Previous Next Up  Comments
SEHR, volume 5, Supplement: Cultural and Technological Incubations of Fascism
Updated December 17, 1996

euthenic america

Christine Holbo


hygiene, habitation and americanization, 1880-1920

What is America? What is an American? And how do you make an American? In the decades around the turn of this century, a number of social issues brought such questions to the forefront of the American national consciousness. Chief among these was, perhaps, immigration, as the arrival of waves of immigrants from the 1880s on led to questions about assimilation and Americanization. If immigration kindled such questions, however, for many writers and reformers, the problem ultimately involved all Americans. As Woodrow Wilson put it,

My interest in this movement is as much an interest in ourselves as in those whom we are trying to Americanize, because if we are genuine Americans they cannot avoid the infection; whereas, if we are not genuine Americans, there will be nothing to infect them with.... This process of Americanization is going to be a process of self-examination, a process of purification, a process of rededication....[1]

This need to rediscover a genuine American identity can be traced to a host of other developments facing fin-de-siècle America, developments such as urbanization, the reorganization of industries under corporate capitalism, the spread of technology to ordinary life. Americans reacted ambivalently to such developments: industrialization was intimately associated with cherished notions of Puritan thrift, efficiency, the self-made man, yet the urban conditions produced by industrialism were seen as degenerate and un-American.[2] As T.J. Jackson Lears has pointed out, modern culture produced in many a sense "of moral impotence and spiritual sterility - a feeling that life had become not only overcivilized but also curiously unreal";[3] and with this sense of "weightlessness,"[4] a longing for individual agency and authentic experience. From another angle, the problem of weightlessness might be seen as one of incorporation and identity. The separation of the individual from nature, the irreversible incorporation of the individual into larger forms of social organization, the adulteration of the national blood-stream by foreign germs: all would weaken and degenerate the body politic. The question was how to recuperate the authenticity and identity of each of these social bodies in the modern world.

In this paper I will argue that one response to this dilemma was a spatial and environmental reinvention of American authenticity; and that the agents of this invention were the practitioners of new - or newly revitalized - disciplines such as architecture, urban design, home economics, and sanitary engineering. These disciplines defined the American self in terms of a particular space, a space modeled, I will argue, on the frontier, but reproducible within urban environments, merging physical and symbolic manifestations of the new American subject (citified, standardized, mechanized, habit- and environment-dependent) with an organic ideal of the American as agrarian, democratic, individualistic. This symbolic merger is evident in the above quotation from Wilson: though Wilson sees Americanization as "a process of purification," he speaks of it in terms of the need to "infect" immigrant populations. Americans infect to purify, incorporate to individualize.

I would like to present this subject as a discourse of borders. Borders, because the boundaries of the body politic were being renegotiated at every level: the national frontier, the house, the family, the body, consciousness. Borders, too, because I examine the common metaphors, shared stretches of border, among a number of disciplines. This approach allows me to see how the languages of particular disciplines informed and structured those of others: how physical health and housekeeping became important metaphors for national life; and, in reverse, how national economic and political issues created the language for an understanding of the self.

the significance of the frontier

A set of events in the year 1893 helped to set the terms for a spatial reinvention of America. 1893 brought the most severe depression yet experienced by Americans, and the effects of the depression continued to be felt for another decade. Among these: it caused a drop in housing starts, forcing up the price of homes, and making the job of creating duplicable house patterns or prototypes more attractive to professional architects;[5] it marked the appearance of the homeless on the American landscape;[6] and it fueled the back-to-basics populism of the progressive movement. In a different vein, 1893 was the year of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, a centennial celebration of the discovery of America. Dubbed the "White City" for its architecture, the fair was itself a spectacle of urban order and rational planning. Not only did this ideal community fuel interest in city planning, but the fair also helped to launch new movements in architecture, home economics, and history. Among the congresses at the fair was a "Women's Congress," the first national gathering of women's groups interested in rationalizing the home. The American Historical Association also gathered at the fair to hear, among its speakers, Frederick Jackson Turner read The Significance of the Frontier in American History.

Turner was not the first to attribute the making of genuine Americans to national geography, but he became the foremost authority on the subject. According to Turner, physical contact with the frontier explained America's major social, intellectual, and political traits. The frontier produced the grounds for democracy and individualism by breaking down highly evolved and hierarchized social structures into the simple units of the individual and the family. He concludes:

This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.[7]

The theory was, in essence, a reversal of the doctrine of blood and soil: while the German policy was based on a notion of blood in search of soil, in America, a nation of immigrants, soil created blood.

