My forthcoming book, An Uncommon Cup: A History of God, Germs, and Individualism in America, is an adaptation of my doctoral dissertation at Yale University. Essentially, this text explores how emerging elements of scientific medicine in the United States during the nineteenth century changed the perception and organization of space, both personal and public. The most fundamental of these changes involved a shift in the spatial rendering of the sources of infection (those places and spaces most associated with the onset of disease processes). Namely, the nature of these sources became less environmental and more corporeal. Whereas before, infectious risk had been largely understood as the product of contact with points within the external world (e.g, areas of dirt, decay, and dangerous climate), this risk now fell increasingly to contact with living human bodies and the fluids they extruded. It was the increasing development of such a body of medical knowledge that provoked efforts to isolate the interior of individual selves from contamination of others. These efforts represented the expression of a new self-interest: what in this book I call “hygienic individualism.” Broadly construed, individualism itself is the prioritization of self-interests above those of a collective, and thus a historical example of the pursuit of a hygienic individualism would see its practitioners asserting this newly medicalized self-interest at the collective’s expense. I have identified one of the earliest instances of this behavior to be the hygienic reform of the Holy Communion chalice that American Protestants undertook in the late nineteenth century.
Specifically, physicians identified the chalice as a probable mode of contagion for syphilis, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. While this conceit of the chalice as unhygienic was new, many Protestants long perceived the chalice to be unclean, as a bridge to physical impurity especially the filth of men’s mustaches and tobacco habits. Time and again, these Protestants attested to avoiding communion for this reason. Thus, contagionism can be understood as providing a conceptual device to medicalize a preexisting perception of the chalice’s uncleanliness: a subjective aesthetic became objective knowledge. Also, for much of the nineteenth century, significant corners of American Protestants had increasingly embraced ‘open communion’ ceremonies, which unlike ‘close communion’ ceremonies permitted each communicant to discern his or her own worthiness to commune. Open communion liberated the communicant from the heteronomous influence of the congregation and therefore expanded the communicant’s spiritual autonomy. In the early 1890s, Protestant congregations in the United States began to remove the traditional chalice from their communion rituals and replace it with the individual communion cup, which represented the material expression of the desire for spatial autonomy at communion. Hence, this chapter establishes the importance of material culture in the projection and study of hygienic individualism. It concludes with discussions of the issuance of patents for individual communion cup systems and also of government officials who promoted the use of the innovation. The involvement of these officials prompted many Protestants to fear that contagionism was a guise for government meddling in religion.