century soap makers, in particular, stressed the importance of cleaning for health, for good looks, for good smells, and for that feeling of freshness from, say, “Irish Spring” [YouTube] or from being “Zestfully clean” [YouTube] in that “Pure and Natural” way [YouTube].

Being clean – not just clean, but squeaky clean – came to mark being healthy, smart, modern, considerate, moral, and normal. (The “hippies” of the ‘60s could get an amusing rise out of the bourgeoisie by flagrantly and fragrantly flouting this taken-for-granted norm.) Twentieth-century Americans  instilled in their children a new emotional reaction to dirt — a deep sense that being other than  recently and thoroughly washed was yucky. Being freshly clean just feels natural.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.