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Little Things Mean a Lot

Mothered by the same earth, dust and dirt have different fathers. Dust – finer and more discrete—belongs as much to air as to earth. Dirt – bigger and clumsier – is identified with soil. When wet, dirt reveals a closer kinship to water than to dust. But dirt’s real father, which vouches for its closer affinity to the soil, is muck or, to be more precise, excrement. This book is much more about dust than dirt; it is about dust’s role as a condition of life and as a measure of the small until the start of this century.

Once, not so long ago, dust constituted the finest thing the human eye could see. In the form of gold dust or pollen, as light filaments that covered the skin, or as individual particles that spun in the sunlight, dust was the most minuscule thing people encountered. Like darkness and skin, dust was an omnipresent boundary, in this case between the visible and the invisible. In advanced twentieth-century society, visible dust has been removed from the surface of most things, and the kingdom of dust has been opened to examination by scientific instruments. It has been studied, regulated in industry and society, and controlled in dwellings, in public buildings, and on the streets. Dust, always varied in composition, is now seen as a highly diverse particulate and a matter of submicroscopic exactness. Along with so many other minute things of the preindustrial world, dust has been swept to the edges of contemporary society and thus, to the margins of contemporary consciousness.

As with all that was once considered really small, dust has been redefined by a great twentieth-century revolution – a revolution of the minuscule. Denied the intellectual fanfare of the astronomical revolution, which removed the earth form the center of the universe and declared the universe infinite, this revolution of the petite declared the infinity of the infinitesimal. It has forced humans to recognize the immensity and might of the small. For the first time ever, at least for those with inquisitive minds, the world below became as vast, fascinating, and powerful as the heavens above.

The roots of this revolution lie in early modern history, with the development of finely made human goods and the first microscopic perceptions of reality. It has been sustained with the discovery of microbes and the diagnosis and cure of viral and bacterial diseases; the reading of DNA and the deciphering of genes; and the division and fusion of atoms. Among its consequences was the end of the perennial identification of dust and smallness.

The Great Cleanup

The fundamental point is not the appearance of new ideas, but the appearance of conditions that make such ideas relevant.

—Maurice Agulhorn, quoted in Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen

The story of Western’s society’s rendezvous with the small and invisible is a multifaceted story. It is about intellectual discovery and technological control of the small and invisible. It is about increasingly minute human creations. It also concerns the majority’s escape form a world whose limits in all preceding ages were dust, darkness, and disease, and its entrance into a world of unrivaled abundance and unprecedented control of water and light.

The story of pushing back the borders of the small grew out of Europe’s spreading power, the advancement of knowledge, and the perfection of manufacturing techniques. It led – as we have already seen – to the refinement of European crafts and their capacity to shape materials of the earth into intricate goods. It flowed out of Europe’s successful adaptation of the best Chinese and Arabic technologies. It converged with a sixteenth-century revolution in trade and production, accompanied by a dramatic increase in population; expanded agriculture, lumbering, and manufacturing; stunning advances in shipbuilding, mining, and metallurgy; and Europe’s global search for goods and markets.1 In all directions European civilization showed itself intent on occupying and controlling more space and more things.

Europe’s exploration of the imagined horizons of the world merged with a mounting intellectual curiosity about the particularities of life. The Renaissance’s “seemingly endless partitioning of the world” – its “delight in particularization,” to use Jonathan Sawday’s phrases – pervaded social and intellectual life.2 It was stimulated and made possible by new insights and instruments. The telescope, in one direction, and the microscope, in the other, looked toward the infinite.

Europe’s descent into the microcosm progressed from the factors that underlay the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, in particular, and the formation of the natural sciences, in general. These factors included scholastic rationalism’s proclivity to argue about propositions as well as three models of creation: the Aristotelian notion of creation as organic and purposeful; the magical and Neoplatonic conception of the cosmos as an enigma to be deciphered; and the emerging mechanical and mathematical view of nature, which conceived of the world as a machine, a set of functions and forces that could be calculated by numbers and formulated in terms of physical laws.3

Yet these factors did not materially alter people’s everyday relationship with the small. They did not rescue the vast majority of people from the dust, darkness, and disease that had held them since exile from the Garden of Eden. They did not provide society at large the means or materials to manipulate the small for the common good. However, the Industrial Revolution did.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the last decades of the eighteenth century and spread to much of Western Europe, the United States, and Canada by the first half of the nineteenth century. It has transformed much of the rest of the world in the twentieth century. It has altered not only nature and nations and the worlds of work and production but also the minuscule things of everyday life.

The Industrial Revolution embodies a paradox. Notwithstanding the fact that it befouled and contaminated the earth’s soil, water, and air, it was also the engine for an unprecedented cleanup of human beings and their societies. It permitted humans en masse to improve their dwellings and communities, freeing themselves from the old tyrannies of dust, dirt, parasites, and disease. It set the stage for a new human relationship with small invisible things. Little things felt, smelled, and looked different, and they were utilized in new ways. The Industrial Revolution let people for the first time comprehend and control things they could neither see nor touch. The microcosm, as never before, was made pliable to human dreams.

The Beginning of a Transformation

Until the Industrial Revolution, humanity accepted the cyclical nature of life. Nature’s tides of composition and decomposition turned the small into the big and the big back into the small. Common sense held that over time all beings would find their way to dust and that dust itself formed a barrier between the visible and the invisible that could not be negotiated by the living.

Before the Industrial Revolution, dust held real and metaphorical powers over human experience. Humanity lacked the science and technology to differentiate minuscule entities. It also lacked the means to illuminate these small things. Things were too universally dull, so it appeared, ever to become uniformly bright.

