British air is too dirty, according to the EU. And Sheffield is one of the cities particularly affected. But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’. In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side. Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick. On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked […] The heat […] was unbearable […] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one. This has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

Anna P.H. Geurts is a Research Fellow in the Department of History, University of Sheffield, working on ideals and perceptions of privacy, crowding and cleanliness in the long 19th century. You can read more of her work on the blog Historian at Large.

Image: Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19thC [from Paris Secret et Insolite]

Tags : air pollutionclean airdirteconomic growthhealthideals of progressnineteenth-century historynitrogen dioxidepath dependency
Anna Geurts

The author Anna Geurts


  1. There is a tendency to hark back to the good old days of rural economies and healthier lifestyles without cars and the pollution that came with it.

    Was it so much healthier or cleaner? I remember looking at the death rate for Haworth at the time of the Brontes and being quite astounded at the high death rate.

  2. That’s an interesting point. Nineteenth-century industry was in fact more unhealthy to work in or live near, than European industry nowadays. Though this positive development, of course, does not necessarily apply to the mines of Africa or the diamond cutting business in India…

    But even un-industrialised places in the past could be very dirty and unhealthy. Where many people lived together, as in towns and cities, drinking water could easily be contaminated with agents of disease. This kind of ‘matter out of place’ goes back, not centuries, but millennia, to the ancient cities of Mesopotamia!

    To an extent, then, car exhausts have merely replaced dirty drinking water and unfiltered factory chimneys, although these are very different types of dirt, of course!

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