The theory of the frontier must be complicated by a number of considerations. First, the frontier was an American ideal in more ways than one. Theories similar to Turner's had been in circulation for years. Yet by the time Turner made it and himself famous, the frontier had been closed in the census for three years, and the thesis rested on the finality of this closure. Turner leaves his readers with the consideration, "And now...the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."[8] The closing of the frontier thus bore the earmarks of catastrophe: it was a moment of sudden, definitive change, a gap in history, before which 'natural' conditions assured the continuity of the nation's identity; and after which national identity must be preserved by an effort of collective will.

If the frontier itself was no longer a means of making Americans, it became important to define the crucial elements of the frontier and to reproduce their effects in contemporary situations. One response was to model new urban and suburban life on the aesthetic of the frontier, interiorizing the process of rebirth and evolution to create a society which would ideally be at once primitive and highly evolved. The aesthetic characteristic of this new frontier was a stylized version of the old, and a localization of larger, international movements. Some of its features bear an obvious relationship to a real frontier space: an aesthetic of open space, of breakdown of interior boundaries, openness between interiors and exteriors, of visibility or light, of fresh air and breathing room. To these features were added others, however, which were also supposed to be productive of individualism, Americanism, and democracy: characteristics such as efficiency, standardization, and rational use of space.

Here we see a second factor complicating the ideal. Not only was the frontier retrospectively created, but it was also prospective, in that the natural conditions it invented were oriented toward the needs of the coming industrial society. Not surprisingly, the space of the frontier significantly converges with that of the factory. The frontier was important to Turner because of the efficiency with which it assembled Americans: he praised it as "the line of most rapid and effective Americanization."[9] Similarly, in The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt characterized Americans as standardized products, claiming that "[t]heir iron surroundings made a mould which turned out all alike in the same shape."[10] Moreover, these new Americans were made fit to be cheerful workers of the type the Ford system demanded. Guy Emerson presented these Americans as an odd mix of the entrepreneur and the factory laborer:

Throughout our entire history there is the ring of necessary work triumphantly done, of creative enthusiasm, of the energies of men brought to bear upon generations of effort which to another race might have seemed only impossible drudgery.[11]

space: the final frontier?

On the widest scale, the aesthetic of open space created a working logic for new ideas about distributing and managing populations. Echoing Turner's description of the frontier, writers at the time claimed that urban masses, and particularly immigrants, had to be broken down before they could become true Americans. The housing reformer Lawrence Veiller was typical in his belief that tenement masses must be divided into family units and given land before they can be Americanized:

...the normal method of housing the working population in our American cities is in small houses, each house occupied by a separate family, often with a small bit of land, with privacy for all, and with a secure sense of individuality and opportunity for real domestic life. Under no other method can we expect American institutions to be maintained. It is useless to expect a conservative point of view in the workingman, if his home is but three or four rooms in some huge building in which dwell from twenty to thirty other families, and this home is his only from month to month. Where a man has a home of his own he has every incentive to be economical and thrifty, to take his part in the duties of citizenship, to be a real sharer in government. Democracy was not predicated upon a country made up of tenement dwellers, nor can it so survive.... When there are no homes there will be no nation.[12]

Implicit in Veiller's words was an assumption about the political and economic systems of organization natural to particular forms of dwelling. Private ownership of a home with space around it was crucial to citizenship: high-density dwelling, economic combines, and undemocratic forms of politics - Socialist cells, unions, urban political machines - were considered to go hand in hand. Morris Knowles thus warned that "combination of industries" might lead to difficulties in the process of Americanization:

Housing problems...become more serious in proportion as concentration of population increases. The tendency of recent years toward combination of industries into large units, the resultant concentration of great numbers of employees and their families within small areas, and the growth of immigration have therefore given especial importance to the influence of housing on Americanization.[13]

With this in mind, whole sections of Americanization handbooks were given over to the "Distribution of immigrants,"[14] and featured various "local colonization plans"[15] to get the immigrants out of town.

For a number of reasons, reformers in this period tended to be speculative rather than practical in their efforts on behalf of immigrants. However, notions about the distribution of immigrants echoed real movements and debates in other levels of society. The period was one of unparalleled experimentation with the units of housing,[16] experiments aimed expressly at modifying the units of social organization; for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman couched her assault on existing social structures as an attack on the nuclear family and its architecture.[17] Thus, although the move to the suburbs had been underway for some time, the fact that the institution of the single-family dwelling was seriously challenged and then reformed in this period represented, not a natural evolution out of previous forms of housing, but an attempt at "conscious evolution":[18] a reassertion of the private home as the "genuine" American unit of dwelling, and a reinsertion of Americans within historical narratives based on the frontier and on an architectural heritage transmitted from the pilgrim fathers.

