Johns Hopkins Gazette | January 26, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 26, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 19
Entertaining, Blush-worthy Exhibition Illuminates Taboo Subject

In early Maryland, a "night table" such as this ca. 1800 beauty with a Carroll family provenance was much more convenient than a middle-of-the-night dash to the privy. This example is designed to appear as if it is a small chest of drawers when closed and includes the technological advance of a flush mechanism.
Photo by Jay VanRensselaer / HIPS

By Heather Egan Stalfort
Johns Hopkins University Museums

The myths, manners and material goods of personal hygiene and cleanliness in early-19th-century Maryland are explored in Next to Godliness: Cleanliness in Early Maryland, a student-curated focus show that opens with a free reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

On view at The Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Museum from Thursday, Jan. 29, through Sunday, March 29, this entertaining and blush-worthy exhibition illuminates a taboo subject that isn't found in history books, offering keen insight into the daily lives of early Marylanders, from the way they smelled to what a typical trip to the bathroom entailed.

Museum guests will be privy to the story of a time before public sanitation systems and laws, and when scientific theories about germs were just developing. The title of the exhibition comes from the ancient Hebrew proverb "Cleanliness is next to godliness," which was later adopted as a Christian ideal. The lighthearted mantra for keeping fresh and tidy belied the often life-or-death importance of hygiene to people of the day. When Charles Carroll Jr. built Homewood as his country house in 1801, he deliberately chose an airy, woodsy haven so that he and his family could flee humid summers in downtown Baltimore, where epidemics of yellow fever and cases of ringworm were causes for concern.

Next to Godliness is the culmination of the undergraduate seminar Introduction to Material Culture, taught during the fall 2008 semester by Catherine Rogers Arthur, Homewood director and curator. The class of 10 students met weekly in Homewood's wine cellar to discuss their research, findings and exhibition planning, which centered on such themes as bathing, shaving, dental care, cosmetics, feminine hygiene, standards of personal cleanliness and housekeeping.

Acting as curators, the students spent the term researching period sources such as newspaper ads and housekeeping manuals, and examining surviving objects, including a ca. 1805 fancy French traveling bidet with a silver-plated basin that belonged to Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, a rare ca. 1815 pewter bedpan marked by Baltimore pewterer Samuel Kilbourn and a ca. 1800 night table/commode with an early flush mechanism and a Carroll family provenance.

The material culture seminar is part of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Museums and Society Program, an interdisciplinary minor that helps undergraduates establish meaningful connections with local and regional museums.

Funding for the exhibition was provided by the late Anne Merrick Pinkard, whose contribution to Homewood also makes it possible for the undergraduate seminar in material culture to be repeated in successive years, with different topics contributing to an ongoing understanding of early-19th-century life at Homewood.

The exhibition is on view to visitors during regular guided tours of the museum, offered every half hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (the last tour departs at 3:30 p.m.). The exhibition is free with museum admission: $6 adults; $5 seniors; $3 students, Johns Hopkins alumni and retirees, and children over 5; free for museum members and Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and students with ID.


Learn More

Homewood Museum will host a Brown Bag Lunch on the first Thursdays of February and March in conjunction with Next to Godliness: Cleanliness in Early Maryland. Drop by anytime between noon and 2 p.m. to see the exhibition and join a discussion with Homewood director and curator Catherine Rogers Arthur about what life was like before running water and today's endless assortment of toiletries. The event takes place in the historic house's original wine cellar. Bring your own sack lunch; dessert and coffee will be provided. Free with valid J-Card.


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