Tag Archives: hygiene

Irish-American Hygiene Advice

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 56
Occupation: Health Care Administrator
Residence: Long Beach, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/12/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans.

Main Text:

“If you don’t clean out your ears or bellybutton, you’ll grow potatoes there.”

Context: Typically, this warning is told to children as a way to incentivize them into proper hygiene. As the informant explained it, there was an association between the dirt that gathered when someone didn’t clean their body and the dirt that potatoes grow in. The saying came directly from her grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland to New York as a young adult. However, the saying seemed to backfire for the informant—she admits that she never wanted to clean her ears or bellybutton after being told this hyperbole, just so she could see if potatoes actually grew.

Thoughts: The informant happens to be my mother, so I also grew up with this saying. Similar to her, I found the lie to be more interesting than scary, and as a young child I also avoided cleaning my bellybutton just to see what would happen. It’s interesting how these types of rumors can actually backfire on gullible children, instead encouraging them to do the opposite of what they’re told. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew that when she used the phrase, and only repeated it to her children and her children’s children because she found it amusing. This phrase also reminds me of another popular schoolyard rumor, where supposedly if you swallow a watermelon seed it will grow inside of you. The Irish Potato warning seems to be somewhat less widespread in the United States. None of my friends can recall a similar warning, and the only other place I’ve encountered it being used it in Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, a memoir about Irish-American immigrants.

Further Citations:

McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Scribner, 1996.

Showering After Funerals

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Indian American
Age: 20
Occupation: USC business student
Residence: Southern California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/19/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Hindi

NA: Um, also after funerals you have to take a shower. 

Interviewer: And this is everyone or just those who want to participate?

NA: And like some people will do to the extent that even when they get a phone call of someone dying they take a shower. 

Interviewer: Do you have any idea why or what it means?

NA: So my mom thinks it’s because in India like when you go to the funeral. You know here they like put preservatives and what not in the body. So there, there were no preservatives so there was a lot of bacteria and what not and so people were like, “oh my god, it is like on you” because you went to the funeral. Also, in India when you have the funeral they like they burn the body like in person. You know how here if you cremate, here it goes in a machine, but there they literally set fire to it and collect the ashes, so it is on you. So that also is why my mom thinks that you do it, but she is like not a hundred percent sure. She doesn’t know why people do it when you get the phone call, but I think it was like something that it was like every time you go to a funeral you have to shower and that was brought here and people just escalated it. 

Context 

NA is a 20 year old USC buisness student whose family is from India. She grew up in southern California and is still very connected with her Sindhi culture. She is also my roommate and I asked her about folklore she had related to her Indian background. This information was gathered from an informal interview conducted over Facetime.

Analysis

This ritual is about the right way to clean after a funeral or hearing of death. Potentially for both physical and emotional reasons. In India, there were likely practical purposes for showering from the smoke in the air from the burning of the body and the potential diseases carried in the body. However, it is significant the practice has remained after the practical necessity is no longer there. Furthermore, it is also practiced when only hearing about a death, therefore, there must be something more that keeps the practice alive. The showering may also be tied to “feeling dirty” after having an encounter with death. It may have started as a practical purpose, but has shifted to keep the practice alive. Potentially stemming from seeing death the body as impure and needing to regain that by washing yourself and changing your clothes.

It can also be a way of moving on after death. The funeral signifies the last goodbye to our loved ones and personal hygiene is likely to be neglected during the grieving process and funeral rights. After the rights are over, this can signify the need to start taking care of your own health and well-being again. 

Folk Medicine – Belize

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Belizean-American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Deerfield, IL
Date of Performance/Collection: April 26, 2008
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Limes for Body Odor

“In order to get rid of armpit body odor, you use warmed lime juice. Take a lime, cut it in half, heat it up face down in a frying pan until it sizzles. When the face of the lime has browned a little, rub it under your armpits, then shower, and it gets rid of unpleasant body odor.”

Subject’s Analysis:

Suzanne dictated this entry to me with a straight face. She told me very calmly that this was a serious folk remedy for removal of body odor. She noted that this was specifically the type of body odor that was not easily removed by deodorant, or simple showering. She suggested that by taking this lime and applying it, you could eradicate strong body odor. This was a Belizean remedy that she learned during her childhood, at age 10 or 11. She was taught this process by her mother.  She said that she has tried it and it has worked.

Collector’s Analysis:

I think that this folk remedy sounds very reasonable. I believe that this remedy might work. However, what makes it folk medicine is that this claim has yet to be scientifically proven even though it is confirmed by some who have tried it. What makes this method even more believable is the fact that lime scented cleaners are commonplace in the world today, suggesting that somewhere along the line the power of lime to neutralize odors was revealed as a truth. This is also feasible because if the fact that limes have a strong fresh scent that would be able to mask body odor if not eliminate it,, when paired with a good shower.

What makes this claim unbelievable is that in order for the remedy to work, the subject must take a shower after using the lime to get rid of the body odor. So this brings into question whether the lime has any effect at all or if the shower is the determining factor of the treatment.