Ellen Richards's The Cost of Shelter is typical of efforts at self-reinsertion into a national tradition. Typical, as well, of organic accounts of national housing patterns, the book opens with a three-page history of habitation, tracing the family and family shelter back to "the habits of the majority of animals."[19] Mixing freely the hereditary "habits" of animals with customary habit, Richards associated the physical form of the house with activities carried on therein:

The colonial houses of New England...illustrate the most perfect type of family life. Each member had a share in the day's work, therefore to each it was home.[20]

While New England homes served as the evolutionary fore-runner, pride of place went to the frontier. The book opens with a description of the pioneers as men moving "ever westward to conquer for themselves a homestead."[21] She concludes from this that the need for such a home is a distinguishing characteristic of the (American) race:

There must be a strong race principle behind a movement of such magnitude, with such momentous consequences. Elbow room, space, and isolation to give free play to individual preferences, characterized pioneer days.[22]

Though the frontier provided the ideal, Richards concedes that this model must in the future be re-created out of different materials. Echoing Turner, Richards emphasizes the completeness of the gap between past and present, and emphasizes the importance of conscious racial self-creation:

There are no more pioneer and colonial communities on this continent. Railroads and steamboats and electric power have made this rural life a thing of the past. Let us not waste tears on its vanishing, but address ourselves to the future.[23]

As Richards's work has already indicated, an American national architecture required not only sufficient space around the house, but also a very particular aesthetic in its construction. This aesthetic could have been drawn from Thoreau - "Simplify, simplify." Starting in the 1890s, there was a new stress on pureness and genuineness in American architecture. Builders rejected the rococo and architecturally "chaotic" Queen Anne houses of the 1870s for a modernized and streamlined revival of the homestead or of colonial architecture, as exemplified by the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside the house, similarly, there was a call for openness - for eliminating unnecessary boundaries between rooms or between in- and out-of-doors; for increased sunlight; for increased ventilation; for larger rooms and fewer of them.

The aesthetic of simplicity was espoused at all levels of society, although it was rationalized in different - and contradictory - ways at different levels. Whereas among the wealthy, simplified decor was a way of separating the established from the ambitious, the "Gospel of Simplicity" was promulgated among immigrants and the working class as a way of promoting orderly, civilized, and sanitary conditions - an ideal which easily gave over to a form of social/hygienic surveillance.[24] Simplified tenements had the combined virtue of providing the experience of open space, and of being visually manageable by 'friendly visitors' and other inspectors. Calling for what has been dubbed an "architecture of visible health," reformers advocated gearing tenement rooms with a minimum of furnishings: no rugs, plain or no wallpaper, and exposed shelves.[25] An interior frontier, this style represented a kind of half-way mark in the evolution into Americanism.

The shifts in population distribution and the move to simplification were real; however,the proclaimed goal of reclaiming the "simplicity of primitive society" was only one of the reasons why these movements came about.[26] The aesthetic of the single family home as a miniature wilderness appeared simultaneously with the technologies that made the suburb possible: namely, changes in transportational systems, such as the development of commuter trains, street cars, and trolleys;[27] economic assistance to home-owners through tax breaks[28] and the development of building and loan societies;[29] building plans based on the unit of the development rather than on the single home. Decentralization as a procedure for creating individualism thus depended on an increasingly interconnected social system.

Again, the new interior aesthetic coexisted and interacted with economic and material developments. While the autonomy of the individual house was celebrated, houses were in very practical ways being invaded by the outside world. Between 1880 and 1910 the bathroom and other plumbing came indoors; the kitchen was transformed from the least modern to the most modern room in the house; municipal control of sewage, garbage, and water supplies was introduced or upgraded; and housing standards were being set by legislation. In this sense, though the two decades between 1890 and 1910 have been dubbed the "golden age of public health" in America, they could just as easily have been called the golden age of private health: for these decades marked a revolution in sanitary technologies and practices that made the difference between public and private impossible to discern.[30]

Such technological and political changes further impacted both domestic aesthetics and the way people lived and moved inside and among their buildings. Houses were becoming standardized, not (only) because people were returning to the sod house, but because of standardized materials, machine tooling, and changes in the labor force such as the decline of the skilled carpenter and the increased use of unskilled or semi-skilled laborers.[31] Designs for the house had to work their way around the new indoor plumbing and other complications. Despite the push for larger rooms, the immediate result was greater expense and less living room, for the new conveniences doubled and trebled the price of houses, while taking up a great deal of space.[32] Furthermore, demanding a greater range of technical, sanitary, and legal expertise than ever before, the architecture of the late-nineteenth century marked a turning point in the agency of home-building. No longer could many individuals build homes altogether on their own. No longer, for that matter, was it as common for the individual to work directly with a construction agency, using plans created or modified from house-plan books by the consumer. And if the home-building individual had to depend more than before on outside expertise, the same was true of the inhabitant of the home. As housekeeping became involved in "municipal housekeeping," the housewife could no longer feel in control of her own household.

