Bitch|Lab’s post on how the current argument about whether feminism or technology have done more to free women from the “drudgery” of housework ignores dimensions of race and class as well as the historic construction of notions of cleanliness and morality brought to mind an essay I wrote long ago. At the turn of the 20th century, middle-class women engaged in what was essentially a missionary effort directed towards poor immigrants, establishing “settlements” in poverty-stricken areas like the Lower East Side and offering instruction on diet, hygiene, and good citizenship, all with a healthy dose of moralizing.

Among the lessons settlement house workers aimed to teach was how to be suitably poor. While immigrants bought lavish furniture and decorations, often on credit, in part as an attempt to accumulate and master the symbols of American affluence, settlement house workers created “model homes” furnished in Shaker simplicity and devoid of clutter — and, for many immigrants, devoid of any semblance of human occupation.

I’ve posted the whole essay — it’s long (about 30-odd pages as written, probably about half that without the double-spacing) and covers a lot more than just standards of cleanliness, but I think all of it is fairly relevant to Bitch|Lab’s point.

Uptown/Downtown: The Settlement Movement and Jewish Immigrants, 1880 – 1920

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