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Danna Nishmas on Fear in a Handful of Dust
25 November, 2023
In Victoria Rosner’s text, “Fear in a Handful of Dust,” she discusses how the germ theory led to a paradigm shift in how people started to view spaces, specifically the cleanliness of them. Rosner explains how senses used to be the main assessment of hygiene, meaning that people would rely on vision and smell to determine what would be clean. The germ theory created a “rupture in the relationship between the senses and hygiene” as “cleanliness was being redefined as necessary for the prevention of disease.” Through a feminist lens, she explains how this shift in perception of cleanliness fell on the hands of “housewives” who were the ones deemed responsible for preventing the spread of diseases coming from the home.
The germ theory was most powerful during the influenza epidemic of 1918. There was anxiety associated with not being able to see germs so one would never know who the next influenza victim would be. Therefore, the best way to prevent something contagious and threatening, yet invisible, was to start by clearing spaces and surfaces of any dirt or cluster of objects. There was a desire for making designs more transparent, clear and simple, therefore putting more importance on modernist aesthetics during this time. This was true of institutions that dealt directly with germs, such as hospitals, which created an institutional look. As much as hospitals were spaces that took care of those who already had the disease, many believed most germs derived from the home. According to Rosner, the modern house was not just categorized as such through its aesthetics, it also implied that it was properly maintained and had no dust.
During the early 20th century, the main caretaker in domestic spaces was either the “housewife” or “mistress.” This would mean it was the woman’s duty to maintain cleanliness to prevent anyone from contracting a disease and spreading it to people outside the home. As Rosner quotes The Science of Homemaking, by Kate Kennedy, “dust is one of the deadly enemies of the housewife. There is a continual war raging between them. Dust brings germs of disease and ill health in its trail.” Rosner uses domestic manuals from the same period to prove how anxieties around the germ theory fell upon the female’s supposedly main role, such as taking care of her family and household chores. If there is too much dust and a member is infected with a disease, then it is the woman’s fault for not doing a better job.
To conclude, even though the germ theory was meant to be a new scientific phenomenon in the early 20th century, which would help us understand how to prevent contagious diseases, it also ended up affecting the way we understand spaces, especially within our own home. Recently we experienced a new pandemic, known as covid, which once again made us question how we clean and maintain our space to prevent contagions. How did gender play a role in maintaining the spaces we lived in during this new pandemic, if at all?