Amanda B. Moniz
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‘Nor do they harbour vermin’
Material culture approaches to exploring humanitarian exchanges
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Historians have long studied the political, economic, intellectual and emotional dimensions of colonial and early-national Americans’ engagement with foreign peoples through philanthropy, but have focused less on the material culture of these exchanges. By contrast, the managers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century charities paid a great deal of attention to the things they needed to operate their institutions. They regularly discussed beds and beddings, medical supplies, books, garments and much more. Focusing on these objects tells stories both about the expansive international trade networks that helped supply charitable institutions and about the limits of managers’ power to shape the lives of their putative beneficiaries, as the managers of New York Hospital discovered. In the early 1800s, the managers, influenced by the latest European practice, imported up-to-date hygienic iron bedsteads and new bedding from Britain. The port city hospital served a heterogeneous population including many foreign immigrants, African Americans, and sojourning mariners, and its patient population lent credence to the managers’ proclaimed intention of providing ‘Charity to All’. Conflicts between doctors and nurses over the cleanliness of beds and bedding in African American wards, however, reveal the lack of control managers and doctors had over patients’ lives on a day-to-day basis.

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Humanitarianism, empire and transnationalism, 1760–1995

Selective humanity in the Anglophone world


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