The experience of disease provides an important example of how fundamentally human conceptions of the small would change in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Carlo Cipolla has showed how even the most advanced cities in the preindustrial era lacked any effective means of maintaining public hygiene.4 Tracing the transformation from temporary health boards to permanent magistracies in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, Cipolla has demonstrated how Italian cities went form implementing stopgap measures against epidemics to establishing long-term policies of preventive action. These policies disappeared in succeeding centuries until revived by the English and French in the early nineteenth century.5 However, even in these most advanced Italian cities, public health measures were aimed at diseases that might develop into plagues, whose origins city officials did not understand. They did not grasp how disease spread to humans from fleas infected with the blood of a sick rat or a sick man, or how people infected by the plague could spread the disease by coughing or spitting out infected mucus.6

With no knowledge of microbes or disease vectors, people of earlier centuries relied on the uncontested theory of humors and miasmas of contaminated air. They mopped up dirt and dust because these led to smells, which produced miasmas, which under certain conditions could develop into pestilence.7 Even Edwin Chadwick’s influential 1842 Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain rested on this equation of smell and disease. Besieged by filth in every quarter, Europe and the rest of the world lived in constant fear of plague. People believed that dirty conditions (privies draining into wells and open courtyards, and heaps of animal excrement) could produce the putrid air that caused the plague.

In its earliest phases, the Industrial Revolution appeared to do nothing for human health or cleanliness. To the contrary, especially to the eye anxious for reform on the city and forgetful of conditions in the countryside, industry seemed to be creating a fouler and dustier world. Social critics, inspired by Enlightenment ideals, saw in the commotion and smoke of the new Industrial City only dust and disease. Surveys of rural and urban Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century illustrate how conditions that had once been considered normal, if not universal and preordained, now shocked the awakened sensibility of the new elites. In 1844 in the House of Commons, Richard, Cobden revealingly described the conditions of Welsh farm laborers:

They live in mud huts, with only one room for sleeping and cooking and living—different ages and sexes herding together. Their cottages have no windows, but a hole through the mud wall to admit the air and light, into which a bundle of rags or turf is thrust at night to stop it up. The thinly thatched roofs are seldom drop-dry, and the mud floor becomes consequently damp and wet, and dirty almost as the road; and to complete the wretched picture, huddled in a corner are the rags and straw of which beds are composed.8

The new industrial centers were depicted as dirty and overcrowded, a refrain, heard in Macbeth’s “no pure air in the cities,” that had echoed since the Middle Ages. City air, critics demurred, did not free people from the tyranny of dust. Rather, life in the city meant the loss of space, fresh air, and moral uprightness. One report noted Liverpool’s downward history. In 1790, 25 percent of its population lived in cellars and back houses; an 1840 survey of twenty-six streets “revealed that no fewer that 804 out of a total of 1,200 ‘front houses’ were ‘without either yards, privy, or ash pit.’” Judged in the 1840s to be “the most unhealthy town in England,” Liverpool suffered a high death toll. “The mean duration for life was roughly 26 years, whereas corresponding figures for London and Surrey were 37 and 45.”9 Governed by local ordinances rather than by national laws for the first half of the century, the industrial cities were engulfed in “a putrid miasma.” Because these cities had no lawns or paved roads, rains turned them into quagmires of muck.

The industrial workplace was grim and lethal. Chadwick wrote, “In some of the ‘dusty trades,’ the excessive amount of premature mortality is so great as to justify interference.” He went on to recommend the Paris Conseil de Salubrité, whose laws demanded good ventilation; required workers to wash their hands before eating and leaving the shops; forbade them to take any meals in the shops; required “boarding off the mills and sieves, so as to prevent the escape of smaller particles”; and required workmen engaged in processes that produced lead dusts to “cover their nose and mouth with a slightly moistened handkerchief.”10 “The ‘chimney-boys’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries make one of the saddest chapters in the history of inhumanity,” according to Lawrence Wright. In 1817, the British Select Committee heard the tragic story of a boy stuck in a chimney: “A bricklayer was got and the chimney was broke into, where the boy was found, his head surrounded on all sides by soot; he was suffocated and dead.”11

Dirt ruled the early industrial order. At the same time, a more democratic sensibility was trying to get everyone’s head up and out of the dust. Both writers who believed in reform and those who longed for the good old days depicted industry as a befouling evil. Voicing what was to become a common panegyric, John Ruskin bemoaned the abandonment of the cottage of old:

It had been left in unregarded havoc of ruin; the garden-gate still swung loose to its latch; the garden, blighted utterly into a field of ashes, not even a weed taking root there; the roof torn into shapeless rents; the shutters hanging about the windows in rags of rotten wood; before its gate, the stream which had gladdened it now soaking slowly by, black as ebony and thick with curdling scum; the bank above it trodden into unctuous, sooty slime: far in front of it, between it and the old hills, the furnaces of the city foaming forth perpetual plague of sulphurous darkness.12

Dickens offered one of countless descriptions of the dirty people of this new order in The Old Curiosity Shop. Wandering homeless at night, the old man and Nell are approached “by the form of a man … miserably clad and begrimed with smoke, which perhaps by its contrast with the natural color of his skin, made him look paler than he really was.” He offers them refuge, indicating a place where they “saw a lurid glare hanging in the dark sky; the dull reflection of some distant fire. ‘It’s not far,’ said the man. ‘Shall I take you there? Where you were going to sleep upon the cold bricks; I can give you a bed of warm ashes-nothing better.’”13 Ashes were the bed of the poor, dust still their daily companion.

