From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Gardens of Dust
Date May 25, 2020 8:08 AM
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[Just as household bacteriologists used kitchen experiments to
instruct ordinary Americans about germs, so too can we reproduce these
experiments to let students discover the complexities of
turn-of-the-century germ theory for themselves.]
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GARDENS OF DUST   [[link removed]]

 

Alexander Parry
May 7, 2020
Lady Science
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_ Just as household bacteriologists used kitchen experiments to
instruct ordinary Americans about germs, so too can we reproduce these
experiments to let students discover the complexities of
turn-of-the-century germ theory for themselves. _

, Selected Dust-Gardens from Household Bacteriology, 1907 (S. Maria
Elliott, Household Bacteriology (Chicago: American School of Home
Economics, 1914) 99, 101, and 103 | Public Domain)

 

At the turn of the 20th century, American housewives became
increasingly anxious about germs. As public health officers and
nonprofits like the National Tuberculosis Association drew attention
to the risks of communicable diseases and the importance of domestic
sanitation, homemakers sought expert advice to protect the health of
their families and communities. This popular demand, coupled with the
efforts of microbiologists and home economists to apply their research
to daily life, rapidly established a new subfield: household
bacteriology. Equipped with basic kitchen equipment, students of
household bacteriology learned how to prepare homemade plate cultures
called “dust-gardens” to test their belongings and environments
for microscopic pathogens. 

This movement to domesticate microbiology left behind numerous sources
for the related histories of Progressive-Era public health, education,
and activism ranging from course catalogues and textbooks to
administrative records and newspaper articles. Aside from student
testimonials, however, few of these materials captured the lived
experiences of the women who practiced household bacteriology. My
unanswered questions about these experiments led me to replicate them
in the winter of 2018, cultivating germs to partly recover the
experiences of women of the past and to fill some of these archival
silences. 

  Over the past decade, Lawrence M. Principe
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Elaine Leong
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and others have reproduced alchemical tests, home recipes, and
material technologies to affirm and occasionally challenge the
evidence of more conventional text-based sources. Historians of
education
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likewise started to extend their research from the curriculum of
science classes to their spaces, activities, and apparatus. These
projects ask how people from particular historical contexts learned
about science, medicine, and technology inside and outside of the
classroom, and they offer exceptional opportunities to make history
more tangible for students. Engaging with household bacteriology in a
similar way shows historical reconstructions as a valuable means to
assess educational experiments and to view their results firsthand.
What is more, preparing and planting dust-gardens helped me fully
appreciate the advantages and limitations of adapting laboratory
microbiology to the home.

 

“From the 1890s to 1930, household bacteriology reconfigured tens of
thousands of homes into makeshift classrooms for women without the
time, money, access, or inclination to learn about germs in high
schools or universities.”

Although household bacteriologists considered sterilization equipment,
laboratory-grade glassware, chemical stains, and microscopes essential
for studying microbes, educators such as Sophronia Maria Elliott
(1854–1942) nevertheless encouraged ordinary Americans to turn their
“kitchens into laboratories and try some simple experiments
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Employing the Progressive Era precept of “learning by doing,”
these experiments familiarized homemakers with yeasts, molds, and
bacteria, and incorporated this knowledge into routine housework. From
the 1890s to 1930, household bacteriology reconfigured tens of
thousands of homes into makeshift classrooms for women without the
time, money, access, or inclination to learn about germs in high
schools or universities. Unable to find any assignments, diaries, or
letters from these students about their work, I decided to perform
their tests myself.

The directions from Elliott’s 1907 _Household Bacteriology_, which
served as the model for later materials on the subject for home
economists and homemakers, seemed straightforward enough. According to
the textbook, I could either buy Petri dishes for my dust-gardens or
make the required containers myself out of shallow bowls covered with
thin panes of glass. As for the beef gelatin used as the “soil”
for my cultures, the instructions continued, I would need to “chop
finely one-quarter pound of lean, juicy beef
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mix it with “one cup of warm water,” and heat the broth with a
double-boiler. The final nutrient medium also contained baking soda to
neutralize the acid from the meat and three tablespoons of Knox
gelatin. 

After cooking this mixture on the stove and straining it through a
layer of flannel, I had to pour the beef broth into sterilized Petri
dishes and let it set along the bottom. Then I could inoculate each
plate with dust from my home and other common vectors to estimate
their concentrations of dirt, germs, and disease.

I encountered unexpected problems with the reconstruction almost
immediately. At the grocery store, I debated which cut of beef to use
for my culture medium and mistakenly bought pectin instead of gelatin
as a coagulant. Pectin, I discovered, helps convert sugars into jams
and jellies but does not bind to the proteins of beef broth, and this
belated revelation cost me several days of work and my entire first
batch of nutrient gelatin. I also had difficulty straining the beef
broth for my dust-gardens and had to overcome my relative lack of
experience as a cook. Unlike many housewives who practiced household
bacteriology during the Progressive Era, I had more familiarity with
microbes than domestic labor. 

