Of Tubs and Toil: Workers in an Empire of Hygiene, 1920-2000

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Seminar Date
May 20, 2009
Focussing on the products, publicity and labor relations of the US-based Kohler Company—a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures and generators--this paper charts a global geography of tubs and and toil mapped through modern plumbing. In the process, it also attends as to the labor conflicts generated by the opposing scales of “local” company town and global enterprise, as well as “domestic” and “industrial” labor, entailed in the company’s production. It shows how the significance of plumbing and electrical wares as labor products as well as labor savers highlighted far-flung flows of work and hygiene ranging across the US, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
At the start of the period examined, the company’s products were designed and advertised to augment an American standard of hygiene reputedly enjoyed in the homes of Kohler Village—a welfare capitalist “garden at the factory gate. This “standard” was refracted through the telescoping spaces of: 1) Kohler Village homes and neighborhoods, which were relatively undifferentiated by class and ethnicity, as compared to wider urban spaces where racial segregation restricted access to “hygienic” homes 2) the homes of middle-class US consumers for which most Kohler products were destined, 3) a wider global empire of hygiene within which company publicity located such homes and explicitly begged global comparisons regarding domestic and industrial labor and 4) the alternate geographies of labor proposed by striking workers as the company and town entered several decades of labor unrest in the 1930s. These spaces are explored by examining the contrasting regimes of hygiene that company publicity depicted among its expanding global markets, the networks of labor entailed in specific spaces within the “empire of hygiene” represented in its publicity, and the alternative maps of “tubs and toil” generated by some of its workers in the course of labor conflict.
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