Stink is the thread that pulls the exhibition together

BACK STORY

March 22, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

Splish, splash I was takin a bath

Long about a Saturday night

Bobby Darin

Judging by the runaway success of Rose George's recently published book, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, which I haven't read yet and am still trying to obtain a copy of, fascination with bodily functions seemingly knows no bounds.

My interest in the subject was additionally piqued by a recent e-mail from the Johns Hopkins University that announced the opening of "Next to Godliness in Early Maryland," a student-curated exhibition at Homewood.

The exhibition, which opened in late January, explores the myths, manners and material goods of personal hygiene and cleanliness in 19th-century Maryland.

Off I went to Homewood, the summer home of Charles Carroll Jr., built in 1801. He moved his family there in the summer to escape the searing heat and yellow fever epidemics that routinely swept through the city.

Taking a look at the exhibition, one is immediately struck with the notion that our ancestors were just as obsessed with such matters as we are today.

The research and artifacts in the exhibit were the work of about a dozen Hopkins undergraduates enrolled during the fall semester in Catherine Rogers Arthur's Introduction to Material Culture class.

"My students learned that people are more the same over time than different," said Arthur.

They used the Carroll family as the backdrop for their research, which encompassed reading period newspapers, health manuals and other contemporary accounts.

Some of the objects on display were of a Carroll family provenance, while others were borrowed from local and regional museums.

Arthur, who has been Homewood Museum curator since 1997, said her students met weekly to discuss bathroom habits, bathing, shaving, dental care, cosmetics, feminine hygiene and other elements such as laundering and housekeeping that helped reduce or control household or bodily odors.

"Stink is the whole thread that pulls this exhibition together," Arthur said, with a laugh, as she led a visitor to a room in the house where a gorgeous dark polished Hepplewhite nightstand stood against a wall.

Inside nestled an English white stoneware chamber pot, where it was placed after being used until a servant emptied its contents the next morning, scrubbed, and then placed it in the sun for drying.

"This really is the forerunner of what we call today a nightstand or night table," Rogers pointed out.

Even though Carroll had constructed a rather spacious brick outhouse that to a 21st-century eye resembles garden shed, stood some distance away from Homewood, the chamber pot and nightstand represented a most welcomed modern convenience of sorts, before the invention of the flush toilet and its installation in homes became commonplace.

"It saved the Carrolls from making mad midnight dashes to the outhouse," Arthur said.

An 1804 newspaper account on how to keep an outhouse smelling, well, bearable, advised servants to use lime and soda ash to help in the decomposition process and help disperse the inevitable foul odors.

Also, this simple act helped prevent the "putrefactive process from doing injury to those using the privy," and would cut down on the "noxious exhalations from excrementitious and other daily matter daily deposited" that could affect the health of the residents.

Bathing, while infrequent, eventually gained in popularity by the turn of the 19th century, when it was thought to have certain health benefits. "Charles Carroll of Carrollton preferred a cold bath because he felt the shock to the system was good regime and promoted longevity," Arthur said.

(He was 95 when he died in 1832, so maybe he was on to something).

Thomas Ewell in his 1817 book, Letters to Ladies: Detailing Important Information Concerning Themselves and Infants, focused on the armpit as emblematic of daily hygienic attention.

"There is no case in which the arm pit cannot be made perfectly mild in its smell by daily rubbing with soap and a wet cloth. Lime water - has been preferred by many - among those who smell so very rank, I would advise the cutting off the hair in the beginning, so that the daily washing may be more effectual in cleansing the skin," he wrote.

Bidets were also commonly used for self-cleansing, and on display is a French silver- plated traveling model from 1805 that belonged to Betsy Patterson, the Baltimore belle who was briefly married to Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother.

It seems that George Washington, the nation's first president, was fond of the bidet. "It is listed in his inventory at Mount Vernon," according to Arthur.

Regarding menstruation, she said since this was the pre-sanitary napkin age, women used rags or sponges.

Cosmetics and perfumes were commercially available or could be made at home, and the prevailing look one strived for was pale for the upper classes, while a tan look marked one as a member of the lower class and quite possibly a laborer.

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