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What Clean Should Smell Like: Body Work, Laundry, and the Politics of Nature in the US, 1931-1947

Sat, April 1, 10:30am to 12:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Huron


Beyond the farm field, fishery, and mine, this paper focuses on changing human relationships to wild nature in the ostensibly domesticated spaces of the household and commercial steam laundry. Tracing the messy interactions of American appliance manufacturers, federal policymakers, and individual laundry-workers themselves in the decades surrounding World War II, the paper argues that it was commercial chemistry firms—Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, and Norda Essential Oil, in particular—who were most central to remaking consumer expectations for cleanliness in the early twentieth century US. Teaching consumers to trust their bodily sensations, cleanliness at the hands of these firms was increasingly scented, brightly colored, and obtained through the use of electronic rather than muscular means. But the construction of cleanliness was not simply a commercial or consumer act: ecological catastrophe decimating global vetiver production, regional hard water vexing attempts to market a truly nationwide detergent, and the materiality of cotton fabric functioned to shape consumer expectations for what cleanliness should look and smell like, and how much work it should take to obtain. Reminding us that domestic work has always been a form of labor and also an ecological act, my paper uses the lens of the body to re-notice those overlooked individuals—black washerwomen, steam laundry operators, unpaid housewife labor—whose work was remade in the laboratory—and whose work has shaped American relationships to the natural world in the first half of the twentieth century.