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Clean living movement

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Americans are never more disgusting than when they are in the grip of a clean living movement. These are historical episodes of moral panic, ostensibly about social agitations in the name of "health". They usually cloak manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry. There have been a number of these episodes in the history of the United States. They often coincide with upticks in evangelical religions and other religious "awakenings".

The term was coined by sociologist Ruth C. EngsWikipedia's W.svg of Indiana University.[1]

General characteristics[edit]

Cycles of social reforms have been observed in religion, politics, the economy and other areas of human endeavor. Reforms to clean up society in regard to issues related to health also appear to come in cycles. Reform campaigns during Clean Living Movements include temperance (anti-alcohol), social purity (sexuality), diet, physical exercise, eugenics (heredity), public health, and anti-tobacco and drug campaigns. Interest in these issues rise and fall more or less simultaneously and often follow a religious awakening in which both evangelical sentiments and the development of new sects emerge. The movements also coincide with episodes of xenophobia or moral panic in which various ethnic or cultural minorities are targeted as undesirable influences for medical or moral reasons.[1]

In the United States, and to somewhat of a lesser extent in the United Kingdom and other Western European cultures, these health reform movements have been claimed to come in approximate 80-year cycles, ranging from about 70 to 90 years for individual issues.[1] The prognosticating value of social cyclical theories are generally pseudoscience.

Reformers in these movements first attempt to convince individuals they should not drink, smoke or engage in behaviors or lifestyles harmful to health. When this inevitably fails, public policies to prohibit the behaviors are instituted. After the main thrust of the movement, when reformers have failed to change behaviors even by legislation, a hereditarian, or eugenics movement reaches its prime. Reformers may reason that the root causes must be in the genes. During the cycle's ebb, popular changes or reforms that make sense, such as personal hygiene or sanitation, become institutionalized and added to individuals' social burdens. On the other hand, a backlash often emerges against unpopular or restrictive reforms, such as prohibition of alcohol.

Jacksonian era[edit]

During the Jacksonian era and out of the second great awakening a crusade against "Demon rum" and other spirits ensued in states east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason–Dixon line. This resulted in state wide prohibition of alcohol in the northeastern United States beginning in the state of Maine in 1851. However, rampant smuggling across the Ohio River and down from Canada soon ended these state laws as they were unenforceable. Various ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities such as Irish immigrants and Roman Catholics were held up as moral examples during the period, thought to be responsible for both excessive drinking and the spread of diseases such as cholera.

During this era a focus on exercise, non-use of tobacco, and the elimination of coffee, tea, sugar, meat and spice from a diet, called "Grahamism," – named after reformer Sylvester Graham,Wikipedia's W.svg namesake of the Graham crackerWikipedia's W.svg – was promoted. Eugenic or "hereditarian" concerns that masturbation would lead to insanity and that choosing sick or feeble spouses would lead to further degeneration was discussed. Out of this era phrenology – the study of shapes and bumps on the head – used to select a healthy marriage partner was popular. New religions that promoted "pure" lifestyles such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Seventh-day Adventists emerged. These religions prominently featured abstinence from alcoholic beverages and even coffee, and in the case of the Adventists also promoted vegetarianism.[2]

Progressive era[edit]

"He brings disease": 1913 anti-immigration cartoon.

The Progressive Era's health reform movement emerged in the third great awakening. Individual health crusades, as part of an overall Clean Living Movement, included the temperance and the anti-saloon movement which evolved into the prohibition movement. This resulted in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, bringing about Prohibition and its associated rise in organized crime. An anti-tobacco movement was found during this era and a number of cities had anti-smoking laws in public buildings. Trains, restaurants, and streetcars often had smoking and non smoking sections. However, by the mid 20th-century the remaining laws of this nature were generally ignored.

This was also the period in which Christian fundamentalism became identified as a specific tendency within American Christianity. Anti-evolution laws were proposed during this period, leading eventually to the Scopes monkey trial. The theology of dispensationalism also became identified with fundamentalist Christianity, assisted by popular commentaries like the Scofield Reference Bible. Evangelists like Billy SundayWikipedia's W.svg promoted a message condemning Americans for their imagined immoralities.

