Race, Soap, and Environmental Inequalities in Gilded-Age America

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Carl A. Zimring, Roosevelt University
This poster builds upon the literature arguing that racial discrimination produces inequities in how people experience the environment (including exposure to hazards, public health services and aesthetic amenities such as parks) by arguing that ideals of clean environments have shaped constructions of race in the United States.  Assessing people as clean or dirty depending on racial identity became more common in the years after the Civil War.  In turn, these attitudes about racial hygiene informed the reorganization of the American environment in the early twentieth century, shaping how waste management systems operated and how private and public real estate markets segregated housing.  With fears of dirt, disease, and degeneracy established, American ideas of hygiene created a racist assumption cleanliness depended upon race, with whites the cleanest and most advanced people possible.  This was articulated in many ways, including advertisements for soaps and cleansers distributed widely throughout the United States between 1880 and 1914 (several of which are presented here, courtesy of the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, National Museum of American History Archives Center).  The poster is part of a larger research project about the development of whiteness and environmental racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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