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Getting Under Our Skin

'Getting Under Our Skin' cover image

Getting Under Our Skin

The Cultural and Social History of Vermin

How vermin went from being part of everyone's life to a mark of disease, filth, and lower status.

For most of our time on this planet, vermin were considered humanity's common inheritance. Fleas, lice, bedbugs, and rats were universal scourges, as pervasive as hunger or cold, at home in both palaces and hovels. But with the spread of microscopic close-ups of these creatures, the beginnings of sanitary standards, and the rising belief that cleanliness equaled class, vermin began to provide a way to scratch a different itch: the need to feel superior, and to justify the exploitation of those pronounced ethnically—and entomologically—inferior.

In Getting Under Our Skin, Lisa T. Sarasohn tells the fascinating story of how vermin came to signify the individuals and classes that society impugns and ostracizes. How did these creatures go from annoyance to social stigma? And how did people thought verminous become considered almost a species of vermin themselves? Focusing on Great Britain and North America, Sarasohn explains how the label "vermin" makes dehumanization and violence possible. She describes how Cromwellians in Ireland and US cavalry on the American frontier both justified slaughter by warning "Nits grow into lice." Nazis not only labeled Jews as vermin, they used insecticides in the gas chambers to kill them during the Holocaust.

Concentrating on the insects living in our bodies, clothes, and beds, Sarasohn also looks at rats and their social impact. Besides their powerful symbolic status in all cultures, rats' endurance challenges all human pretentions. From eighteenth-century London merchants anointing their carved bedsteads with roasted cat to repel bedbugs to modern-day hedge fund managers hoping neighbors won't notice exterminators in their penthouses, the studies in this book reveal that vermin continue to fuel our prejudices and threaten our status. Getting Under Our Skin will appeal to cultural historians, naturalists, and to anyone who has ever scratched—and then gazed in horror.