Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked […] The heat […] was unbearable […] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.


Shoes like those would hurt my feet

When you think of archaeology, perhaps you think of digging in the ground for things that were made before people wrote anything down.

And the word ‘history’ might call up the image of handwritten papers hidden in archives.

Yet so much that is important about our past, falls in the crevices between these domains.

Luckily, good scholars from all disciplines have long realised this. They have braved the forces that keep them within their disciplinary boundaries (the way university departments, library shelves and academic degrees are organised for example. But foremostly their own exponential lack of time as the mass of writing about the past bulks up). So, they have studied the things in between – not just since the latest MacArthur award, as that jury report suggested, but for many years.

Classicists study what is written on objects, thus bridging the gap between things and words.

Medievalists, although often to be found within history departments, routinely use textless objects and images in their work.

Material culture scholars of North America have since long been interested in the homemade goods that European settlers were living by.

The archaeology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial sites is blooming, for example in Sheffield.

Anthropologists do not just exchange stories with the people(s) they work with, but objects, too.

And I could go on, mentioning sociology, geography, science and technology studies…

The truth is, the most interesting things are often not be found within disciplines, but in between. From all sides, we have to make an effort to figure out what is important. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on to understand how things work, no matter whether we call ourselves historians (as I happen to do) or something else.

The challenge therefore is not to start to study objects, as the MacArthur Foundation claimed. It is in how we use objects as sources, as data, as bits of information.

To begin with a rather well-known use of things as sources: the BBC and Discovery Channel regularly broadcast spectacular shows about dives for Ancient Greek ships. Such investigations show with what other cultures, Mediterranean settlements traded their wares. So, objects can demonstrate links and networks of communication.

But things get really exciting (in my opinion) when they bring us straight back to how individual persons of the past lived their lives.


Marie Antoinette, painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Wikimedia Commons

The way objects were designed, for example, open up a view to all sorts of past practices. How else could the most famous Queen of France enter through a door but sideways, for example? Folding-up hoops might have been practical, but they would have taken away from the very decorum her dresses were meant to heighten. Perhaps the answer is that she avoided buildings with narrow corridors and doorways altogether?

Another example of arguing back from design to practice: did her contemporaries ‘switch off’ the heating in spring sooner than modern Europeans? After all, their many layers of clothing provided excellent insulation. Indeed, it seems they did, although there was quite a bit of regional variation in preference as well. (I must confess that I cheated here: I found this out using written sources. As I said before: you have to use anything you can lay your hands on.)

Secondly, the way things have worn out or broken down can reveal how often they were used and in what circumstances.

Many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europeans aspired to a fancy room in their homes. But did they ever use it? As you would expect, the actual living was of course done in the kitchen. You or your parents may remember sitting up in the drawing-room on Sundays, bored and afraid of breaking a china teacup. It’s the ugly and chipped crockery and furniture – the things that you don’t normally get to see in museums – that really tell the story of everyday life.


Passport belonging to Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, 1833: Museum Meermanno/Huis van het Boek, The Hague, 70/154-161, photo by APHG

Take a look at this passport, for instance. If it had been your own expired passport, you might throw it away. So we are lucky to have this proof of how intensively it was used by its owner, an early-nineteenth-century Dutch traveller. It was taken out of his pocket and handled by customs officers all over Europe in almost every city he travelled through.

It is when we want to know not just how people went about their everyday lives, but how they liked it, that things become tricky.

When we see a photo of a nineteenth-century ‘slum’, for example, many of us are trained to judge this environment as dirty and uncomfortable. But this judgement has been passed on to us by the busybody elites that tried to gain influence over the working areas of their towns.

What we want to know is, on the contrary, how the inhabitants themselves of those workers’ quarters experienced their lives. It is quite plausible that for a great part of their everyday activities they were perfectly at ease there. But without recourse to their writings (and they did not leave many on the topic of interior decoration or city planning), it remains hard to tell.

The problem here is that when we try to conclude anything from material sources, we tend to assume a high degree of similarity between people of the past and ourselves. And it has been European elites who have determined the greatest part of our views on the past. If we give in too much to the temptation to see, for example, two-hundred-year-old slums through present-day European eyes, that would destroy the very point of doing history!

How to deal with this problem?


Jacob Olie, photo of the Amsterdam alley Gebed zonder end, 1892, from the Amsterdam city image base (beeldbank.amsterdam.nl).

One non-textual strategy would be to again take a look at practices.

People modify their environment when they are dissatisfied with the way it looks. Have a close look at the photo above: you will find that the inhabitants of these rooms have added potted plants to their view. So because we in fact find workers decorate their homes, it is reasonable to conclude that they cared about their homes and had the power to adapt them to their own liking – at least somewhat.

Another strategy works only with those things that we believe have not changed too dramatically over the course of history. Our bodies might be one such thing, at least partially (the history of body-shaping practices like wearing corsets and binding feet should not be overlooked).

If it is not too frivolous to assume, then, that the nineteenth-century British left foot was different from its right foot, just as it is today, what to make of the fact that before the twentieth century, many left and right shoes were exact copies of each other (this seems to be an example)? Even (ladies’) walking boots did not distinguish between left and right.

If we, again, may assume that feet could ache in the same way then as they can now, we (whether ‘we’ are art historians, archaeologists, or whatever) may have learnt something about nineteenth-century walking experiences from looking at an old shoe.

Note: A shorter version of this column appears on the History Matters website of the University of Sheffield.