Public Health Takes Hold

Some attempts were made to alleviate the squalor of the new industrial cities. Alert to the danger of miasmas, and vigilant about the accumulation of waste, newly established public health organizations scrutinized the industrial order. Their officials tended to be members of the upper classes which identified disease with the working class and the excrement that poured from the slums. In the course of the century, Alain Corbin suggests, the upper classes became “the olfactory police of society.”14 They were the conscience and sensibility of the great cleanup.

But to tell the story of the great cleanup as that of a single class, or even to a single era, ignores the continuity of Western history. Public water supply and sewage disposal had occupied the attention of Greek, Roman, and medieval civilizations, as well as certain Renaissance cities like Urbino.15 As the Industrial Revolution progressed, Europeans gained the tools to distance themselves even farther form dust. Cleanliness became a matter of good manners. Wearing clean clothes and shoes elevated a person. Escaping the muck and manure was a worthwhile goal.16

In the eighteenth century, civic authorities had begun to regulate water and waste and to enforce public health measures to prevent epidemics. The middle class on both sides of the Atlantic was intent on being comfortable at home and in the coffeehouse.17 Attempts to improve society were under way in many sectors. They involved improving commerce, stimulating trades and crafts, building roads and digging canals, consolidating laws, systematizing punishment, and reforming government. Taking their cue from the spreading spirit of reform, eighteenth-century utopian thinkers imagined a populace that was educated, ordered, and something other than coarse and stinking.18

Reforms, both material and moral, spread throughout the nineteenth century as the means to control dust and disease grew. Official weights and measures continued to replace traditional ones; trails were superseded by roads, which gave way to the railroads. Political heroes vied with priests and saints. Banking systems, public education, newspapers, and the military draft lined up men and women and marched them, body and soul, into the future. Nineteenth-century Europe transformed its peasants into national citizens.19

Reformers had a mission to purify society and clean it up. For the most zealous, this meant attacking dirt on all fronts: undoing filthy peasant ways; combating “the dark and bloody” legacy of the Middle Ages; waging war against the unjust and arbitrary rule of tradition; and taking on, bit by bit, all that was filthy and corrupt. Attacking dirt meant nothing less than whisking aside all impediments that stood in the way of humanity’s potential. The Enlightenment ideal, a symbiosis of moral and material good, directed humanity toward an entirely new order.

More Brooms than You Can Shake a Stick At

The great cleanup was not simply a matter of ideals; it was also a matter of means. At the same time that the Industrial Revolution was creating unprecedented amounts and types of dust, it provided a host of devices and agents to make the world spotless.

Industrialists, if they did anything, turned nature to dust. From mining to lumbering, steelmaking to printing, industrialists created new dusts as they transformed the earth’s materials. With steel plows and gasoline tractors, dredges and ditchers, they opened the earth to the winds. The production and consumption of that age are recorded by dust accumulated in the depths of the sea, in the polar ice caps, and at the outer limits of the atmosphere.

Paradoxically, as industrial society kicked up dust, it also mounted an arsenal of tools and chemicals for cleaning up bodies, homes, and cities.20 It mass-produced brooms, brushes, shovels, feather dusters, scouring pads, soaps, and caustic sodas. Humans shaped the landscape to fit their purposes with the help of dynamite, cranes, road graders, and bulldozers which kicked up incredible amounts of dirt. For the home, there appeared the Bissell carpet sweeper and vacuum cleaner (which in its early forms redistributed dust as efficiently as it swept it up). For yards, lawns, and streets, there were mowers and hoses. And standing at the forefront of this arsenal was the almighty water pump, which brought in water to remove dust, dirt, and waste — and also removed stagnating or flooding water. The pump was already “a symbol of salvation in seventeenth-century England, for it was not only the answer to flooded mines but it enabled water to be brought to the towns and removed from potential agricultural land.”21

The mass manufacture of clothing enhanced personal cleanliness and fastidiousness.22 Improvements in food processing and packaging freed stores and homes of the bits of food, blood, flies, and rancid smells that evoked the slaughterhouse and the farm. In the 1890s, the Germans produced detergent, a soap of molecules that did not combine with the salts in hard water and could be rinsed away, and shampoo, a soap that removed grime and oil from the hair with one type of molecule and was washed away by another.23

Once introduced, the array of cleanser and cleaning agents, dyes and paints grew with the spread of industrial society. These were the first products of the modern chemical industry, whose growth accelerated from the 1880s onward.24 These products made manifest chemistry’s capacity to transform the raw materials of the earth into agents for purifying and coloring the world. (They also reinforced the modern predilection to equate optimism with light and color and pessimism with darkness and dirt).

Brand names became society’s vernacular language of cleaning as innovative cleaning instruments and products redefined everyday life.25 A number of today’s largest companies originated with everyday goods serving the great cleanup. In 1806, Colgate-Palmolive began concentrating exclusively on selling candles, soap, and starch. Procter & Gamble, a candle and soap company founded in 1837, flourished in the 1870s with the hiring of its first chemist and the subsequent creation (in part accidental) of a white soap that carried it to the forefront of the soap industry. In 1882 Samuel Curtis Johnson started selling wax to care for the parquet flooring he sold in his Racine Hardware Company. The wax became nationally know as Johnson’s Wax. In 1886 another Johnson, a New England druggist, inspired by Joseph Lister’s discovery that airborne germs were the source of infection, joined his brother in producing sanitized wound dressings. They started by making a medicinal plaster but soon produced a soft, absorbent cotton gauze dressing. Thus was born Johnson & Johnson. In 1888, to take an example that joins cleaning and beautification, a young entrepreneur, David H. McConnell, observed that his customers preferred his promotional perfumes to his books. (This is, perhaps, the discovery every author makes sooner or later). What McConnell brewed in his pantry and sold successfully door-to-door became the first products of the Avon Corporation.26 One morning in 1895 another ambitious traveling salesman, annoyed by his dull straight razor, came up with the idea of the disposable razor. Six years later, with the help of an educated machinist, he created the American Safety Razor Company, which eventually became the Gillette Company.