Despite the apparent contradictions of this situation, the idea of the frontier was not a mere illusion, a cover for real economic and technological developments. Instead, technology and aesthetic developed together. Most notably, the 'technologization' of the household contributed to a redefinition of individuality as standardization. Thus, Richards argued that standardization did not mean "that all individuality will be taken away."[33] Instead, she compared the similarity of standardized products to the organic simplicity of a tree:

...the mass of constructive material must be machine-made, at least for the family of limited income. And these articles need not be ugly. There must be many of the same kind in the world, to be sure; if the design suits the purpose, this may not be an evil. No one objects to a beautiful elm-tree in his field because in hundreds of fields there are similar elm-trees.[34]

Moreover, the technologies themselves were formed and selected to meet the demands of the American frontier aesthetic. The 1890s were years of experiment and utopia: proposals for kitchenless houses; centralized dining or pneumatic-tube food delivery; collective laundry and child-care; and cooperative housekeeping were presented simultaneously with new notions of municipal heating, sewage, and electricity. By the 1920s, these latter developments were nearly universal: the first had disappeared. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan has shown, the technologies which survived did not change the quantity of domestic work, but its nature and agency, decreasing the work of men and children in a household, while multiplying women's tasks.[35] The success or failure of a domestic technology depended neither on its technical nor on its economic superiority, but on its ability to "preserve and enhance the privacy and the autonomy of families."[36] It depended, that is, on the values, habits, and aesthetic preferences of individual Americans. In turn, the housekeeping practices developed in these years were aimed not just at adapting to the industrial household, but at producing and reinforcing genuinely American domestic habits.

housework and democracy

At the turn of the century, what we now know of as home economics was just being invented. As its plethora of names (including domestic engineering, household technology, and household engineering) suggests, home economics was really a dynamic cluster of disciplines, drawing upon fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, bacteriology, economics, sanitary science, hygiene, domestic science, psychology, and sociology.[37]

In this section, I focus on the work of two women as typical of this new discursive terrain. The first, Ellen H. Richards, might be considered the leader of the movement. As the first woman graduate of MIT, instructor and researcher in sanitary engineering at MIT, creator of the first school lunch program, founder of the American Home Economics Association, and, along with many other accomplishments, a reader of such utopian socialists as Edward Bellamy,[38] Richards has become an important figure for feminist scholars such as Dolores Hayden who seek to recuperate a lost "material feminist tradition."[39] The second, Mary Pattison, was an upper-class New Jersey housewife whose The Principles of Domestic Engineering aimed, not at social transformation, but at "Conservation of the Individual Home" through industrial management techniques.[40] While Hayden is certainly correct in noting the revolutionary edge of the early home economics movement, the similarities between Richards's and Pattison's ideas tell of an equally powerful debt to the ideals of corporate nationalism.

By looking at these early writings in the discipline, we can trace in quite specific ways the developing alliances among the discourses of simplicity and authenticity, American nationalism, and corporate structures of management. Specifically, we can see how the new, technological hygiene, with its new ideas of what constituted clean and unclean, grew out of and contributed to overlaps between sanitary hygiene, moral cleanliness, and racial hygiene; how home economics converged with notions of ethics, reinvisioning authentic human existence as (standardized, mechanized) action; and how it contributed to new definitions of the relationship between individual and community.

For work-obsessed Americans, a first step in redefining the American self was to rewrite women's job descriptions. In order to meet the demands of modernity, women were now expected to master a boggling array of technical and managerial skills. Pattison's Principles, which came with an introduction by Frederick Winslow Taylor, exhorted the housewife to familiarize herself with "the route of material" through her workspace, and to increase her efficiency by establishing a household "instruction bureau" or through time and motion studies of the body.[41] Similarly, Richards claimed that "every house is a laboratory," and each woman, her own research team.[42] Transformed from the angel in the house to supermom, the homemaker became an amphibian of the trendy professions, one part each manager, economist, engineer, and chemist.

Aside from helping to diffuse new, scientific notions of sanitation, this re-education and professionalization of the housekeeper produced two important results. First, it contributed to a resurgent emphasis on domesticity and the private home. While professionalization was first considered a means of lightening women's work loads and expanding women's professional opportunities, the demands of the new profession ultimately helped bring women back into the home.[43] Second, while scientific housekeeping was promulgated as a means of maintaining household autonomy in an increasingly complex world, the impossibility of its demands eventually contributed to the move away from the populist faith of the early progressives and toward replacing individual control with the control of the specialist.

