Calls for Pollution Control

In her book Euthenics, Ellen Swallow Richards called on women to control urban pollution to protect health and home.

Summary of Event

In 1910, Ellen Swallow Richards published Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment, which, even in the neologism in its title, suggested that national progress is not to be expected from an improvement in the population stock (that is, through eugenics) but from an upgrading of the humanly constructed environment. In making this argument, Richards moved to the forefront of those who were warning of the dangers of urban congestion and air and water pollution. She joined other Progressive writers in arguing that the enhancement of social arrangements required a greater emphasis on science and efficiency and a greater role for women and the state. Euthenics (Richards, E. S.)
Women;domestic issues
[kw]Euthenics Calls for Pollution Control (1910)
[kw]Pollution Control, Euthenics Calls for (1910)
Euthenics (Richards, E. S.)
Women;domestic issues
[g]United States;1910: Euthenics Calls for Pollution Control[02530]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1910: Euthenics Calls for Pollution Control[02530]
[c]Environmental issues;1910: Euthenics Calls for Pollution Control[02530]
[c]Women’s issues;1910: Euthenics Calls for Pollution Control[02530]
Richards, Ellen Swallow
Addams, Jane
Nation, Carry

The word “euthenics” was meant to recall and stand in contrast to “eugenics.” Eugenics, Eugenics the study of ways to improve humankind by managing reproduction, was the centerpiece of late nineteenth century “racial science.” The European deans of this discipline concentrated on showing, through such contributing fields as anthropology, criminology, and phrenology, how the peoples of northern Europe were allegedly slightly better than those of southern Europe and were worlds apart, in intellectual capacity and other capabilities, from the races of the undeveloped world. Eugenicists believed that humanity could be improved through a governance of marriage that would produce an increasingly better quality of human; they hoped to prevent northern peoples from having their blood “polluted” through mixed marriages with members of the lower groups.

In contrast, euthenics—a term derived from the Greek words eu (wellness) and the (to cause)—preaches that better human beings can be created through the adjustment and improvement of the environment, especially through the elimination of pollution. According to Richards, any benefits of eugenics policy would come in the long term. Euthenics, which would concentrate on such projects as cleaning up air and water, would bear immediate fruit and could be gotten to work on right away. Richards expected that the fact that the benefits of euthenics would emerge quickly would motivate average persons to take an interest in the idea.

In relation to the point that work to eradicate pollution could begin at once, Richards averred that women and government should take the lead in getting the movement off the ground. The state’s coercive power would be needed, because adults who had been schooled to follow bad practices would need to be forced to learn good habits. Richards advocated the imposition of large fines for bad behaviors, citing the case of Boston, which had instituted a fine of one hundred dollars for spitting in street cars. Within two days of the announcement of the fine, she asserted, “the car floors became practically free without a single fine being collected.”

The role of women in Richards’s plan was to provide the younger generation with healthy homes and to use the home as a touchstone in ecological pedagogy. Richards saw value in children’s doing chores, such as washing dishes and preparing meals, both because these actions lightened a mother’s work and because the euthenic mother could use such chores to instruct her children in hygiene and nutrition.

Richards’s handling of the question of who would be responsible for society’s renovation linked her to major themes of the Progressive movement, Progressive movement a broad-based middle-class reform movement prominent in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Progressivism emphasized such issues as control of big business, the Americanization of immigrants, relief of poverty, reform of machine politics, and pollution abatement. Many Progressive campaigns were spearheaded by women; the settlement house movement is one example. Settlement houses Settlement houses were reformers’ outposts in the hearts of big-city slums; the houses provided multiple services for their poor neighborhoods. Settlement houses such as Hull House, Hull House cofounded by the social activist Jane Addams in Chicago, helped residents to negotiate bureaucracies, fought for better local services, counseled individuals and families, and gave classes in English and other subjects. Insofar as the female social workers in the settlement houses advised their clients on how to fight pollution—Addams, for example, fought city hall over poor garbage collection—they can be seen as models of the women Richards summoned to the euthenics struggle.

