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History's U-Turns Can Be The Best Guide to Present, Future

Contemporary issues grew out of 19th-century agendas

By Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marienwho writes from LaFayette, N.Y., teaches fine arts at Syracuse University. / April 27, 1995



CHASING DIRT: THE AMERICAN PURSUIT OF CLEANLINESS

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By Suellen Hoy

Oxford University Press

258 pp., $25

DISCIPLINES OF VIRTUE: GIRLS' CULTURE IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES

By Lynne Vallone

Yale University Press

226 pp., $50

FOR MY BEST BELOVED SISTER MIA: AN ALBUM OF PHOTOGRAPHS BY JULIA MARGARET CAMERON

University of New Mexico Press, 64 pp., $24

SELF RULE: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

By Robert H. Wiebe

University of Chicago Press 321 pp., $25.95

FACING FACTS: REALISM IN AMERICAN THOUGHT AND CULTURE, 1850-1920

By David E. Shi

Oxford University Press

394 pp., $35

THE MACHINE IN AMERICA: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY

By Carroll Pursell

358 pp., $45 (cloth), $15.95 (paper)

LANDSCAPE IN AMERICA

Edited by George F. Thomson

University of Texas Press

301 pp., $55 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)

NOT too long ago, the approaching millennium was envisioned as a streamlined utopia. Kids soared to school via jet-packs; families arrived home to nutritious meals beamed hot from a central kitchen.

Now, with the 21st century within hailing distance, the year 2000 looks like any other new year. The past attracts us more than the future. History's U-turns seem aptly to mirror our current speculations on the next decade.

The ways in which the past enfolds the future is the subject of several accessible and comprehensive studies published this spring by the university presses.

These new books resolutely moor large contemporary issues from our everyday lives -- matters as mundane as cleanliness, as vital as democratic pluralism, as psyche-wrenching as technological change, as basic as gender roles -- to common origins. In each case, historical examination enlarges the notions that inform us about them.

In Chasing Dirt: the American Pursuit of Cleanliness, Suellen Hoy traces the modern notion of hygiene from its origin in 19th-century reform movements to its peak in the immediate post-World War II era.

Through vivid anecdotes drawn from domestic and corporate life, Hoy establishes how patriotism, social progress, and visions of personal advancement were orchestrated to change national standards. In the 1970s, concern with outdoor pollution was appended to the quest for cleanliness.

Ironically, environmentalism targets excessive packaging and litter, a significant proportion of which is produced for cleanliness products. Hoy concludes that in the 1990s, we are not as clean as we used to be. With more men and women working away from home, domestic standards have altered.

Historically, women have been mainstays of household order. Throughout childhood, girls were trained to nurture and to reform personal character. In an analysis of housekeeping advice and instructional manuals, as well as legal practices, social institutions, and literary sources, Lynne Vallone explores Disciplines of Virtue: Girls' Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

By demonstrating the spectrum of cultural concern with girlhood, Vallone hopes to constitute female adolescence as a subject in contemporary feminist thought. Her discussion dwells on the repressive aspects of culture. Hence, the book occasionally obscures how creativity and fine feeling can persist despite social restrictions.

A recent exhibition catalog, For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, demonstrates both the solace of sisterhood and the range of women's imaginative enterprise. The celebrated 19th-century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, had been using the camera for about a year when she sent her invalid sister Mia a large album of mostly blank pages.

In the succeeding years, Cameron filled the album with photographs ranging from depictions of family life to striking portraits of prominent painters and writers, like William Holman Hunt and Alfred Tennyson. Cameron's ingenious integration of personal and public life in the so-called Mia Album bespeaks the accomplishment possible for women within the dominant values of Victorian life.

The subordinate social status of women highlights a historical paradox discussed in Robert H. Wiebe's, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy. Wiebe recounts the development of American democracy, a genuinely progressive idea and political practice that in its original form excluded women and persons of color.