While many might have assumed he was simply being vulgar and generally racist, he was tapping into a specific long-standing and corrosive idea — that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. This notion has a history that spans back to white insecurity in the middle of the 19th century as emancipation and mass immigration transformed American society. The result was a nation where ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, how American society’s wastes have been managed.
Immigration informed this stereotype in the 19th century, as it does today. Racism conflating nonwhite immigrants with filth originated in that era — though then, unlike now, the population of immigrants considered “unclean” was more expansive, including Eastern and Southern Europeans, along with peoples originating from the Americas, Africa and Asia. Epithets like “greaser” and “sheenie” became common insults. These terms presupposed that Italians, Mexicans and Jews had greasier, oilier skin and hair, and that this condition was a biological fact and social problem.
These ugly slurs were common in taverns and streets, and if the words were not used in university lecture halls, the ideas that created them certainly were. University of Wisconsin sociologists John R. Commons and Edward Alsworth Ross were two of the many educated eugenicists who saw the new immigrants as racially inferior to native-born whites. Ross, in his book The Old World in the New (published on the eve of World War I), laid out a complex and occasionally contradictory classification scheme for the newcomers to American shores. On the differences between Jews from different parts of Europe, Ross claimed that the type of Jew depended upon the region, with Romanian Jews being of “a high type” and Jews from Galicia being the lowest.
These scholars helped formulate and advance the notion of “race suicide,” a fear that white Americans were losing a demographic battle against ostensibly inferior immigrants who would pollute the pure racial character of white Americans. (Repackaged as “white genocide,” such ideas trended on Twitter nationwide in the weeks after Trump’s election.)
Pseudoscientific assertions were common enough that Mark Twain satirized them in his 1905 story “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes.” Twain imagined himself as a cholera germ — one of the most feared contagions in American society in the late nineteenth century — coursing through the veins of an “incredibly dirty” tramp “shipped to America by Hungary because Hungary was tired of him.”
So pervasive was the association between nonwhite features and filth that it became a dominant trope in soap and cleanser advertisements. Several manufacturers boasted of cleansers so effective that they made black features appear white. Advertisements featuring the Gold Dust Twins showed them scrubbing the bottom of kettles and pots clean. The confirmation that the job was done came when one twin saw his reflection clearly in the pot. Staring back at the pitch-black face was a white face with light brown hair.
Lautz Brothers sent out at least two cards with white men washing young African American boys with their soap. In both of these images, the blackness was literally washed away by the white soap. The caption of each was “beat that if you can!”
Similar ads depicted indigenous Americans and Turkish immigrants, whose cleansing gave them not only white skin, but elevated stations in American life (and, in the case of Turkish men in a Larkin Soap ad, the ability to marry white women).
These advertisements, preserved in the National Museum of American History, are relics of an age when eugenicists like Ross and Commons were common presences on American university faculties. Woodrow Wilson, an avowed racist and fan of the KKK hagiography Birth of a Nation, served as president of Princeton University before enacting segregationist polices from the White House.
Indeed, an ideology conflating whiteness and purity was sufficiently popular to win elections, build academic careers, sell products and enact immigration restrictions.
This ideology had long-term consequences for immigrants. It informed the immigration restrictions Congress passed between 1882 (the Chinese Exclusion Act) and 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act).
It also influenced the demographics of who was employed as waste handlers, as native-born white Americans considered handling waste unfit work. As the nation’s sanitary workforce (including laundry workers, streets and sanitation workers, scrap dealers and janitors) grew, the number of native-born white Americans in those occupations was far below their percentage of the population by 1930.
According to one sample, while native-born Americans with native parents made up 67 percent of the general population, but they were only 52 percent of garbage workers and scavengers. Half of these native-born workers were African Americans, who represented 25 percent of this total workforce compared to 9.6 percent of the general population. Foreign-born individuals, by contrast, comprised 29 percent of this workforce, compared to 11.6 percent of the general population. Children of immigrants were also overrepresented among the nation’s garbage collectors. Similar demographics shaped laundry, janitorial and other waste-handling occupations.
Employers associated immigrants with this sort of waste work. New York City Street-Cleaning Commissioner Waring employed Italian immigrants in the 1890s as scow trimmers, reasoning that Italians were “a race with a genius for rag-and-bone picking and for subsisting on rejected trifles of food.” Stereotypes associating Eastern European Jewish immigrants with scrap metal and Chinese immigrants with laundry were common.
Native white aversion to waste work was not simply about avoiding subsistence tasks. By 1930, laundry, scrap metal and garbage hauling could prove to be quite lucrative for immigrants thanks to the absence of competition by native entrepreneurs. Instead, the stereotypes associating nonwhite skin with dirt stigmatized waste work, keeping white native born Americans away, and establishing occupational structures that placed undue burdens on people of color and the foreign-born for managing the wastes of a growing society.
The ugliness of century-old images still resonate today because the stereotypes behind them are still ingrained in our culture. Recent advertisements by Dove and Nivea elicited outcries because they conflated women of color with dirt. Indeed, President Trump didn’t choose his xenophobic slurs in a vacuum — his use of shithole or shithouse reflects the vicious racism that swept him into office and, as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portends tragic, inhumane, racist, exclusionary policies related to people he equates with excrement.