Mr. Clean and All That: An American Obsession

Article excerpt

ONE of the nice things about living in America in the 20th century is that, chances are, the person next to you doesn't stink. More than likely they took a shower, washed their hair, put on clean clothes and brushed their teeth.

Heck, they might even smell good!

That's because from Mr. Clean to Mr. Bubble, from our complexions to our carpets, Americans are obsessed with cleanliness like no other people on the planet.

It wasn't always that way.

In the early 19th century, as one English visitor put it, Americans were "filthy, bordering on the beastly" - perfectly at home in their dirty, smelly, bug-infested, germ-laden hovels. Indeed, many pre-Civil War houses were filled with dirt, grime, barnyard animals, swarming flies and men who seldom shaved, let alone bathed.

Now we're so clean we have crystal-blue toilet water!

What happened? How'd we go from dreadfully dirty to Spic and Span, from a nation mired in muck to a nation so fastidiously clean - as Life magazine put it - that we judge other nations by their plumbing?

That is precisely the complex metamorphosis Suellen Hoy chronicles in "Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness" (Oxford University Press, $25).

In what has been called a "tour de force" of social history, Hoy traces America's 150-year love affair with cleanliness from before the Civil War through the 1950s, when the Yankee quest for spotlessness reached its peak. In one chapter, Hoy explains how the glut of modern advertisements for soaps, deodorants, powders, toothpastes, mouthwashes and the like persuaded Mr. and Mrs. America to "become part of the increasingly sweatless, odorless and successful middle class."

But the majority of the book deals with the difficult journey to get clean in the first place.

"In the 1850s," Hoy writes, "cleanliness in the United States, North and South, rural and urban, stood at Third World levels. Sanitation was not unknown, but the great majority felt no urgency in cleaning up."

After all, dirt brought food, crops, survival. Dirt was good.

But when it was discovered that dirt - and specifically the lack of proper sanitation that often came along with it - also brought germs, disease, suffering and death, America came clean on a scale unequaled in world history.

Many of the leaders of America's drive to sanitation were women, including Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War's "apostle of cleanliness," who helped bring sanitary reform to the British army. Although Nightingale never visited the United States, her dramatic wartime work fighting cholera, dysentery and typhoid inspired many American women, including Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott - who, among other good works, became nurses and pressed for more sanitary conditions.

"This is in large part a women's story," Hoy said. "They are the agents of cleanliness as housekeepers, mothers, nurses and social workers."

But it is more than a book about women. It's a book about the history of American ingenuity, of technology, of labor-saving devices and hooking up to water mains and sewer systems. It's about immigrants as they struggled with "American standards of cleanliness," about medicine, advertising and thousands of under-appreciated sanitarians and public works engineers who built an unequaled system of utilities we now take for granted.

"When it comes to personal hygiene, no one has our standard of cleanliness," said Hoy, a visiting associate professor of American history at the University of Notre Dame. "No one. All the showering we do, the access to water and cleaning products. The choices are just unbelievable, and as a rule they just don't have them overseas."

Some of the people instrumental in helping America come clean include:

Sylvester Graham: Graham, who is remembered for the cracker named after him - began his career as a temperance lecturer and catapulted to national prominence during the nation's cholera epidemic. …