With these factors in mind, it is not surprising that, as we have seen in other areas, Americanism in domestic economy translated into a mix of individualism and standardization, autonomy and interdependence. Both Pattison and Richards believed that the individual unit could only be free when fitted properly into the larger units of the family and the state, and similarly, that the unit of the private, autonomous home had to be integrated into what they called 'municipal housekeeping.' Thus, Pattison asserted that "the encouragement of personal freedom, or personal independence, and its right use, seems...to be the object of family life...."[44] Yet she also emphasized the interpermeation of home and world, encouraging her reader "to feel one's City, or Community, a definite part of one's self."[45] Moreover, Pattison devoted whole chapters to the relationship between the home and larger social structures: "the cultural value of housework"; "the home and politics"; "the home and society"; "a home municipal laboratory"; "housework and democracy."[46]

The way housework was to promote democracy varied somewhat depending on the level of society aimed at in particular reforms. Among the middle- and upper-classes, the ideal of the "auto-operative" household translated into a solution to what was called 'the servant problem': the homeworker who could do everything herself need not have servants at all. Pattison's basic argument against the "servant class" - that their presence in the home resulted in "decreased efficiency"[47] - was buttressed with two further arguments based on the ideal organization of society in a democracy. Pattison criticized the idea of a servant class as an inherently undemocratic holdover from "the Medieval form of contract."[48] What really seemed to bother her, though, was the idea of having servants "under one's roof."[49] The presence of servants and possible housekeepers or overseers of servants in the home affected the home as a social unit, weakening the boundary between home and world, transforming it along the lines of collective forms of housing.[50] Tellingly, Pattison saw this threat as a form of social infection, for the incorporation of the servant into the house had a morally enervating effect on the "vitality of the mistress" and, apparently, on the "educational standards" of children.[51] Pattison's conclusion brings both arguments together:

And so the Servant in the house seems a relic of past traditions that is not only outlived, and impossible to continue under present conditions, but an unhealthy and degenerating Contract for both employer and employee, spreading its malicious influence from the family throughout society.[52]

On the other end of the social scale, immigrant women were supposed to imbibe civics lessons - good, clean Americanism - with the cooking and cleaning lessons offered at settlement houses and through the work of 'friendly visitors.' In bettering their environments, immigrants bettered themselves, and in bettering themselves, learned to desire American ways of life. A 1916 article on "Americanizing Immigrant Homes," placed good home environment among the necessary grounds for citizenship:

Such desolate and socially isolated communities can become Americanized when the individuals concerned have been educated to appreciate the necessity for cleanliness, sanitation, sobriety, morality and literacy. When the women's work is never done, home life is destroyed, standards are lowered, Americanization is retarded, and the children's standard of citizenship are low.[53]

While the agency and immediate ends of reforms in wealthy homes and reforms in immigrant homes differed, the similarities between these projects are striking. In each case, reformers wished to establish 'correct' connections between home and world - neither socially isolated nor collectively organized - and in each case the idea of hygiene represented not only a method of attaining physical health, but also a means of transmitting or upholding patterns of social organization and conduct.

To understand how this reasoning worked, it is helpful to take a closer look at notions of general cleanliness, sanitation, and personal environment in this period. Echoing - or probably providing impetus to - the discourse of the frontier, the general formula for healthy interior environments in the period was to imitate the outdoors: increasing the cubic feet of space per inhabitant; improving ventilation to keep people from rebreathing used air; and increasing direct sunlight to banish germs or to purify air. These reforms, it seems, were to effect a spatial/existential rearrangement of inhabitants, putting them back in a properly direct relationship to the world. Pattison's explanations take on a somewhat transcendental tone when she describes Nature as itself a home; the more temporary structures of man must, she reasons, take the measure of domesticity from the out-of-doors:

Heat, light, air and water form this four-sided structure, while Heaven is its roof, and the Earth its foundation, and let us keep this picture ever in mind when we think of the houses built by man; for the necessity of these elements in quality and quantity is but crudely valued in the mind of the City. All are Nature's gifts, freely and wonderfully bestowed to lead man on to his best, and yet we shut out the light, cruelly tamper with the heat, ignorantly misuse the air, and willfully pollute the water, corrupting the earth and interpreting falsely the vision of Heaven.[54]

Like Turner's frontier, the experience of direct contact with nature made men more efficient and ultimately better suited for modern life. As Pattison claimed,

the intelligent appropriation of air, light, heat and water would make men more nearly men, than even reading, writing and arithmetic, and would establish the efficient life that in its larger feeling needs must have such equipment.[55]

The degeneracy produced by city life, in contrast, could be traced to very specific sources in the physical environment: and in general to the separation of man from nature. "There may be such a thing as too much shelter," mused Richards. "To cover too closely breeds decay."[56]