Ellen Swallow Richards.

(Library of Congress)

Another group of Progressives looked to the state to solve social ills. Reformers who were worried about the tyrannical power of large corporations called on the federal government to regulate railroad rates, evaluate the purity of food and drugs, and control irresponsible firms in other ways. Although reformers believed that business needed to be carefully watched, they did not find its basic principles to be objectionable. On the contrary, Progressives, including Richards, believed that commercial values such as efficiency and probity should supplant older, less rational values. The Progressives, for example, made their case for civil service reform—which they hoped would replace graft-choked government bureaucracies with streamlined, reasonably managed systems—by arguing that the new organizations would be cost-efficient.

Similarly, Richards applied business standards to ecological matters. Eschewing humanist and religious arguments, she based her call for pollution control on its dollar value. She noted, for example, that many hours of production were lost to sickness caused by unhealthy environments. She emphasized how sickening conditions can deplete an individual’s lifelong earning capacity.

The task, as Richards saw it, was to draw citizens into an authentic movement to clean up the environment; the guide was to be science. Richards, who was the head of the Social Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had written such scientific works as Industrial Water Analysis (1909), believed that everyday life would be optimized if its practices were scientifically elucidated. From this perspective, she looked closely at the home, arguing that everything in it—from the light and air in the bedrooms to the nutritional components of meals—should be subjected to expert scrutiny. She assumed that what went on in the family domicile would be immeasurably improved through scientific analysis. Richards was not aiming for a technological utopia in the home (she wrote little about new appliances, for instance); rather, she advocated a home under the sway of a technocracy—that is, under experts, including housewives who would hold college degrees and who would turn daily life into a scientific enterprise.


Euthenics did not cause the stir produced by other Progressive classics such as Lincoln Steffens’s Steffens, Lincoln
The Shame of the Cities (1904), Shame of the Cities, The (Steffens) which portrayed rampant political corruption in a dozen American cities, or Upton Sinclair’s Sinclair, Upton
The Jungle (1906), which exposed unsanitary conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Jungle, The (Sinclair, U.) Whereas these books alerted the public to abuses, Richards’s purpose was more philosophical. She was concerned with encouraging a general climate of opinion that would be more accepting of changes in life practices guided by a pragmatic science. In contrast to immediate effects, such as those produced by The Jungle, the revelations of which contributed to the passage of laws regulating food processing, the effects of Euthenics were more diffuse and atmospheric. Moreover, Sinclair’s and Steffens’s attacks were addressed to the average middle-class reader, and both writers used dramatic presentations to give their writings an emotional charge; in contrast, Richards’s work was aimed at a more select audience of reformers, so she did not use such heightened language.

It is nevertheless possible to trace the influences of Richards and others on the questions she raised. First, Richards’s brand of environmentalism must be isolated from two other major ecological currents of her time: conservationism, which was concerned with the preservation and wise use of parklands and natural resources; and scientific ecology, which explored the relations among plants, animals, and geography in different ecosystems. Richards’s type of environmentalism differed from these in that it concentrated on the city rather than the countryside, it was more immediately practical, and it was strongly feminist. Its province was the fight against urban pollution and the provision of a sterile, ecologically attractive home. This struggle was connected to two other mainstays of Progressivism, however: the battle against political corruption, because corruption allowed contractors to build substandard housing; and the Americanization of immigrants, because it was the female newcomers who most needed reformers’ advice on how to cope with city life.

As a result of the efforts of Richards and others, social work was established as a profession, and welfare departments, staffed with these professionals, became accepted parts of government. The settlement houses, which were originally funded by charities or philanthropists and run by reformers who learned their jobs by doing them, provided important examples for later, more formal state agencies.

