Lest We Forget: The Pilgrims’ Foul Bodies

Sarah Underwood—

I assume that this week, the halls of elementary schools across America have been decorated with Pilgrim men and women, whose shiny buckles and white aprons were cut cleanly from construction paper. I don’t remember ever drawing stains or smudges on my Pilgrims’ clothing as a kid. According to Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, however, if we were to travel back to the first Thanksgiving, we would have to hold our noses through the whole meal. We would consider the standards of hygiene the Pilgrims brought with them from the Old World severely lacking and their attempts to implement them in the New World even worse. Whereas we consider water the main ingredient in our recipes for cleanliness, early Americans focused their sanitary regimens around linen. “Linen,” as Brown explains, is a vague term. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, western Europeans used it sometimes to refer to a certain fabric but more often to any “textile goods that had intimate contact with the body.” Instead of bathing with water and soap, the Pilgrims, like their European relatives, trusted their cleanliness to a linen shirt or shift worn next to the skin and under all their outerwear. This garment was supposed to absorb all dirt and sweat from the body, making it both an intimate and a repulsive article of clothing. Unfortunately unlike wealthy Europeans, Pilgrims could not afford to change or wash their shifts frequently, meaning that their dry “baths” were few and far between.

For the early Americans at both Plymouth and the Chesapeake-based colonies, the idea of cleanliness incorporated much more than the absence of bodily filth. Moral and spiritual purity were just as important and often intertwined with physical purity. After half the Mayflower survivors died in the first two months of 1621, William Bradford tried to establish a system of communal labor to make life more efficient for the survivors. This meant, though, that women would have to launder the clothes of men who were not their husbands. In England, the title of laundress was stained with slurs—“jade” and “slut” among them. The associations partially arose from the fact that many laundresses, especially in London, prostituted themselves to supplement their income. But Brown suggests that one of the strongest reasons that the English suspected their laundry maids of immorality was that these women handled the most intimate personal possessions and were therefore privy to secrets only the household should have known. Stains on shirts and bed linens revealed evidence of “sexual activity, menstruation, and illness.” The Pilgrim women who had to clean their neighbors’ linens objected to the personal nature of the work, and their husbands were concerned with the almost illicit, adulterous position into which laundry forced their wives. It is no surprise that after less than two years, Bradford had to abandon his plan for the equal division of labor.


Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

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