As Pattison's comments about pollution, corruption, and the "vision of heaven" indicate, the importance of contact with the elements grew not only from interest in establishing environmentally authentic dwellings, but also from beliefs about purity as moral and cosmic order, and from confusion about sanitary hygiene. Overlaps between moral and sanitary cleanliness have a millenial history, of course; but confusion grew especially intense in this period, and moral cleanliness, sanitary hygiene, and racial hygiene were frequently indistinguishable. Moreover, because sanitary hygiene frequently involved issues of good personal habits and behavior, the seemingly genetic issue of racial hygiene became caught up in issues of education and cultural transmission. Winfield Scott Hall thus claimed that race betterment could be accomplished both through heredity and through environment. A chief factor in environment, he claimed, was hygiene, which sought "to promote in the individual habits of life whose influence is to steady, and to stimulate, and to strengthen both physical and mental powers."[57] Hygiene was both bodily cleanliness and the general habits of life that kept the body clean. Hall's claims, in turn, closely echoed Richards's definition of sanitary hygiene as "euthenics," and her assertion that euthenics and eugenics were really the same thing. The difference, from Richards's point of view, was that euthenics was faster and surer of application than eugenics:

Eugenics deals with race improvement through heredity.
Euthenics deals with race improvement through environment.

Eugenics is hygiene for the future generations.
Euthenics is hygiene for the present generation.

Eugenics must await careful investigation.
Euthenics has immediate opportunity.

Euthenics precedes eugenics, developing better men now, and thus inevitably creating a better race of men in the future.[58]

Discursive impetus toward an interest in the hygienic management of spatial relationships between bodies came as well from scientific developments, or rather, from the reception and assimilation of the germ theory of disease into existing structures. In particular, the germ theory made possible metonymic associations between dirt and 'foreign elements' in bodies of all sorts. People had known for a long time that dirty, crowded conditions were conducive to disease. What the germ theory proved was the possibility of "importation from without": the possibility that infection could be transmitted from body to body by particles in the air.[59] The public, then, had to come to terms with the concepts of "the atmosphere as a vehicle of universal intercommunication," and of the human body as a permeable object constantly permeated by other bodies.[60]

While this information was widely available in the U.S. by the early 1880s, it was assimilated in very peculiar ways. One natural reaction was to assume that all disease, moral as well as physical, was produced by germs and nourished by dank, crowded conditions. Edward F. Hartman, testifying on the subject of sanitary inspection before the National Housing Association, applied the germ theory to housing, arguing that vice, like germs, grew in dark, cluttered places:

The aim of this sanitary inspection, as applied to tenements, is to guard against overcrowding, filth, bad ventilation, bad drainage and dampness. These conditions...produce immorality in many of its phases.... Another evil effect of bad housing is sickness, running through all the zymotic diseases, tuberculosis, nerve diseases, violence, insanity and many others.[61]

Further confusion arose from the tendency to conflate the massed, bacterial bearers of disease with the urban and immigrant masses who suffered from diseases. As hordes of germs could enter and infect the body, so immigrant bodies were believed to be capable of physically and morally infecting the national body - a logical slip which was reproduced in numerous legislative attempts to restrict entry of physical and political 'defectives' into the U.S.

The connection between personal and national infection created a new sense of the nation's boundaries. Now that the geographic frontier was closed, Richards claimed, greater attention must be given to the borders of the human:

...the dangers to modern life are no less than in the days of the pioneers, when a stockade was built as a defense from the Indians. We have no standards for safety. Our enemies are no longer Indians and wild animals...To see our cruelest enemies, we must use the microscope.[62]

The problem was that, while germs might create a frontier-like challenge for the nation, the ordinary person's inability to see and feel directly his or her opponents produced a failure of "belief," and thus an inability to develop the strong, fact-oriented, energetic personalities formerly created through contact with what Turner had called the "stubborn American environment."[63] Contact with germs and dirt became a metaphor for modernity, for inauthentic life, both because of the omnipresence of bacteria, the interpermeability of bodies, and because the average consumer's inability to see what afflicted him led him to a sense of disbelief and loss of agency. Claiming that uncleanness was the major problem facing the nation, Richards argued that poor environment both created and reflected a "loss of the higher sense of manhood, of the ambition to rise in the social scale, of the will to do great things."[64]

Richards's solution to this situation is perhaps best summed up by an extended mixed metaphor in the handbook, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning. The section on cleaning opens with a long explanation of dust and bacteria intended to give housekeepers a scientific background in the field. Richards explains that because germs and dust are a natural part of the world, "It behooves us...as inhabitants of this dust-formed and dust-beautified earth, to speak well of our habitation."[65] She then distinguishes dangerous germs from harmless ones on the analogy of a "typical community":

The majority of the individuals are law-abiding, respectable citizens; yet in some dark corner a thief may hide, or a cut-throat steal in unawares. If this happens, property may be destroyed and life itself endangered.