Richards’s belief that women should be primarily responsible for solving social problems highlighted another theme that would become increasingly prominent through the second decade of the twentieth century. The campaign to prohibit alcohol in the United States, led by such firebrands as Carry Nation, was largely a movement of women. Temperance movement Prohibitionists’ arguments against spirits were similar to those that Richards advanced against pollution; they pointed to the destruction of a home’s potential and of individuals’ economic capabilities. Prohibitionists also complemented Richards’s claims in contending that women had a natural desire to instill a fuller ethical vision in their men—a desire, they argued, that should propel women into political action.

The arguments of this movement and the individuals involved often crossed over into the coexistent suffragist context. The suffragists were as successful as the prohibitionists, and American women gained the right to vote in 1920. Although Prohibition, which became law in 1917, was repealed in 1933 and so was limited in impact, the female vote became a key factor in twentieth century U.S. politics, as did the feminine social activism early espoused by Richards.

The motifs of efficiency and state intervention in the economy that cropped up in Euthenics also became leading themes in the further development of the United States. Through the creation of such agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, the intrusive hand of the state increasingly replaced the invisible hand that was said to direct free market capitalism as the governor of the economic system. Efficiency took on a larger role in government, as can be seen in phenomena such as civil service reform and the rise of admired administrators such as Herbert Hoover, Hoover, Herbert who was secretary of commerce for seven years before becoming president. At the same time, the efficiency ideal gained more prominence in business, where it had originated, and the early decades of the 1900’s saw the growth of a new profession embodied in the efficiency expert, Efficiency experts employed to find the quickest, cheapest ways of doing varied industrial tasks.

In Euthenics, Richards followed the trend of her times in basing her calls for pollution control on arguments in favor of government regulation and efficiency improvements. In locating a central environment in daily city life and in calling on women as soldiers who must lead the charge against pollution, however, she created one of the pathbreaking works of the period. Euthenics (Richards, E. S.)
Women;domestic issues

Further Reading

  • Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan, 1910. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Contains both testimony and analysis. The opening section explains why settlement house work is a rewarding option for middle-class women. The longer second section deals with Addams’s adventures at Hull House, which was located in an ethnically heterogeneous slum. She reports enthusiastically on the outreach programs offered by the settlement house, including some concerned with environmental improvement.
  • Davis, Allen F. Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Considers the overlap of settlement house work with key Progressive concerns in other areas, such as city planning and educational experimentation.
  • Diner, Steven J. A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era. New York: Hill & Wang, 1998. Examines how the many changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution affected the lives and experiences of Americans, particularly workers, African Americans, immigrants, and women, leading to Progressive Era activism. Includes bibliographical essay and index.
  • Gould, Lewis L., ed. The Progressive Era. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1974. Includes articles that take up different aspects of Progressive thought and politics. Particularly interesting are chapters on the conservation movement and on the battle for housing standards.
  • Kraus, Harry P. The Settlement House Movement in New York City, 1886-1914. New York: Arno Press, 1980. Closely documents the growth of the settlement house movement in New York City and examines the gender, nationalities, and educational backgrounds of settlement house workers. Of special interest is the discussion of how settlement houses dealt with health and pollution issues.
  • McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. New York: Free Press, 2003. Discusses the wide-ranging social, cultural, and political impacts of the reforms undertaken by the Progressives as well as the backlash that followed, and addresses the connection of the Progressive Era with the United States of the early twenty-first century. Includes index.
  • Pickens, Donald K. Eugenics and the Progressives. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968. The eugenicists’ viewpoint was opposed to that of Richards and others who were concerned primarily with environmental improvement, but as this study uncovers, the two camps shared many traits, such as an obsession with pollution and a desire to put women in the center of the struggle.
  • Trolander, Judith Ann. Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Explains how the women who at first staffed the settlement houses were crowded out by men with more credentials as the movement gained in legitimacy and influence. Also addresses the conflicts that arose between social workers and the people they were trying to help with pollution issues.

Sinclair Publishes The Jungle

International Association for the Prevention of Smoke Is Founded

Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”

Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States

Wolman Begins Investigating Water and Sewage Systems