Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity

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From pre-historic grooming rituals to New Age medicine, from ascetics to cosmetics, Clean looks at how different cultures have interpreted and striven for personal cleanliness and shows how, throughout history, this striving for purity has brought immense social benefits as well as great tragedies. Looking at human history through the lens of public baths, lavatories, laundry, teeth cleaning, cosmetics, food storage and panty liners, Virginia Smith here combines archeology, psychology, biology, and other fields to illuminate our modern obsession cleanliness. She peppers her entertaining account with engaging and often surprising details. The book reveals, for instance, that even at the earliest stages of human development, our bodies produced pleasure-giving chemical opiates when things smelled or felt clean, inducing us to bathe or at least remove dirty clothes. She describes how, during the Bronze Age, an emerging hierarchy of wealthy elites turned their love of grooming into an explosion of the cosmetic and luxury goods industry, greatly affecting the culture and economy of Eurasia and leading to advances in chemistry and medicine. Likewise, in Greece and Rome, citizens focused much of their leisure time on perfecting, bathing, or just writing about the model athletic body. Even today, our enlightened medical knowledge could not stop an onslaught of health remedies, treatments, spas, and New Age nature cures—all in the pursuit of purity. This engrossing and highly original work will introduce you to the customs and ideas of a myriad of cultures across centuries of human history, providing a marvelous new perspective on the importance of cleanliness to human civilization.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Smith, a British historian and honorary fellow at the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene, traces the origins of our modern standards of cleanliness by reaching back to the ancient Mesopotamians to look at the kind of grooming we now call "pampering": baths, manicures and hairstyling. She argues that the impulse toward maintaining a cleanly outward appearance, which plays a central role in sexual attraction, is opposed by a psychological or religious desire for "inner" purity linked to Christian asceticism, which disdained physical adornment. Thanks to the development of "an ethos of sanitary need" in the Victorian era, which linked cleanliness to purity, personal hygiene has now reached the stage of "general consensus," with newly emerging middle classes around the world eager to buy hygienic and cosmetic products to meet Western standards of appearance. Smith's chronicle is sprinkled with interesting details and draws on a broad cultural canvas, but the tone is academic; general readers will prefer to await a more popular history. 25 illus. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This smart and witty tour of the quest for clean body (and spirit) begins with the practical neolithic age and runs through the advent of metrosexual preening. As a protégé of the late Roy Porter, health's greatest historian, Smith has impeccable qualifications. Her relative fixation on elite (and sometimes fringe) programs for hygiene and their trickle-down impact on the masses reflects a problem with cultural and social history generally: the sources from ordinary individuals, often nonliterary to begin with, are not preserved as often as those of the privileged. Even so, Smith might have given more and earlier attention to working and poor people. In addition, the narrative favors European and specifically British phenomena; Americans get credit (along with the French) for developing the mass market in cosmetics but not for creating flawed but vital public regulators such as the USDA, FDA and EPA, which have served as models for more practical agencies and oversight in Europe. But Smith's keener interest is the individual's (rather than society's) quest for physical perfection, and almost any reader of Cleanwill come away more aware of the pervasiveness of body-beautiful ideology in contemporary life and commerce. The book is recommended, especially for academic libraries.
—Scott H. Silverman

From the Publisher

"This book is a fascinating read, and it provides new perspectives on daily activities that one tends to take for granted. So take a shower, apply your deoderant, brush your teeth, curl up, and read this book!."--R.M. Mullner, CHOICE

"Smith's book is an example of how an academic should research global, longue durée history."--Joanna Bourke, Harper's Magazine

"Our belief in the transformative power of a good scrub goes back centuries, the roots of which are carefully detailed in Clean"--Jabari Asim, Washington Post

"This compact volume is also jam-packed with historical information."--Jenny McCartney, The Sunday Telegraph

"Because she has examined history through the prism of public baths, lavatories, laundry, teeth cleaning, cosmetics, food storage and panty linters, she has been able to shed new light on the evolution of civilization, religion, public health and sexual politics. There are lots of fascinating revelations."--Liz Jones, The Evening Standard

"At last, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, has set out, for the first time as far as I can tell, in intricate, intimate, excruciating detail why we live the way we do. There are lots of fascinating revelations."--Liz Jones, The Evening Standard

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199532087
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 8/15/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 1,344,074
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Virginia Smith is a freelance historian who specializes in the history of personal hygiene. She was previously a Fellow of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, and is currently an honorary fellow of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her current research interests include the history of cosmetics, spas, and nudity.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     xi
Introduction     1
Bio-physicality     8
The Cosmetic Toilette     45
Greek Hygiene     74
Roman Baths     102
Asceticism     126
Medieval Morals     144
Protestant Regimens     185
Civil Cleanliness     224
Health Crusaders     264
The Body Beautiful     307
Notes     353
Select Bibliography     433
Acknowledgements of Sources     437
Index     439
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