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The filthy reality of everyday life

Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life is now open at the Wellcome Collection in London and examines our relationship with dirt through history. We bring you some of the wonderful images from the exhibition.

Photograph of two men pulling a mobile disinfection unit.
Published: March 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm
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About the images

A major new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London takes a closer look at attitudes to dirt throughout history. Using six very different places as a starting point, the exhibition claims to uncover a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past.


Around 200 artefacts are on show, spanning visual art, documentary photography, cultural ephemera, scientific objects, as well as film and literature. Highlights include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, the earliest sketches of bacteria and John Snow's 'ghost map' of cholera, as well as a range of contemporary art.


Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life runs until 31 August 2011 and is free for visitors. You can find out more about the Wellcome Collection and the exhibition by visiting their website at www.wellcomecollection.org.

Lense views, published in 1665.
'Micrographia', a book detailing Hooke's observations through various lenses, was published in 1665 and was the first major publication of the Royal Society. (Wellcome Library, London)
Drawings of a variety of insects.
An image from the select works of Dutch scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek who is considered by most to be the first microbiologist. (Wellcome Library, London)
Coloured satirical engraving of a woman investigating the Thames.
This coloured satirical engraving by William Heath (1795-1840) shows a lady discovering the quality of the Thames water. By the 1820s, public concern was growing at the increasingly polluted water supply taken from the Thames in London. (© Wellcome Library, London)
Advertisements from the early 20th century.
Black faces often appeared only to emphasise their difference from white people. The Pears' Soap advertisement from 1903 suggests the product is powerful enough to 'clean' a black child. (Pear's Soap advert © Wellcome Library, London. Hudson's soap advert © Museum of London)
An illustration of an eye.
The idea of an all-seeing eye that watches over and sees through the human body seemed an appropriate symbol for hygiene at a time when microscopes and X-rays were revealing new secrets about the body. (Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden)
A drawing of a preventative cholera costume.
Some sought to prevent the contraction of cholera through elaborate measures, seen in this satirical 'cholera safety suit'. The wording ends with: 'By exactly following these directions, you may be certain that the cholera...will attack you the first'. (Wellcome Library, London)
Drawing of a 19th century cholera victim, pictured before and after illness.
One mid-19th century report describes how cholera victims were 'one minute warm, palpitating, human organisms - the next a sort of galvanized corpse, with icy breath, stopped pulse and blood congealed - blue, shrivelled up, convulsed'. (Wellcome Library, London)
A 19th century maid scrubbing a floor.
Hannah was a working class diarist who served as a maid during the 19th century. Her diaries are almost unique in the detailed account they give of practices and changes in early and mid-Victorian domestic service. (Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)
A Glaswegian alley.
In 1868, photographer Thomas Annan was commissioned to document the tenement buildings of Glasgow, where a huge population boom and an influx of new working-class citizens had caused massive overcrowding. ( British Library Board)
Drawing of a woman from Pierce Egan's 'London Life of 1821'.
London in the 19th century relied upon a workforce of scavengers to remove and recycle its filth. Peggy Jones is referred to in Pierce Egan's 'London Life of 1821' as a red-haired woman about 40 years of age. (Wellcome Library, London)
A photograph of a patten.
Pattens were protective overshoes worn outdoors over a normal shoe and held in place by leather or cloth bands. Their wooden (or later wood and metal) soles elevated the foot above the dirt of the street. (Museum of London)
Photograph of two men pulling a mobile disinfection unit.
Here, two men, wearing white overalls pull a covered hand-cart containing a mobile disinfection unit. The location has been identified as the Vestry Hall in London where clothing would be placed in a disinfecting oven for decontamination. (Wellcome Library, London)
John Bull cartoon.
Here, John Bull, a national personification of Great Britain, grasps the blue and shrouded 'cholera' round its neck. The cartoon satirizes resistance to the 1832 Reform Bill, which forced city councils to provide clean water and sewage disposal. (Wellcome Library, London)

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