All of these forms destroy our property; but a certain few of the bacteria cause disease and death.[66]

In the first paragraph, Richards sets up an analogy between the destruction of "property" and disease. But in the next line she distinguishes between the common "forms" that "destroy our property," and the rarer ones which may cause death. The implication is that the destruction of the proper, of the sanctity of the human body, was inevitable, but that this invasion did not have to cause disease. Just as Richards rejected eugenics for euthenics, here she skirts the inevitability of contact with infectious particles by advocating "prevention" through "right living."[67]

"A process of purification, a process of rededication": like Wilson, Richards assumed the naturalness and inevitability of contact with foreign bodies. The question was how to manage infection, how "democratic idealism working through common interests" could reclaim genuineness, the proper, on a higher level.[68] Home economics was the perfect vehicle for transmitting these American ideals. As Hall's discussion of hygiene showed, hygiene was not just an issue of cleanliness, but of right living, transcending sanitation to become a system of applied ethics. Its promise was that of personal transformation, the complete human being as the completely efficient human being. The total readjustment demanded by home economics is hinted at in Richards's complaint that

Only a small percentage of adults obtain the full efficiency from the human machine...They permit themselves to stand and walk badly, they breathe with only a portion of their lungs, and so fail to furnish the blood stream with oxygen. They dress unhygienically. They eat wrongly. They exercise little.[69]

The new subject of euthenics was to secure his own happiness and that of the community by learning to live efficiently. This was, in turn, to be accomplished through the development of the will through "belief strong enough to ride over unbelief and inertia..."[70] If the will to standardization is a paradox, it is the same paradox we have seen at each level of this analysis, starting with the forming of bodies on the frontier. Here, however, we can get a closer look at the mechanism that made this possible.

This mechanism was the notion of habit. Late-nineteenth-century psychology defined habit as a point of connection between mind and body, the conscious and unconscious - as the set of tracks through which the "free" will ran free.[71] Just as Richards, faced with the impossibility of banishing all infection, redefined health as right living among germs, here, writers on habit, faced with the impossibility of defining and delimiting a will separate from the unconscious and from the body, recuperated free will as conditioning of the body. Thus, Richards advocated disciplined - that is, unconscious - inculcation of habits into children so that they might become self-reliant and energetic individuals.[72]

While Richards more or less wrote off adults as objects of such transformation, the (in)habitation of each individual's body was central to Pattison's proclaimed goal of reasserting the personal, cultural, and spiritual centrality of the home and of home-making. Translating the complaints of home-makers into the language of industrial management, Pattison believed that domestic engineering could recuperate the drudgery of housework as meaningful activity by eliminating fatigue, and that it could bring mind and body together in the systematization and standardization of physical movement:

We have for so long had such a false notion of the place and value of physical work, we have separated the mind from labor, even to the point of imagining one could think one's way through life, believing such an intellectual conception superior to the use of one's two hands.[73]

Claiming to rediscover authentic experience in house work, Pattison described domestic engineering at once as the rationalization of the home, and as a - quite irrational - conditioning of the homeworker's body. Chapter X, "The Elimination of Drudgery," set out to prove that cultivation is best achieved precisely through a "scientific" understanding of "the meaning and importance of the less interesting tasks."[74] Yet the pleasures she sought to revive in housekeeping did not come from the homeworker's sense of conscious control over her workspace. Anticipating Emerson's comments about the genuine American's willingness to accept "impossible drudgery," she claimed that drudgery was not a question of difficulty or repetitiveness, but of alienation, of not working authentically. Pattison ultimately found in her work the possibility for adjusting and making genuine the homeworker's experience of time and space. Pattison saw "in every motion" the possibility for a better orientation or in-formation of the body in space, eliminating the difference between work-time and play-time by turning repetition into rhythm, work into aesthetic experience.[75] Or again:

Motion Study becomes not only an economic necessity for the home, but a technique in bodily action, making for physical, mental and spiritual culture, or - as we prefer to call it - Personality culture - the development of the entire person.[76]

By perfecting the proper motions, the home-maker made both her home and herself. The genuineness of a genuine American home, then, came through the interaction of subject and environment; of external form and "form in use"; of habitation and properly (in)habited inhabitants.[77]

The same may be said on a larger scale. Raising the slogan, "[b]etter homes will give us better government, and better politics better homes," Progressive-era reformers used the breakdown of traditional boundaries within the body politic to renegotiate and to renew these borders.[78] Grafting physical and symbolic manifestations of the new, urban, and industrialized America onto ideals of an older, agrarian, and individualistic America, Progressive-era Americans (re)inserted themselves within a spatial/historical narrative based on the experience of the frontier. In doing so, they reinvented a sense of authentic identity - personal and national - within the conditions of modernity.

