American wasteland : a social and cultural history of excrement, 1860-1920
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Human excrement is seldom considered to be an integral part of the human condition. Despite the relative silence regarding it, however, excrement has played a significant role in American history. Today the U.S. has more than two million miles of sewer pipes underneath it. Every year Americans flush more than a trillion gallons of water and fertilizer down the toilet, and farmers spend billions of dollars to buy artificial fertilizer. Furthermore, excrement is bound up in many complicated power relationships regarding race, gender, and ethnicity. This dissertation examines the period in American history, from the Civil War through the Progressive Era, when excrement transformed from commodity to waste. More specifically, it examines the cultural and social factors that led to its formulation as waste and the roles it played in the histories of American health, architecture, and imperialism. The first chapter assesses the vast changes to the country’s infrastructure and social fabric beginning in the late nineteenth century. On the subterranean level, much of America’s immense network of sewers was constructed during this era—making it one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history. Above ground, the United States Sanitary Commission, founded at the onset of the Civil War, commenced a widespread creation of sanitary commissions in municipalities, regions, and even internationally, that regulated defecation habits. Chapter Two assesses the social and architectural change that occurred as the toilet moved from the outhouse to inside the house—specifically, how awkwardly newly built homes accommodated this novel room and how the toilet’s move inside actually hastened its removal. The third chapter shifts focus to the way Americans considered their excrement in relation to their body in a time when efficiency a great virtue. Americans feared ailments related to “autointoxication” (constipation) and went to absurd lengths to rid their bodies of excrement. The fourth chapter analyzes the way excrement was racialized and the role it had in the various projects of American imperialism. The colonial subjects and potential American citizens—from Native Americans to Cubans, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans—were regularly scrutinized, punished, and re-educated regarding their defecation habits.