The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History [NOOK Book]


For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a public two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, a scraping of the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the seventeenth-century aristocratic Frenchman, it meant changing his shirt once a day, using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else’s, but never immersing himself in – horrors! – water. By the early 1900s, an extraordinary idea took hold in North America – that frequent bathing, perhaps even a daily bath, was ...
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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

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For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a public two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, a scraping of the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the seventeenth-century aristocratic Frenchman, it meant changing his shirt once a day, using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else’s, but never immersing himself in – horrors! – water. By the early 1900s, an extraordinary idea took hold in North America – that frequent bathing, perhaps even a daily bath, was advisable. Not since the Roman Empire had people been so clean, and standards became even more extreme as the millennium approached. Now we live in a deodorized world where germophobes shake hands with their elbows and where sales of hand sanitizers, wipes and sprays are skyrocketing.

The apparently routine task of taking up soap and water (or not) is Katherine Ashenburg’s starting point for a unique exploration of Western culture, which yields surprising insights into our notions of privacy, health, individuality, religion and sexuality.

Ashenburg searches for clean and dirty in plague-ridden streets, medieval steam baths, castles and tenements, and in bathrooms of every description. She reveals the bizarre rescriptions of history’s doctors as well as the hygienic peccadilloes of kings, mistresses, monks and ordinary citizens, and guides us through the twists and turns to our own understanding of clean, which is no more rational than the rest. Filled with amusing anecdotes and quotations from the great bathers of history, The Dirt on Clean takes us on a journey that is by turns intriguing, humorous, startling and not always for the squeamish. Ashenburg’s tour of history’s baths and bathrooms reveals much about our changing and most intimate selves – what we desire, what we ignore, what we fear, and a significant part of who we are.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

According to Ashenburg (The Mourner's Dance), the Western notion of cleanliness is a complex cultural creation that is constantly evolving, from Homer's well-washed Odysseus, who bathes before and after each of his colorful journeys, to Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, who screams in terror during her first hot bath. The ancient Romans considered cleanliness a social virtue, and Jews practiced ritual purity laws involving immersion in water. Abandoning Jewish practice, early Christians viewed bathing as a form of hedonism; they embraced saints like Godric, who, to mortify the flesh, walked from England to Jerusalem without washing or changing his clothes. Yet the Crusaders imported communal Turkish baths to medieval Europe. From the 14th to 18th centuries, kings and peasants shunned water because they thought it spread bubonic plague, and Louis XIV cleaned up by donning a fresh linen shirt. Americans, writes Ashenburg, were as filthy as their European cousins before the Civil War, but the Union's success in controlling disease through hygiene convinced its citizens that cleanliness was progressive and patriotic. Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years. 82 b&w illus. (Nov. 15)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Freelancer Ashenburg is drawn to mining universal cultural experiences, although her previous book, The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, had more sober subject matter than this irony-laden, "greatest hits" sampling of Western hygienic history. The Greeks bathed for their gods, contemporary Americans are wallowing in long showers. In between these temporal poles a lot of filth accumulated, providing fertile base for endemic lice. Indeed, the appalling sanitary conditions of medieval Europe-persisting into the 19th century-made each individual a fine host for the Plague-bearing fleas that jumped from rodent to human. Ashenburg piles one delightful (delight in the grotty being a taste decidedly more for some than others) anecdote upon another. It turns out, for instance, that Louis XIV may have been the Sun King but not because he exposed his skin to air (or water). A final strength of this not particularly analytical history is the concluding chapters' demonstration of the triumphant intersection of technology (e.g. Procter & Gamble's serendipitous discovery of how to mass-produce bar soap) and the rise of the advertising industry and its key distribution vehicle, the middle-class-aimed illustrated journals. Recommended.
—Scott H. Silverman

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- This is a fascinating examination of the changing notions of what it means to be clean, and how those concepts fit into the worldview of different societies. The book is especially valuable for exploring the daily lives of people in past societies, but also for providing perspective on our attitudes toward ourselves, our bodies, and our world. It begins with the communal baths of the Greeks and Romans and explores the religious and ritual aspects of bathing, including Christian baptism. The public bath returned with the Crusaders, who brought the custom back to Europe in the form of the Turkish bath. With the plague and fears of communicable diseases, people avoided water-which they feared made the body vulnerable-in favor of linen cloth, which could be changed regularly, in lieu of bathing. Fear of immersing the body in water continued into the 20th century. Ashenburg, who uses interesting quotes from contemporaries to illustrate her history, speculates that in the future, when water shortages dictate new concepts of cleanliness, our own day may be seen as an age of excessive bathing and deodorizing.-Tom Holmes, King Middle School, Berkeley, CA

Kirkus Reviews
Cleanliness has a surprising history. The morning routines of Americans generally include a shower, but people in other times and places have thought differently about what constitutes an appropriately clean body, writes Ashenburg (The Mourner's Dance, 2003, etc.). Many cultures find body odor sexy; the choicest illustration appears in a letter from Napoleon, who wrote to Josephine, "I will return to Paris in five days. Stop washing." Beginning with the social significance of the public bath in ancient Greece, the author moves on to consider early Christian ascetics' disdain for cleanliness ("dirtiness became a uniquely Christian badge of holiness") and the appearance of instructions about face-washing in medieval etiquette guides. During the 19th century, the burgeoning American middle class got serious about keeping bodies and houses clean, and cleanliness was imputed with a new moral value; people could judge another's worthiness by the glow of their skin and the shine of their hair. In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters that are free of padding. She includes many quirky tidbits of cultural history, such as the role played by bathing in Eliza Doolittle's transformation from Cockney flower-seller to fair lady and the appearance in the 1930s of vaguely menacing magazine ads that threatened women with spinsterhood if they dared let their breath or armpits smell. She closes on a disturbing note, pointing out that Americans have developed the standards of cleanliness they enjoy today at least in part because modern irrigation and rainfall levels made it possible for millions of people to shower regularly. If the globalclimate changes, our current habits may strike our 22nd-century descendants as odd, if not shocking. Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content.
From the Publisher
"Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years."
Publishers' Weekly