This list of inventions suggests that the history of the great cleanup does not rest solely with reformers and housewives. It turns on technology and business, whose protagonists, almost exclusively men, are associated with tool design, new energy sources (especially the perfection of the steam engine and the gasoline motor), metallurgy, and new construction materials.

The history of the vacuum cleaner is a part of the story of the great cleanup that recent feminist histories of cleaning have ignored.27 This history amounts to 150 years of male inventions aimed at battling dirt and dust on pavement, floor, and carpet. It runs from giant, portable, street vacuum machines and clumsy carpet sweepers with brushes, to impossibly heavy home vacuum cleaners, to today’s diversified host of lightweight electric cleaners that suck up stones and water as well as dust. It involves forgotten names like Booth and Booth (Englishmen), Herricks (an American), McGaffey (the first person to patent a non-electric, straight-suction vacuum), Bissell (a Grand Rapids, Michigan, man with an allergy to straw dust), Dufour (a woman who, in 1902, held an early patent on a primitive vacuum cleaner), and Spangler (a Canton, Ohio, janitor whose severe asthma drove him to invent an electric vacuum cleaner). Spangler visited his cousin, Mrs. William H. Hoover, who interested her engineering-and business-minded husband in producing the machine. Hoover became president of the new vacuum cleaner company in 1908, with Spangler as superintendent. This history also includes inventions that should rightly be forgotten, like the “vacuum powered by a bellows connected to a rocking chair. The idea was that the man of the house could enjoy the evening paper rocking in the chair while his wife performed the vacuuming.”28

Water, Light, and Other Elements of the Great Cleanup

The Industrial Revolution’s contribution to the great cleanup can be understood under five rubrics: new goods; new materials; dirt- and water-resistant surfaces; water control; and lighting.

The new goods took many forms. They ranged from the plastic toothbrush, floating soap, and shoe polishes to street cleaners and packaged and frozen food. Frozen foods followed the triumph of the refrigerator and freezer over the icebox in the 1930s and 1940s. Along with more packaged and canned foods, frozen foods meant cleaner stores and homes, as kitchen yards, and basements saw fewer rotting vegetables, leaking barrels, and rusting cages, and less killing of animals. However, all the new packaging generated wastes of another kind, suggesting a law of the great cleanup; as dust and dirt are banished, waste and garbage multiply.

Beginning with the mass production of cotton clothing, the Industrial Revolution produced a parade of synthetic fabrics, including nylon and rayon. These fabrics proved easier to care for than wool. The clothing industry, which killed its share of animals for leather and fur, colorfully dressed the masses in cheap clothes and shoes. The mass production of underclothing became highly profitable: in 1868, British manufacturers reported making a million pounds selling three million corsets.29 Not to be outdone, French manufacturers succeeded in putting the vast majority of women in France in underpants. The chemical industry not only created new fabrics for clothes, bedding, and curtains but also produced blemish removers and dyes for them.

With new materials chemists also created new surfaces.30 Brighter, smoother, more resistant to heat and less permeable to liquids, these steel, aluminum, chrome, oilcloth, rubber, plastic, Bakelite, vinyl, and Teflon formed the fresh, shiny, and colorful surfaces among which Western urbanites began to live and work.31 Linoleum (produced in England in 1860 and in the United States in 1925) and other synthetic floor coverings made floors easier to clean. Plaster provided smoother walls; cheaper paints and wallpaper covered cracks and created cleaner, more colorful rooms. Eventually, even basement walls made of fieldstone were replaced by brick, block, and poured concrete. These new materials could be used to create spaces in which dust and grime accumulated less easily, and they also lent themselves to easier cleaning. The housewares revolution, which has transformed the kitchen and the bathroom in this century, hinged on new materials and their shiny surfaces.32

Floor coverings became common. With rugs, which had been scarce, people could make their dwellings comfortable and intimate – the sort of place we have come to call home.33 (Doubtless, rugs’ initial function of keeping the dirt down on earthen floors did not produce the pristine effect contemporary carpets do.) Then, around 1900, new floor covering materials began competing with carpeting. Their promoters accused rugs of “corrupting the air by retaining impure gasses, hiding the finest and most penetrating dusts beneath them, while giving off particles of fine wool in the atmosphere.” A Pennsylvania interior decorating and artistic wood-floor company, using what would become a standard attack against carpeting, asserted that “the better grades of carpet are mixed with cow’s hairs, shoddy and other unwholesome materials,” providing a possible haven for infectious “microbes and bacilli that float in the atmosphere.”34

To complement these new surfaces, the chemical industry developed a range of paints and protective coverings. In 1804, chemists created white lead, an important pigment for paint that enabled industrial society to cover the cracks and edges of a rough world. The first varnish was sold in 1815; the first ready-made paint was available in 1867; and nitrocellulose quick-drying lacquer appeared in 1923. Quick-drying phenols, paints, and lacquers made from new chemical bases appeared throughout the 1940s and 1950s, further helping humanity transform the surfaces of its world.