The first regulation of narcotic drugs were enacted during this period, regulating the contents of patent medicines. The first Pure Food and Drug Act, regulating the labelling of patent medicines and the claims made in their advertising, was passed in 1906. The smoking of opium was prohibited by the Harrison Narcotics Tax ActWikipedia's W.svg of 1914 as an exotic vice imported with immigration from China. In addition to these drug prohibitions, further immigration from East Asia was sharply curtailed by the Asian Exclusion ActWikipedia's W.svg of 1924. Likewise, the prohibition of cocaine during this period was associated with anecdotes about African Americans committing crimes under the influence of the drug.

A "purity" or anti-prostitution and social hygiene (sexually transmitted diseases) movement went hand in hand with the elimination of other supposed evils, such as alcohol, from society. The purity movement also included the elimination of the double standard of sexuality for men and women. In the late nineteenth century, Anthony Comstock and his League for the Suppression of Vice lobbied for and got regulations that forbade the distribution of contraceptive information through the mails. The eugenics movement had its greatest popularity during this period. Pre-marital testing to ensure that neither partner had syphilis were passed in many states. In the United States, eugenic sterilization laws were passed, to prevent individuals with severe mental or physical health problems including alcoholism from reproducing, in over 30 states.[2]

Backlash against the counterculture[edit]

A clean living movement again took root during the late-20th century. It was characterized by many crusades and counter crusades. Activities that surged in the earlier years of the era were often met with counter-movements about ten years later. For example, "women's liberation" was countered by a "pro-family" movement; the use of marijuana and other drugs was followed by a "war on drugs"; lowering of the drinking age was followed by a raising of the drinking age; non-marital sexual activity was challenged by a new "purity" movement; and legal rights to obtaining abortions ("pro-choice") were met with agitation against abortion ("pro-life").[2]

The baby boom generation of the post-World War II era had experimented with different behaviors not tolerated by the older generation. By the mid-1970s more conservative Americans began to react against what they perceived as immoral behaviors. They coalesced into political action that included campaigns against the use of drugs, alcohol, sexual, and other activities.

Organizations such as the "Moral Majority" expressed this backlash, blaming the counterculture of the 1960s as the cause of social decay. Politicians, even Democrats such as Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton, began a bizarre crusade against rock, rap music, and video games, blaming them for a variety of evils including teenage sexuality and violent crime. Abstinence programs attempting to frighten young people away from sexual activity were endorsed as a form of sex education. Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbied for the denial of due process rights for those accused of driving under the influence, with punishments such as license suspensions applied immediately upon arrest.[2]

A secular health-reform movement, that to some took on religious or New Age overtones, also surged out of the youthful generation. Fitness and exercise, diet, alternative religions and medicine, consumers rights, smoke-free environments, and other health reforms became prime concerns of the day. Curious beliefs in "toxins" imagined to lurk in foodstuffs, and elaborate regimens to purge them, became exercises in ostentatious virtue. Organic food, usually priced well in excess of its non-organic counterparts, became an exercise in conspicuous consumption and halo-polishing. Dietary fads such as vegetarianism and veganism acquired evangelical and judgmental overtones.[2]


  • Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, Edited by Immanuel Ness, 2004, ISBN 0-7656-8045-9
  • Engs, Ruth C (2001). Clean Living Movements: American cycles of health reform. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-275-97541-X.
  • Engs, Ruth C (2005). The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32791-2.
  • Engs, Ruth C. "Resurgence of a new clean living movement in the United States". Journal of School Health. April 1991, Vol. 61, No. 4, 155-189.
  • Fogel, Robert W. The fourth great awakening and the political realignment of the 1990s. Brigham Young University Studies. pp. 35(3:1995,31–43).
  • McLoughlin, William G (1978). Revivals, awakenings, and reform: An essay on religion and social change in America, 1607 - 1977.
  • Strauss, William; Howe, Neil (1988). The fourth turning: An American prophecy. Broadway Book. ISBN 0-553-06682-X.
  • Tilly, Charles (2004). Social Movements, 1768–2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59451-042-7.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Engs, Ruth C (2001). Clean Living Movements: American cycles of health reform. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-275-97541-X.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Engs, Ruth C. "Resurgence of a new clean living movement in the United States". Journal of School Health. April 1991, Vol. 61, No. 4, 155-189