The Dirt on Clean

In the summer of 1979, I was riding in a crowded, sweltering second-class train car through Spain, and watched as a jovial woman in a sleeveless dress took a spraycan of deodorant and blasted each of her hairy armpits to counter the rigors of travel. This occurrence is of a piece with many episodes recounted in Katherine Ashenburg’s illuminating and ripely sensual study of humanity’s ever-evolving attitudes about bodily hygiene, The Dirt on Clean. Planting herself knowledgably at the tangled nexus of science, technology, feminism, sex, medicine, class, business, warfare, advertising, architecture, nationalism, religion, fads and politics, Ashenburg surveys the prevailing beliefs about how and when the body should be maintained, from the ancient Greeks to the hypersensitive present. Not truly global in its remit — Asian nations are lightly examined, and Africa is terra incognita — this study nonetheless enthrallingly portrays our variously stinky and sweetly scented ancestors and coevals. At times, a Monty Python sensibility reigns (Napoleon cogitated best in his bath, sometimes receiving reports from the battlefield amid the soap bubbles). But overall Ashenburg exhibits a catholic respect for the dramatically divergent mores of different cultures and periods. Was there ever a book more suited to be read while lolling in the tub? –