Domesticating Water: 100 Years of Household Water Softening

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, December 10, 2019
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a talk by Alexandra Straub, Cain Dissertation Fellow at the Science History Institute.

In household work water is critical; however, not all water is created equally either chemically or culturally. People engaged in domestic work agreed that hard water, or water with high amounts of minerals, was not sufficient for work in the home due in the most part to its propensity to waste soap, a valuable household tool. This talk explores 100 years of acquiring and making soft water for domestic use, from the erection of rain-catchment devices through the addition of synthetic chemicals to laundry detergents. The examination of water for domestic use illuminates the role of women in managing household water systems, while simultaneously emphasizing the regularity and uniformity of control over nonhuman nature in the home.

About the Speaker


Alexandra Straub

Alexandra Straub

Science History Institute/Jay Muhlin

Alexandra Straub is a historian of environment, science, and technology. Her dissertation, “Making Water Pure: A History of Water Softening from Potash to Tide,” explores the history of chemical and mechanical water softening. Her research traces the evolution from homemade chemical remedies of the 19th century to an increasingly complex and specialized water-softening industry that served both industrial and domestic needs. An exploration of water softening in both the domestic and industrial arenas illuminates the regularity and uniformity of environmental control in some unsuspected spaces, such as the belly of a locomotive, a textile plant, and a woman’s washtub.

Alexandra is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Temple University. She has received dissertation support from Hagley Museum and Library and the Center for the Humanities at Temple University.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.