Millbrook Monday: The Gross Factor

As someone who once wrote a blog post in which George Washington praises digital publishing, I freely admit to a love of history and a borderline-obsessive enthusiasm for linking past and present. That’s probably why I’m such a fan of the idea behind Lois Miner Huey’s new book, Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History. What kid (of any age) doesn’t love a good time-travel story? And what good time-travel story doesn’t go seriously wrong, in the most delightfully cringe-inducing ways?

Could you hack it in colonial America?
Read this book to find out…
why the answer is no

Millbrook Press editorial director Carol Hinz (who’ll be returning from her bout of motherhood soon, I promise!) asked Lois to share some background on how she tackled this fascinating subject.

How did you first begin exploring the ugly truths of early America?
As an archaeologist, I dig slowly down from the present ground surface looking for old “activity surfaces” where people used to walk, live, and work. All such surfaces, unless disturbed later, become buried over time. So in an ideal situation, I could move from a 21st-century ground surface, one layer at a time, through earlier occupations—all the way back to the earliest settlements, before Europeans arrived. I have uncovered many surfaces that are full of trash, black soil that once was poop, and medicine bottle fragments.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Our historic sites today greet visitors with neat lawns, clean houses, and no odor. It simply wasn’t like that. (But if we presented a historic house as it actually was, how many people would come?) We prefer our past to be presented as romantic, sanitary, and picturesque. And that’s okay. It seemed to me, though, that teachers, librarians, and kids would like to read about our real past, even though most of us wouldn’t want to go there.
How did you research the book?
In addition to studying the archaeological evidence, I did research in original diaries, visitors’ reports, and books written for adults on the subject.
What gross factoid surprised you most?
Especially surprising to me were accounts of the many bugs that once crawled about on American bodies and under wigs. People accepted this. What else could they do without modern insecticides?
So what was your biggest takeaway from the experience of working on Ick! Yuck! Eew!?

In the end, I came to greatly admire our ancestors for the way they soldiered on despite terrible diseases, child deaths, smelly conditions, and clothing and shoes that didn’t fit! I’m not sure many of us could cope.