Foul Bodies - Brown, Kathleen M. - Yale University Press
Literary Studies

Series Information
Society and the Sexes in the Modern World

Foul Bodies

Cleanliness in Early America

  • Kathleen M. Brown
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Out of Print.

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

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

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.