United States of America: the land of innocent filth

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, when industrialization was shaking great Britain, the newly independent United States of America remained predominantly a country of peasants, settlers and colonists. According to the first U.S. census, conducted in 1790, only one in twenty Americans was a citizen. Most Americans lived in villages and hamlets.

Perhaps because of their predominantly rural lifestyle, Americans seemed particularly dirty to Europeans. According to William Fo, a traveller from England, they were ” like animals.” “Dirty hands, heads and faces everywhere,” he noted. The United States of America was then a developing country. The shoes were much too expensive, it was worn only in winter. Mosquitoes, ticks and ants attacked people in hordes. Flies swarmed over the food. In 1818, another English visitor described life in this country as: “the streets are a mess… everywhere scattered pieces of wood, timber, boards, chips, and pigs and cows roam everywhere… scattered.”

At about the same time Charles Dickens described London as: “Dogs indistinguishable under the mud, horses — hardly better: stained to the eyes… make new contributions, layer by layer, in the layers of dirt that clings in these places on the sidewalk.” This description suggests that this dislike is due to the characteristic British contempt for foreign subjects. Leaving aside the untidy appearance, the skeletal remains of people who died in the early eighteenth century suggest that Americans ate better, were taller and healthier than their English contemporaries.

In all probability, the untidiness of the Americans was not an unhealthy habit, but rather indicated that the composition of the population was dominated by rural people who cultivated the land. Perhaps some Americans even treated dirt with reverence. “From the point of view of hard-working peasant families from New England or the Midwest, dirt was something positive, even healthy,”Suellen hoy writes in her book Chasing Dirt. “The most important thing was that it provided food in the form of cereals.”

Then the revolution that changed great Britain came to American soil. American cities began to grow. Between 1820 and 1850, the number of residents in the middle section of Lower Manhattan increased from 157.5 to 272.5. Irish immigration caused by famine contributed to this growth. Like London, new York has become a hideous place. Pets lived in the basement. People slept on planks piled up on the slopes of the ground. Waste of all kinds (including animal corpses and tons of manure) littered the city streets. (According to some estimates, there were about 130,000 horses in late nineteenth-century new York, each producing an average of ten kilograms of manure and more than a liter of urine per day, equivalent to 45 garbage trucks carrying horse excrement.)

In 1865, sanitary reformer Stephen Smith described new York as a city drowning in rotting fruits and vegetables, animal corpses, ash, and human excrement. “The sad fact is that about 50% of deaths in cities are due to such causes, which means that this could have been avoided,” he later wrote the Medical Times newspaper agreed. “The country is horrified when thousands of people die in a poorly organized battle — in all likelihood, it is a Civil war-but in this city every year 10,000 people die from diseases that can prevent the city authorities — and no one is shocked.” Such indifference could not last forever.

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