Brown Bag Lecture: What Clean Smells Like: Commercial Chemists and the Politics of Women’s Work in the Mid-Century United States

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, February 13, 2017
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture with Spring Greeney, one of our 2016–2017 Short-Term Fellows.

What should a clean shirt smell like? Commercial detergent manufacturers in the 1950s United States offered an array of branded suggestions: Oxygel, Ivory Snow, Lux, Chipso, and Selox crowded grocery-store shelves and the pages of magazines like Redbook. This vision of standardized and synthesized clean laundry represented a sea change in consumer expectations from just three decades earlier. Recalled homemaker Viola Smith, of her 1920s childhood doing laundry in rural Kentucky, “We’d get sassafras bark, scrape it and put it in some [washtub] and some we’d get birch to make it smell good.” Cleanliness for Smith smelled of the Appalachian foothills where she lived and required a day’s worth of labor each week—a stark difference from what detergent manufacturers would sell just three decades later. How and why did these changes come to pass? What role did commercial chemists and washerwomen themselves play in redefining cleanliness? Refuting the notion that washing laundry has ever just been “women’s work,” this presentation tells the surprising story of the men and women who remade the work of washing laundry in the 20th-century United States—a process that also reimagined the meaning of “women’s work” and remade our interactions with the natural world always present in our homes. 

Spring Greeney is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation, an environmental history of doing the wash, examines how laundry workers and commercial chemists remade the smell of cleanliness over the past 150 years of U.S. history, a process transforming the types of nature that laundry’s doers—unpaid women, paid piecemeal laundresses, steam laundry employees, dry cleaners—have encountered in our ostensibly domesticated spaces.