One of the most important tools in the Industrial Revolution’s cleaning arsenal was water, earth’s first cleanser. New metals, rubbers, and plastics enabled humanity to drill, pump, and pipe great quantities of water. It was conveyed efficiently across immense distances and through tight spaces. Unlike the irregular stone channels used since antiquity and the hollowed-out logs that formed London’s water main in 1721, cast iron, steel, and cement pipes formed ideal conduits for large volumes of water. Inside homes and business places, copper pipes and rubber and plastic hose proved excellent new vessels for water.

The technologies of modern plumbing turned water into a docile agent and a powerful ally.35 In city and countryside, water control went in hand-in-hand with control of the land. Drainage and irrigation leapfrogged their way across modern history. Water made fields fertile and cities and homes comfortable and hygienic. Discussing Victorian cities in England, Asa Briggs remarked, “Perhaps their outstanding feature was hidden from public view – their hidden network of pipes and drains sewers, one of the biggest technical and social achievements of the age, a sanitary ‘system’ more comprehensive that the transport system.”36 David Pinckney judged Paris’s Second Empire sewage system to be one of the engineering triumphs of the nineteenth century. It contributed to the decisive decline of waterborne disease in Paris and allowed the Parisians of 1900 to say “Adieu, ville de boue” (good bye, muck city), as Jean-Jacques Rousseau allegedly once bid farewell to the city he so admired and hated.37

In the United States, improvements in cleanliness and sanitation depended on political and regulatory changes. New York waited until the 1840’s for a wholesome supply of public water.38 Such systems depended on new technology, such as giant pumps and cast-iron pipes.39 Cast-iron pipes were first used for four hundred feet of Philadelphia’s waterworks in 1817; as late as the 1840s Detroit, a city eventually known for its great waterworks still used hollowed tamarack logs to convey water. While hundreds of cities had installed waterworks by the 1870s, Joel Tarr indicates that few of them constructed sewer system because it was believed that the technology was unnecessary, unproved, or too costly.40

By the end of the century, with running water available in schools and hospitals, dirt and dust had lost their hold on society. Thanks to the availability of public water, washing the great unwashed became a possibility, a practicality, and a mission, as Marilyn Williams suggests in her history of the public bath in urban America.41 By 1950, when faucets and toilets had entered the great majority of homes in the Western world, the most humble residents of this century had surpassed in salubrity and comfort the aristocrats of Versailles a mere two centuries before.42

But before people could clean themselves and their world, they had to realize just how dirty they were. They had to perceive grit and grime and discern the source of foul odors. They needed light, the fifth important tool of the great cleanup.43 By the end of the eighteenth century, Londoners considered street lighting a matter of public safety. Now depicted as the most reactionary of nineteenth–century popes, Pius IX was considered quite progressive when he introduced street lights in Rome in 1846. Light turned night into day–-and with that transformation came the improvement of the Eternal City and the promise of reforming darkness itself. In lighted cities, people could shop, stroll, and play after dark.44 Criminals and unsavory elements, like dust and dirt themselves, could no longer lurk in shadows. According to the French thinker G. Bachelard, “we live in an age of administered light.”45

Lighting opened roads, aided in navigating ships, provided beacons and traffic signal to regulate civilization’s movements, and lengthened the workday. Headlights appeared on cars and trains. Electrification, which became widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, spelled the end of night’s blackness—and banished countless inhabitants of the dark. With the single flip of a switch the world of the past vanished.

Light enhanced the shine of the new goods and surfaces. Gas and electric lighting did away with the soot of torches, candles, and fires. Attics, basements, and closets no longer harbored darkness and dirt. Gas stoves were lauded not only for reducing the time and labor of food preparation but also for freeing cooks from the frequent disposal of ashes and cinders from coal and wood stoves.46 Light brought out colors vividly. It made new metals and alloys (especially chromium, steel, and aluminum) shine and plastics and enamels glow.

As a corresponding preference developed for bright interiors, transparent glass —now machine-made, colored, more homogeneous, nonconductive, and highly resistant to weathering— became all the more popular.47 Glass windows appeared in more and more homes and businesses. Countless photographs from the beginning to the twentieth century depict a merchant and a small group of salespeople, dressed in their best, standing before shining glass cabinets in what appear to us now to be dark and cluttered rooms. Glass doors in cabinets and buildings and glass windows in stores, trains, and permitted the world to look in and out at itself. Glass (and later transparent plastic) bottles, jars, and showcases displayed the goods of an abundant society. Cellophane too later played its part in creating a see-through world.

The large-scale manufacture of standard eyeglasses—made increasingly of glass rather than quartz—in the second half of the nineteenth century equipped more people to see these bright new things. With lighted offices and the new age of physical and laboratory diagnosis, medical doctors carefully examined minutiae in and from the body and began to probe the body itself with standardized, sanitized, and more precise instruments.48 They introduced a new regime of precision into medicine.49 Eye doctors looked deep into the human eye, while surgeons threw as much artificial light on their patients’ innards as they could. Theater lights shone on actors and opera singers as never before.

With light at its service, nineteenth-century society could boast about every clean new surface. The Crystal Palace, built in Hyde Park, London, for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the highest expression of the era’s architectural progress. It was made of an amount of glass equal to a third of England’s total production in 1840 and was a fitting declaration of the confidence of a commercial civilization willing to say, “Let light shine upon our wares.”50

The Industrial Revolution’s creation of unprecedented quantities of goods, new materials, and washable surfaces further heated reformers’ passion for a world without blemish. They were encouraged to take civilization’s pipe-dreams seriously. Bountifully cheap soap helped. By one estimate, the use of soap increased fourfold in the nineteenth century.51 Deodorants and other fruits of the pharmaceutical industry brought civilization a whiff of the promised land.

