Touching in the Slums

Ellis Burley, Danielle Burton, Atlanta Hill and Jess White

Advancements in science and technology led to a revolution of touch in the nineteenth century. Growth in the ownership of material possessions and the desire to express social class changed the way things and people were touched. Alongside this, people became concerned about preventing the spread of disease through touch.

Touching previously owned mattresses or shared bedding meant that any
contagious diseases or parasites atlanta-picturefestering within them could
be easily passed on. Bedsteads, mattresses and the fabrics connected with them were associated with poverty within the slums, as it was common practice for many families to not only share a single room but for multiple people to share a bed. This led to a lack of privacy and personal hygiene that affected the way that many poorer working-class people were perceived. The sharing of items such as bedding and mattress led to disease and bodily secretions being passed on as many people could not afford new items, resulting in proliferation of second-hand traders.

Fabrics were used by all social classes as a way of differentiating themselves from one another. Specific types of fabric themselves became metaphors for these groups (such as fustian to describe the working class and silk to describe the aristocracy).

second-hand-clothesClothing was purchased in a way that also became increasingly associated with class. In the nineteenth century, the second-hand trade in clothes was linked to those living in poverty as it was seen as unhygienic and only an option for those without money. This custom was also seen as being connected to the spread of contagious diseases. The passing of disease was linked to touching other people’s belongings and associated with the lower classes due to the second hand trade.

The blame for the passing of was often layed at the feet of the working class due to the conditions they lived in. Another way that the middle classes  caught contagious diseases was through the touching of working class prostitutes. Therefore working-class women were blamed and prosecuted for the passing of disease.

The spread of disease, as the population grew, led to new medical and technological advancements being created in order to contain the spread of disease. Higher class people were seen as more deserving for preventative measures as their reputations were at stake. Sexually transmitted diseases were a physical display of moral decay, and contraception became a way for upper class men to hide their corruption and participation in what was seen as working class sin. Sex work reinforced ideas of a phallocentric society where the upper classes held all the power.

This collection of blog posts explores the social and medical importance of touch in the nineteenth century and how this differed by class.