Middle-aged women living around the turn of the 20th century dealt
with the transition from the filth and miasma theories of disease
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theory, and home economists like Elliott introduced
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their students to germs with scenarios from their daily lives:
“Perhaps you forgot to change the water in a vase of flowers and it
stayed there a week. How did it smell when you poured it out? How did
the stems that had been in the dirty water feel?” Household
bacteriology combined two different forms of expertise: the embodied
knowledge of ordinary women and experimental science.

Once I successfully prepared my nutrient gelatin, I inoculated 13
dust-gardens with contaminants including airborne dust from my dining
room, my index finger, my cat Ludwig, a one-dollar bill, dead insects,
and a ballpoint pen. I exposed my cultures to different amounts of
light, heat, and moisture to assess how environmental conditions and
specific vectors affected their growth. Despite my low expectations
for these experiments, every one of my dust-gardens produced visible
colonies within the first week. 

Elliott herself explained how these microorganisms would gradually
multiply from “minute light-colored specks
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on the plate into pink, yellow, orange, green, blue, and red
“spots” with textures like moss, seaweed, or even velvet. The
similarity between my results and those from the textbook not only
confirmed the viability of household bacteriology but also illustrated
how ordinary wives and mothers used dust-gardens to quantitatively
assess their sanitary routines. These kitchen tests pulled together
gardening, microbiology, and the seed-and-soil model of disease, which
theorized that patients fell ill when germs settled and ultimately
reproduced inside the tissues of their hosts. Culturing yeasts, molds,
and bacteria resembled tending delicate plants, but eradicating
disease from the home involved destroying them like weeds.

Experimental “dust-gardens” two weeks after preparation | Personal
photograph from the author

As the reconstruction continued into its second week, however, the
methodological and intellectual constraints of household bacteriology
became increasingly obvious. Although I kept my plates inside an
air-conditioned room throughout the experiment, my makeshift beef
gelatin quickly melted and transformed my solid cultures into films on
a liquified medium. Even if the women who studied household
bacteriology had access to a laboratory-grade microscope, they would
have found it nearly impossible to isolate individual colonies from
their dust-gardens for further analysis. 

According to Elliott, the ability to correctly identify microorganisms
“makes no difference
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to the typical housewife, and this assumption shaped what knowledge
students could and could not learn from tests designed primarily to
count microbes. Dust-gardens adhered to a single principle: dust
enabled germs to survive and replicate outside of the body, and more
dust meant more pathogens and higher probabilities of infection.
Detecting specific microbes, on the other hand, caused material
difficulties for kitchen experimenters.

Despite these limitations, household bacteriology clearly resonated
with Progressive Era homemakers. Interested women produced and
exchanged photographs of their own dust-gardens and discussed how
their results informed their day-to-day housework and their sanitary
activism beyond the home. If every wife and mother learned the
principles of microbiology and domestic hygiene from the American
School of Home Economics, a satisfied graduate named Mrs. W. H.
Eldredge declared
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“it would do much more towards stamping out disease and do more
towards educating and uplifting humanity than all the hospitals and
all the public libraries that have ever been given for that
purpose.”

 

“Household bacteriology combined two different forms of expertise:
the embodied knowledge of ordinary women and experimental science.”

Decades before the appearance of penicillin and other antibiotics,
dust-gardens offered a cheap, practical, and reliable means to detect
and control disease. For the middle-aged woman who considered science
essential to the home but had few opportunities for adult education,
household bacteriology drew together the laboratory, classroom, and
kitchen to make germs central to daily life. As another student
referred to as “Miss G.” elaborated
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“such knowledge is rapidly creeping into schools and colleges, but
too late for us—and we don’t want to be left behind by
school-girls.” 

Historical reconstructions promise more than firsthand knowledge of
the procedures and results of pedagogical experiments; they encourage
us to analyze the material history of science education and to make
our courses more interactive. Historians often emphasize the
curriculum, theory, and administration of science classes over the
day-to-day experiences of instructors and students. Replicating the
equipment and activities of household bacteriology and other practical
fields helps correct this imbalance and narrows the distance between
us and people of the past. 

Just as household bacteriologists used kitchen experiments to instruct
ordinary Americans about germs, so too can we reproduce these
experiments to let students discover the complexities of
turn-of-the-century germ theory for themselves.

FURTHER READING

Peter Heering and Roland Wittje, eds., _Learning by Doing: Experiments
and Instruments in the History of Science Teaching_ (Stuttgart: Franz
Steiner Verlag, 2011).

Suellen Hoy, _Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness_ (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Nancy Tomes, _The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in
American Life_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

_Alexander Parry is a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins History of
Medicine Department, researching how domestic accidents shaped
housework, consumption, and the home over the course of the 20th
century. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter
@AlexParryHSTM._

_Image credit: Selected Dust-Gardens from Household Bacteriology, 1907
(S. Maria Elliott, Household Bacteriology (Chicago: American School of
Home Economics, 1914) 99, 101, and 103 | Public Domain)_

_Lady Science is a magazine for the history and popular culture of
science. We publish a variety of voices and work on women and gender
across the sciences. Subscribe. [[link removed]]_

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