Beauty, hygiene, and sanitation tended to converge. Each one played an important role is making the great cleanup an interior imperative. Facts and conditions preceded imagination. But once stimulated, imagination, catapulted forward by desire and possibility, quickly outdistanced reality: All could, should, and would be pure.

Well on the Way to Being Clean and Decent

The transformation did not proceed by wish alone—nor was it anywhere near complete by the end of the nineteenth century. In cities, people were still jammed together. Garbage was still thrown on the streets. Running water and plumbing were still luxuries, and bathrooms were far from universal. Conditions in the countryside were also still abysmal. Villages were still enveloped by dust and mired in muck, and disease was endemic. Remote places would wait until after World War II for indoor plumbing and electricity.

Yet in city and countryside alike, the changes were obvious. In Paris, Eugen Weber notes, skirts no longer had to be picked up; cigarettes were no longer rolled by hand, and snuff was no longer used. People spat less and were less likely to use their hands for blowing their noses. There was more linen and laundering—and more handkerchiefs too. More people could count, read, and consult their watches. Each of these skills was necessary to survive in industrial society. Artificial light allowed people to extend their days for advantage and pleasure. Corrugated metal garbage cans, introduced in 1883, by order of Préfect Poubelle, added a new note to Paris’s early-morning symphony. In 1894 Poubelle imposed a law that all wastewater go directly to the sewer system: tout à l’egout- everything down the drain!52

In the countryside, too, life was undergoing a dramatic change. Public schools, a money economy, and banks all did their share. Visits form city cousins who had white-collar jobs showed rural villagers new possibilities. Conscripted young peasants posted to the cities learned about a world of bright lights. Politics linked rural locales to cities. Roads and trains brought streams of goods and released torrents of desire and envy. Weber notes that even though peasants might still have worn their wooden shoes (sabots), by 1900 or so most people could afford a second pair of shoes to wear in town or to a fête. “By the 1920s and after,” Weber quotes Pierre Jakez Haelias, a Breton countryman and writer, “peasants no longer walked like their fathers. That is because they wear different shoes; the roads are tarred; there are not so many slopes.”53 The countryside was being changed by a sheer abundance of goods as Western society entered a period of “accumulation and display.”54

Susan Hanson has charted a new rural world in the making in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Virginia by examining contemporary store inventories, photographs of stores, and mail-order catalogues.55 She discovered that the agents of change were humble. People had more bedding and clothing, as indicated by increased sales of gingham, flannel, and muslin. A larger number of better brooms and decorated chamber pots further distanced people from their dusts and wastes. The cookstove and the kerosene lamp—two important factors in reordering life in this period—induced country people to buy more matches, chimneys, and wicks for their lanterns.56 Manufactured brooms and brushes helped sweep away the kingdom of dust as well. Lye, washboards, and bar soaps improved washing. Screens, insect powders, fly paper, and rat poisons announced an intensified war on some of the rural world’s oldest enemies. In vigorous efforts to clean up the defects of body mind, an amazing variety of patent medicines (often laced with brandy or rum) were used against aches and pains of all types; opiates were used to treat mental disorders. At the same time, man and woman showed an interest in the finer things of life by buying more banjos, books, and petticoats.

The New Broom and Redistributers of Dust

Between 1865 and 1925, men and woman in the countryside, though still awash in dust and dirt, looked forward to more wholesome lives. In 1900, European and North Americans could expect a much higher standard of living. More and more people lived free of disease. Infant, mortality rates bean to drop.57 Improvements in sanitation and water supply, involving considerable feats of engineering, reduced the incidence of typhoid and cholera. Better mother and infant care, improved hygiene and housing conditions, better nutrition, more education, and active government all converged to create a healthier environment.

Like a great broom, the Industrial Revolution swept dust into the gutters and to the margins of urban experience. Dust took on a different character. It increasingly became the soot, ash, and smoke that early industrialists declared signs of progress, rather than the soil and pollen of ages past. City dust was an irregular mix of sands from construction sites and manufactured wastes of all sorts. Along railroad tracks and in factory yards, grime and trash were as common to dust as pollen and soil were rare. Dust revealed what society made and consumed. It was increasingly mixed with metal fragments and glass shards. Foundries, factories, and construction sites produced their own specific dusts. Dust also varied from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, and even worker to worker. Children knew their place and their parents by their distinct dusts.58

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, industry produced extraordinary volumes of dust that fouled the earth, water, and air. Reviewing B.W. Clapp’s recent Environmental History of Britain since the Industrial Revolution, J.R. McNeill noted: “The waters of the river Calder (tributary to the Humber) could be used as gray ink in the 1860s; and… in the same decade urchins routinely amused themselves by setting fire to the waters of the Bradford Canal. In 1936, the waters of the Trent were lethal to all animal and plant life for a stretch of 130 miles.”

Nevertheless, in the nest sixty years in the West, a lot of old fashioned dusts nearly vanished, along with many of their sources: unregulated manufacturing, defecating horses, open sewers, and unpaved streets gave way to a cleaner and more elderly time. Once the common stuff of everyday life, dust was vanishing from the city as the peasant was from the new industrial democratic life.

