Foul Bodies

Cleanliness in Early America

Kathleen M. Brown

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Click here to watch Kathleen Brown discuss her book at the University of Pennsylvania.

In colonial times few Americans bathed regularly; by the mid-1800s, a cleanliness “revolution” had begun. Why this change, and what did it signify?

A nation’s standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life, says Kathleen Brown in this unusual cultural history. Starting with the shake-up of European practices that coincided with Atlantic expansion, she traces attitudes toward “dirt” through the mid-nineteenth century, demonstrating that cleanliness—and the lack of it—had moral, religious, and often sexual implications. Brown contends that care of the body is not simply a private matter but an expression of cultural ideals that reflect the fundamental values of a society.

The book explores early America’s evolving perceptions of cleanliness, along the way analyzing the connections between changing public expectations for appearance and manners, and the backstage work of grooming, laundering, and housecleaning performed by women. Brown provides an intimate view of cleanliness practices and how such forces as urbanization, immigration, market conditions, and concerns about social mobility influenced them. Broad in historical scope and imaginative in its insights, this book expands the topic of cleanliness to encompass much larger issues, including religion, health, gender, class, and race relations.

Kathleen M. Brown is professor of history, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. She lives in Merion Station, PA.

"A fascinating and innovative book that connects with some of the biggest themes in early American history."—Mary Fissell, Johns Hopkins University

"Brown has framed an intriguing new area of research and gathered a surprisingly rich source of textual evidence. Marvelous."—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Foul Bodies offers readers the highest reward of historical scholarship: the ability to see their own actions in new and wiser ways. Under Kathleen Brown's intense scrutiny things as routine as bathing become complex and consequential historical productions.”—Mary P. Ryan, Johns Hopkins University

"A wonderful book and an astute mixture of unobtrusive theory and dogged research. Brown links ideology and value, the negotiation of gender, class and race, with the body as lived and performed. But it is the author's ability to appreciate and represent the almost tactile circumstantiality of life that makes Foul Bodies so special—and so readable."—Charles E. Rosenberg, author of Our Present Complaint: American Medicine, Then and Now 

“With path breaking and provocative precision, Foul Bodies analyzes the historical body. Brown shows how trans-Atlantic migrations and gendered body work co-determine race and class hierarchies and define civility, cultural values and citizenship. This text enriches previous scholarship immeasurably.”—Susan E. Cayleff, San Diego State University

"Kathleen M. Brown provides an explicit analysis of bodies that revises and complicates our understanding of their cultural impact. . . . [She] has written an engaging book that seamlessly leads readers to reconceptualize the ways that even the most personal is undeniably public and political."—Sharon Block, American Historical Review

"This ambitious, nuanced, and rich cultural history traces the changing perceptions of bodily cleanliness in Anglo America from before colonization through the mid-19th century." —S. Condon, Choice

"[A] deeply researched and richly detailed story." —David Aikman, The Weekly Standard

"Brown must be congratulated for offering historians the first sustained consideration of early American preoccupations with ideas and practices of cleanliness. . . . A big and important contribution. . . . Brown's is a sophisticated and convincing analysis. . . . The research, analysis, and writing are wonderfully evocative. One gets a profound sense, not just of the constant fight against filth waged by early Americans, bit of this fight's powerful moral, economic, and political implications. . . . Foul Bodies should do more than any previous work to draw historians of early America into this important area of study."—Jonathan Eacott, Journal of World History

"A fascinating, ambitious, and creative book. . . . Beyond the compelling, gritty details that help illustrate its sweeping argument, Foul Bodies suggests several promising new directions for historians to explore further, particularly at the intersections of material culture, technology, sexuality, class, gender, race, and the environment."—Ann M. Little, William and Mary Quarterly

"Foul Bodies is provocative in the best way, raising troubling questions about how we do history and how we live our lives."—Jan Ellen Lewis, William and Mary Quarterly

Winner of the 2010 Lawrence W. Levine Award, presented by the Organization of American Historians.

Winner of the 2009 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Book Award, given by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

Gold medal winner for the ForeWorld Magazine 2009 Book of the Year Award in History
ISBN: 9780300171556
Publication Date: May 31, 2011
464 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
35 b/w illus.