The Search for Purity

Historian Kendra Smith-Howard, whose newest work focuses on the environmental, health and consumeristic aspects of cleaning products in 20th Century America. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)  

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 4, 2016) — Exhaustively researching the 20th Century environmental, health and consumerism aspects of the matter, historian Kendra Smith-Howard in 2013 told the world just how much milk has meant.

Now, she is taking on the meaning of cleaning.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, impressed not only by the academic acclaim given Smith-Howard’s Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900 (Oxford University Press), but by the scope of her new study, titled The Dirty History of Cleaning Up in America, 1900-2000, granted her a coveted Summer Stipend award.

The NEH funding, granted to less than 10 percent of all applicants, will allow Smith-Howard to research in Georgia and Washington State this summer. She aims to have a manuscript completed by December 2017.

“I was definitely surprised by the stipend,” said Smith-Howard, a faculty member in the Department of History. “I know many applicants resubmit multiple times, and I am quite early in the process of this project, so I did not expect to be successful.”

“Archival research and writing is time-consuming, and often times in the archives leads to bigger and different challenges. Combined with a sabbatical in the spring 2017 term, this will definitely help, because I will be able to spend the sabbatical writing instead of doing the research.”

Although Cleaning Up is a new project, the themes and research for it grow out of Smith-Howard’s established research interests, as articulated in Pure and Modern Milk.

“I think the main threads are threefold,” she said. “First, in the book about milk, I wrote much about the concept of purity — those concerns, like those of cleanliness, are about how to eliminate bacterial hazards. “But, just as consumers became more concerned in the 1950s and 1960s about keeping foods free of technological residues like antibiotics or pesticides, so also did regulators and public health agents want to keep living spaces free from fumes or ill effects of cleaning products.”

As with the dairy book, Smith-Howard is also interested in the sites of product manufacture. She recently researched at the Minnesota Historical Society, where she went through the business records of a company that manufactured dishwashing and general purposes cleaners. This summer, she will go to Georgia, where oleoresins of pine trees were remade into disinfectants, and Washington, where paper pulp was puffed into disposable diapers (and where a nurses’ association organized to decry their environmental risk).

Thirdly, she said, “I’m interested in the intersection between environmental quality and human health. How do we produce nutritious foods in sufficient quantity, give a decent return to producers, and still keep waterways clean? How do we create effective cleaners and efficient means of dealing with stains and messes, and protect the health of those using them?”

While Smith-Howard expects to submit Cleaning Up to an academic press, she anticipates that, like Pure and Modern Milk, excerpts and themes will circulate in popular media.

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