Dust no longer defined the small, and the small was no longer coincidental with dust. In the twentieth century, the finite became a matter of atoms and microbes—and human control of them. The great cleanup prepared for humanity’s encounter with these hitherto unseen entities. The Industrial Revolution, which provided society with the tools to mop up and sanitize the world, turned humanity’s gaze inward and downward toward things unseen.


1 Arnold Pacey, Technology in World Civilation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 72.

2 Jonathan Sawaday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (LondonL Routledge, 1995), 3.

3 This basic notion is borrowed from Hugh Kearney, Science and Change, 1500—1700 (NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 1971).

4 Carlo Cipolla, Miasmas and Disease: Public Health and the Environment in the Pre-Industrial Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 2. Also see his Contro un nemico invisible: Epidemie e structure sanitarie nell’Italia del rinascimento (Bologna: Mulino, 1985).

5 Over time, public health institutions in Italian cities came to deal with “the quality of food on sale; the movement of beggars and prostitutes; the sanitary conditions that prevailed in the houses of poorer people; chemists’ shops and the medicines they sold; sewers; hospitals; the activities of the medical profession; the sanitary condition of inns and taverns; the movements of goods, travelers, pilgrims, and ships; the quarantining of ships, travelers, and suspect merchandise; the issuing of health passes for travelers ; the keeping of registers of mortality showing the name, address, and profession of the deceased and the presumed cause of death together with the medical certificates, and a hundred and one other things besides” (Cipolla, Miasmas, 2).

6 Ibid., 4.

7 Ibid., 5.

8 Cited in Enide Gauldie, Cruel Habitations: A History of Working-Class Housing, 1780—1918 (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1974), 23.

9 J.H. Treble, “Liverpool Working Class Housing,” in The History of Working-Class Housing, ed. Stanley Chapman (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1971), 16, 185-86, 189.

10 Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, ed. M.W. Flinn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), 319.

11 Laurence Wright, Homes Fires and Burning: The History of Domestic Heating and Cooking (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1064_, 108.

12 John Ruskin, Modern Manufacture and Design, quoted in Nature and Civilisation, ed., Alasdair Clayre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 137.

13 Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, cited in Clayre, Nature and Civilisation, 128.

14 Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

5 For a history of civic projects and engineering in the West, see Richard Kirby, et al., Engineering in History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956); R.J. Forbes, Man the Maker (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958); W.H.G. Armytage, A Social History of Engineering (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961); Aubrey Burstall, A History of Mechanical Engineering (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965); and William Parsons, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1939). For a witty dicussion of sanitation from ancient times to the present, see Reginald Reynold’s Cleanliness and Goodness (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

16 For an introduction to cleanliness prior to the nineteenth century, see George Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Also of interest, to show how cleanliness was associated with manners and status, are Norbert Elias’ classic The History of Manners (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), and Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant.

17 For one suggestion out of many on the eighteenth-century search for comfort, see Witold Rybczynski, Homes: Short History of an Idea (New York: Viking, 1986).

18 See Chapter 4, “Death to Sacrifice: The Eighteenth Century Resolution against Transcendence,” in Joseph Amato, Victims and Values (New York: Prage, 1990), 75-102.

19 Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchman: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976).

20 For a useful survey of new tools, materials, and technologies serving human exploration and manipulation of the small, see Marvin Kranzberg and Carroll Pursell, eds., Technology in Western Civilazation: The Emergence of Modern Industrial Society, Earliest Times to 1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).

21 Armytage, A Social History of Engineering, 78.

22 See Elizabeth Ewin, Underwear: A History (New York: Theatre Books, 1972).

23 Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 152-3.

24 On the origin and growth of the chemical industry, see B.G. Reuben and M.L. Burstall, The Chemical Economy: A guide to the Technology and Economics of the Chemical Industry (London: Longman, 1973),; F. Haber, The Chemical Industry in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958); American Chemical Society, Chemistry in the Economy (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1973); and Stephen Mason, A History of Sciences (New York: Collier, 1962), 513-26.

25 From Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things the following abbreviated list was assembled: chlorine bleach (Sweden, 1744), safety razor, (France, 1762), toilet paper (United States, 1857), rubber hoses (United States, 1870s), Ivory soap (United States, 1878), petroleum jelly (United States, 1879), antiperspirants (United States, 1888), shampoo (Germany, 1890s), modern hair coloring (France, 1909), paper tissue (United States, 1924), electric shaver (United States, 1931), and the nylon-bristle toothbrush (United States, 1938).

26 The French parallel to Avon was L’Oreal, which had its beginnings in 1907 when young Parisian chemist, Eugène Schueller, responding to the passion of demimonde women for dyeing their hair, concocted an artificial dyes. He made it at night in his kitchen and sold it by day to the beauty salons of Paris (Panati, Extraordinary Origins, 233).

27 See my review of Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness in Journal of Social History 30 (Fall, 1996): 277-80. Hoy’s Chasing Dirt misses the technological side of the sources of the great cleanup. For an introductory essay to the vacuum cleaner, see Terry Troy, “From Sweeping to Suction,” HFD (November 25, 1991). For the steam engine, see Richard Hills, Power from Steam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

28 Troy, “From Sweeping to Suction,” 72. Also of general use is Panati, Extraordinary Origins, 138-40.

29 Ewin, Underwear, 140 .

30 For a reflective essay on materials and surfaces, see Elio Manzini, The Material of Invention (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).

31 See Robert Friedel’s guide to a recent Smithsonian display, A Material World (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, (1988) and Penny Sparke, ed., The Plastics Age: From Bakelite to Beanbags and Beyond (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993). On production of cement, pottery, glass, and rubber in the United States, see Victor Clark, History of Manufacturers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1929), vo. 2, 492-93, vol.3, 228-62.

