When We Were Gross

Historian Kathleen Brown's new book examines the evolution of body care in early America.

Friday, January 6, 2012

By B. Davin Stengel

Frequenting the aisles of American drugstores, one becomes accustomed to the seemingly perpetual rollouts of new beauty and hygiene products—from foot creams to pore strips to “highlight-activating” shampoos—all promising to address our many and varied bodily concerns. Compared to even our most recent ancestors, we are a scrubbed and polished people. And while it may be intuitive that standards of beauty and cleanliness have changed dramatically over the past several hundred years, the story of how and why our specific body care practices have changed is far less obvious.

"The way you could clean your body, in a world where bathing might kill you, was to change your shirt. - Kathleen Brown

“Throughout history, people have devoted themselves to beautifying, comforting, healing, and preserving their bodies,” writes Professor Kathleen Brown in the introduction to her latest book, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. “In certain contexts, care of the body can be leisurely and playful. In others, cognizance of mortality or the desire to be beautiful infuses these efforts with urgency. All of these approaches to our material selves are steeped in culture.”

“But culture is hardly confined to such a reactive role,” Brown continues. “Political and economic institutions leave their imprint on our bodies. … Indeed, we know that popular wisdom about how the body works infiltrates our interpretations of bodily sensation.”

Considering the body as both cultural product and material entity, Foul Bodies presents a historical study of body care in the era of European expansion across the Atlantic through the American Civil War. In a recent public conversation with Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History Kathy Peiss, Brown described the book as stemming in part from a kind of thought experiment about how far her historical imagination could take her.

“As a historian, one of the things that interests me,” said Brown, “is to take aspects of life that we used to think were not fit subjects for historical scrutiny—because they were natural, unchanging, part of the ‘human package,’ if you will—and to ask whether that is actually the case.”

Skin, Clothes and Bathing in the New World 

The Human Fascination with Yucky Things