From the piss-stained walls of Bethlem Hospital to the ‘indigent, filthy or decrepit women’ who cared for parish-children, filth and dirt provided a common currency for identifying the bodies and dwellings of the poor. This enduring eighteenth-century legacy of the fetid body and foul repugnant alley inexorably linked to poverty, however, conceals a complex hinterland of cleanliness and its associated regimen. This paper argues that the poor not only participated in acts of cleanliness, but they did so in multiple ways, more often than not as strategists engaging in actions that enabled them to acquire clean clothing, bodies, or surroundings.
The ‘new’ institutions of the eighteenth century - the workhouse, the voluntary hospital and the associational charity - advocated specific and very visible modes of cleanliness, the most common of which was the ‘white linen’ regimen. In turn, the poor, as inmates, patients, and recipients of charity used this burgeoning welfare system to access ‘hygienic’ advantage for themselves and their families. In the process, the ‘white linen’ regimen was promulgated as thousands of Londoners ‘churned’ through London’s institutions. By locating a history of eighteenth-century cleanliness in the specific circumstances of class, community and gender this paper will provide a more rounded view of engagement with and experience of cleanliness in the long eighteenth century.
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