32 Earl Lefshey, The Housewares Story (Chicago: National Manufacturers Association, 1973).

33 For a useful introduction to the notion of home as a place of intimacy and comfort, see Rybczynski, Home.

34 Deborah Federhen et al., eds., Accumulation and Display: Mass Marketing: Household Goods in America, 1880-1920 (Newark, Del.: The Winterthur Museum, 1986), 15, 17.

35 See Arthur Greene, Pumping Machines A Treatise on the History, Design, Construction, and Operation of Various Forms of Pumps (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1919), esp. 1—165.

36 Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (London: Penguin Books, 1968).

37 Cited in Donald Reid, Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 11.

38 For a history of New York’s public water supply, see Gerald Koeppel, “A Struggle for Water,” Invention and Technology 35 (Winter 1994)” 19—27.

39 Henry Noble, History of the Cast Iron Pressure Pipe Industry in the United States of America (Birmingham, Ala.: Newcombe Society, 1940).

40 Joel Tarr, “Water and Wastes: A Retrospective Assessment of Wastewater Technology in the United States, 1800-1932,” Technology and Culture 25, no. 2 (April 1984): 226—63. See also “Sewage,” McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 303-32.

41 Marilyn Williams, Washing “The Great Unwashed”: Public Baths in Urban America (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991).

42 For a study of the toilet as a device without fame and its inventor a prophet without honor, see Wallace Reyburn, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969). On both sides of the Atlantic, water—the great enemy of dirt and dust—became the most important servant of advancing civilization. Washbowls, toilets, waterworks, and fountains were springs of hope that the whole world could be as fresh and clean as pure water, “During the years 1860—1920,” Stuart Galishoff writes, “American cities succeeded in developing waterworks that provided safe and plentiful water…In 1880 only 30,000 Americans drank filtered water. By 1923, the only water [presumably in the cities] that was not undergoing some form of filtration was the groundwater found in artesian wells…Businessmen spearheaded the fight for improved urban water supplies, a commitment prompted by both economis necessity and civic pride” (“Triumph and Failure: The American Response to the Urban Water Supply Problem,” in Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870—1930, ed. Martin Melsoi [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980], 51).

43 See Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); William O’Dea, The Social History of Lighting (New York: Macmillan, 1958); and a Smithsonian exhibition guide, Lighting, a Revolution: The Beginning of Electric Power (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, 1979).

44 For a study of urban lighting, see Mark Bouman, “Luxury and Control : The Urbanity of Street Lighting in Nineteenth-Century Cities,” Journal of Urban History 14, no. 1 (November 1987): 7-37. For an expression of what lighting meant by the middle of the next century in an American city, see Louis Schrenk, “Public Lighting in Detroit: What It Is and What It Does,” The Municipal Employee (July 1948): 15-23.

45 Cited in Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night, 178.

46 Federhen et al., Accumulation and Display, 35.

47 Pearce Davis, The Development of the American Glass Industry (New York: Russell and Russell, 1949).

48 Audrey Davis and Mark Dreyfus, The Finest Instruments Ever Made: A Bibliography of Medical, Dental, Optical, and Pharmaceutical Company Trade Literature, 1700—1939 (Arlington, Mass.: Medical History Publishing Associates, 1986), 9—12.

49 Audrey Davis, Medicine and Its Technology: An Introduction to the History of Medicine (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), esp. 183, 238—40; and Elizabeth Bennion, Antique Medical Instruments (London: Sotheby Parke Benet, 1979).

50 It was no coincidence that the enemies of progress threw stones at the Crystal Palace and that critics of modernity thereafter explicitly rejected the “superficial,” turning away from the bright and shiny surfaces of things. A useful introduction to the Crystal Palace is Folke Kihlstedt, “The Crystal Palace,” Scientific American (October 1984): 132—43. In his Notes from Underground (1864), Dostoyevsky judged the Crystal Palace as quintessentially modern and thus quintessentially artificial.

51 On the production of soap, see B.G. Reuben and M.L. Burstall, The Chemical Economy (London: Longman, 1973), 12. For an analysis of the implications of marketing soap, see Vincent Vinika, Soft Soap, Hard Sell: American Hygiene in an Age of Advertisement (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1992).

52 Eugen Weber, “Commonplaces: History, Literature, and the Invisible,” Stanford French Review 4 (Winter 1980): 326.

53 Ibid., 334.

54 This phrase was borrowed form Federhen et al., Accumulation and Display.

55 Susan Hanson, “Home Sweet Home: Industrialization’s Impact on Rural Households, 1856—1925,” Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1986.

56 Ibid., 201. Other factors were a decline in the hog production business , the advent of catalogues and national mail-order houses, and an increase federal government regulation, such as the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. See Hanson, abstract, 2.

57 Pacey, Technology in World Civilization, 187.

58 Anthony Bukoski, “Polkaholics,” in Children of Strangers (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1993), 127-44.

Author: Joseph A. Amato is Professor of History and Dean of Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest State University, Marshall, Minnesota. He has many books on diverse subjects. Spanning European intellectual and cultural history and rural and regional history, they include Victims and Values: A History and A Theory of Suffering; Guilt and Gratitude: A Study of the Origins of Contemporary Conscience; The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus: The Buying and Selling of the American Dream; and When Father and Son Conspire: A Minnesota Farm Murder. His most recent book is Bypass: A Memoire; his forthcoming is Rethinking Home: Fresh Themes for Writing Local History.

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