Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America
Why this book?
Kathleen Brown’s brilliant book interrogates conflicting ideas about how to take care of our bodies as Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans encountered each other in colonial North America. One of the fundamental transformations she tracks is that western priorities about cleanliness shifted from “bathing the body to changing its linens” in the 16th century. This vastly increased women’s physical work and their political burdens.
Doing laundry involved hauling water, heating it, and then getting rid of that water. Women tried to alleviate the burdens of the back-breaking labor by using water over again and then throwing the dirty water into the street. This earned them frustration and even legal restrictions. For instance, colonial Jamestown offered allowances for doing the laundry properly and whippings or prisons for those who did not. Native Americans shunned English dress in part because it was so tough to keep it clean and lice-free. Subsequent changes in how we understood cleanliness did not help women, however. Brown compellingly argues that when bathing came back into fashion in the 19th century, women retained the vast majority of body care work.