Previous Next Up  Comments


Notes

[1] Woodrow Wilson, Address, Citizenship Convention, Washington D.C., July 13, 1916, Americanization, ed. Winthrop Talbot (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1915) 29-31.

[2] For a helpful overview of anti-urbanism as part of an American republican tradition, see T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981) 26-32.

[3] Lears 4-5.

[4] Lears 42-6.

[5] Gwendolyn Wright, Moralism and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873-1913, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) 136.

[6] Wright 111.

[7] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1966) 200.

[8] Turner 227.

[9] Turner 201.

[10] Theodore Roosevelt, cited in Guy Emerson, The New Frontier. (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1920) 19.

[11] Emerson 32-3.

[12] Lawrence Veiller, Housing Reform: A Hand-Book for Practical Use in American Cities (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910) 6-7.

[13] Morris Knowles, "Housing and Americanization," Americanization, ed. Winthrop Talbot, (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1917) 259.

[14] Cf. Philip Davis, ed.Immigration and Americanization: Selected Readings. (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1920) 497-549.

[15] Eugene C Gardner, "Model Homes for Model Housekeeping (IV)," Good Housekeeping, July 25, 1885: 6.

[16] Wright 156. For a thorough study of experiments with cooperative house-keeping, see also Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981).

[17] Wright 156; Hayden 183-205.

[18] Ellen H. Richards, The Cost of Shelter (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1916) 9.

[19] Richards, Shelter 2.

[20] Richards, Shelter 2.

[21] Richards, Shelter 1.

[22] Richards, Shelter 2.

[23] Richards, Shelter 5.

[24] Jenna Weissman Joselit, "'A Set Table': Jewish Domestic Culture in the New World, 1880-1950," Getting Comfortable in New York: The American Jewish Home, 1880-1950, ed. Susan L. Braunstein and Jenna Weissman Joselit (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1990) 27.

[25] Wright 119.

[26] Turner 200.

[27] David P. Handlin, The American Home: Architecture and Society, 1815-1915 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979) 236-7; Wright 90-2.

[28] Handlin 238.

[29] Handlin 239-44.

[30] Cited in Wright 117.

[31] Wright 244-53.

[32] Richards, Shelter 84.

[33] Richards, Shelter 113.

[34] Richards, Shelter 112.

[35] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983) 98-9.

[36] Cowan 150.

[37] Betty Hawthorne, "The Heritage," Definitive Themes in Home Economics and Their Impact on Families (Washington, D.C.: American Home Economics Association, 1987) 3. For an in-depth study of the connections between business management and home economics, see also Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982) 202-23.

[38] Hayden 148.

[39] Hayden 4.

[40] Mary Pattison, Principles of Domestic Engineering (New York: The Trow Press, 1915) 147.

[41] Pattison 73-9.

[42] Ellen H. Richards and S. Maria Elliott, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers (Boston: Whitcomb and Barrows, 1910) 145.

[43] Wright 156; Cowan 69-101.

[44] Pattison 174.

[45] Pattison 265

[46] Pattison 189; Pattison 247; Pattison 251; Pattison 283; Pattison 298.

[47] Pattison 58.

[48] Pattison 3.

[49] Pattison 58.

[50] Pattison 58.

[51] Pattison 58.

[52] Pattison 58.

[53] Joseph Mayper,"Americanizing Immigrant Homes," The Immigrants in America Review 2 (1916): 55.

[54] Pattison 274-5.

[55] Pattison 275.

[56] Richards, Shelter 7.

[57] Winfield Scott Hall,"The Relation of Education in Sex to Race Betterment," Social Hygiene, December, 1914: 67.

[58] Richards, Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environments, (Boston: Whitcomb and Barrows,1910) viii.

[59] John Tyndall, F.R.S. Essays on the Floating-Matter of the Air in Relation to Putrefaction and Infection (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1882) xii-xiii.

[60] Tyndall xiii.

[61] Edward F.Hartman, "Sanitary Inspection of Tenements," Housing Problems in America (New York: American Housing Association, 1911) 77-8.

[62] Richards, Euthenics 19.

[63] Richards, Euthenics 18; Turner 227.

[64] Ellen H. Richards, The Cost of Cleanness (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1914) 31-2.

[65] Richards and Elliott 72.

[66] Richards and Elliott 79.

[67] Richards, Euthenics viii.

[68] Richards, Euthenics vii.

[69] Richards, Euthenics 30.

[70] Richards, Euthenics 18.

[71] See, for instance, William James's definition of habit in Principles of Psychology as a "pathway of discharge formed in the brain." [William James, "Habit," The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (New York: Random House, 1967) 9]

[72] Richards, Euthenics 82.

[73] Pattison 98.

[74] Pattison 96.

[75] Pattison 100.

[76] Pattison 104.

[77] Pattison 103.

[78] Pattison 250.