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How We Got So Clean

June 2024
1min read

Chasing Dirt
The American Pursuit of Cleanliness

by Suellen Hoy, Oxford University Press .

Unlike other American obsessions—with violence, or race, or celebrity—the national preoccupation with cleanliness has brought true benefits and set a standard for therest of the world. Suellen Hoy’s book is a history of American social progress, especially since the Civil War, which for her purposes is the Dark Ages.

European visitors to the antebellum Midwest saw mud and flies and tobacco spitting everywhere and clean water almost nowhere. Even in the established Eastern city of Philadelphia, at the time of the Revolution, thirty thousand people shared 120 public wells. Before 1850, writes Hoy, “more than four out of five Americans lived in preindustrial, hygienically primitive situations on small farms or in country villages.” Cholera epidemics prompted water-system reforms in the big cities; changes in domestic and personal habits took longer. The important part was convincing average Americans that cleaner was better, and much of Hoy’s book chronicles efforts to get the message out, from Mrs. Beecher’s advice in the 1840s through Sylvester Graham’s model of clean living in the decades after. The following advertisement appeared in a 1920s magazine directed at social workers: “Mrs. Rizzuto would like to live up to our standards of cleanliness. But her methods are so primitive, so ineffective. She’s sadly in need of coaching on American ways of keeping house. And when you’re teaching her, suggest Fels-Naptha Soap.”

After World War II the national pursuit reached its frenzied height. The boom in household appliances caused a near tripling in electricity use, and advertising expenditures doubled, focused on an eager new target—the American housewife. Americans were using more water in their new homes with “more bathrooms per family than any other nation on earth.” It was a long way from muddy frontier days.

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