“In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters. . . . She includes many quirky tidbits of cultural history, such as the role played by bathing in Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from Cockney flower-seller to fair lady and the appearance in the 1930s of vaguely menacing magazine ads that threatened women with spinsterhood if they dared let their breath or armpits smell.. . . . Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content.”
Kirkus Reviews

Praise for The Mourner’s Dance:

“Moving, exotic, outrageous. . . . A serendipitous tour of anthropology, cultural history, psychology and personal reflection. . . . It’s a pleasure to accompany Ashenburg.”
The Globe and Mail

“An intricate tapestry that maps out the emotional landscape of grief. . . . A richly informative and compassionate book.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Elegantly written. . . . The Mourner’s Dance–learned, often moving and even consoling–is a superb survey.”

From the Hardcover edition.

The Barnes & Noble Review
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? --Paul DiFilippo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466867765
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 235,609
  • File size: 6 MB

Meet the Author

Katherine Ashenburg has worked as an academic, a CBC Radio producer and the Arts and Books editor of the Globe and Mail. She has written about travel for the New York Times and architecture for Toronto Life magazine. Her books include Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours of Southern Ontario Towns and The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die. She lives in Toronto.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
For the modern, middle-class North American, “clean” means that you shower and apply deodorant each and every day without fail. For the aristocratic seventeenth-century Frenchman, it meant that he changed his linen shirt daily and dabbled his hands in water but never touched the rest of his body with water or soap. For the Roman in the first century, it involved two or more hours of splashing, soaking and steaming the body in water of various temperatures, raking off sweat and oil with a metal scraper, and giving himself a final oiling—all done daily, in company and without soap.
Even more than in the eye or the nose, cleanliness exists in the mind of the beholder. Every culture defines it for itself, choosing what it sees as the perfect point between squalid and over-fastidious. The modern North American, the seventeenth-century Frenchman and the Roman were each convinced that cleanliness was an important marker of civility and that his way was the royal road to a properly groomed body.
It follows that hygiene has always been a convenient stick with which to beat other peoples, who never seem to get it right. The outsiders usually err on the side of dirtiness. The ancient Egyptians thought that sitting a dusty body in still water, as the Greeks did, was a foul idea. Late-nineteenth-century Americans were scandalized by the dirtiness of Europeans; the Nazis promoted the idea of Jewish uncleanliness. At least since the Middle Ages, European travellers have enjoyed nominating the continent’s grubbiest country—the laurels usually went to France or Spain. Sometimes the other is, suspiciously, too clean—which is how the Muslims, who scoured their bodies and washed their genitals, struck Europeans for centuries. The Muslims returned the compliment, regarding Europeans as downright filthy.
Most modern people have a sense that not much washing was done until the twentieth century, and the question I was asked most often while writing this book always came with a look of barely contained disgust: “But didn’t they smell?” As St. Bernard said, where all stink, no one smells. The scent of one another’s bodies was the ocean our ancestors swam in, and they were used to the everyday odour of dried sweat. It was part of their world, along with the smells of cooking, roses, garbage, pine forests and manure. Twenty years ago, airplanes, restaurants, hotel rooms and most other public indoor spaces were thick with cigarette smoke. Most of us never noticed it. Now that these places are usually smoke-free, we shrink back affronted when we enter a room where someone has been smoking. The nose is adaptable, and teachable.
The North American reader, schooled on advertisements for soap and deodorants, is likely to protest at this point: “But body odour is different from smoke. Body odour is innately disgusting.” My own experience tells me that isn’t true. For the first seven years of my life, I spent countless hours with my maternal grandmother, who came from Germany. She lived only a few houses down the street from us in Rochester, New York, and she often took care of us grandchildren. She was a cheerful, hard-working woman, perpetually cooking, cleaning, sewing, crocheting or knitting. Two smells bring my grandmother vividly to mind. One is the warm amalgam of yeast and linen, from the breads she shrouded in tea towels and set to rise on her dining-room radiators. The other smell came from my grandmother herself. As a child, I never thought to describe it or wonder what it was—it was just part of my grandmother. Whom I loved, so the smell never troubled me.
When I married, my husband and I went to Germany on our honeymoon, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in small, clean-swept Bavarian towns. There, unexpectedly, memories of my grandmother came flooding back. The industrious Bavarian women who cleaned our rooms and made our breakfasts didn’t just act like my grandmother; they smelled like her. By then, as an adult raised in cleaner-than-clean North America, I knew what the smell was—the muffled, acrid odour of stale sweat—and for the first time, I consciously connected my grandmother’s characteristic smell to its cause. She cleaned her house ferociously but not her body, or not very often. (It was a northern European habit I would later read about, when travellers from other European countries, as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would marvel at the cleanliness of Swiss, German and Dutch houses and even streets, but note that it did not extend to their bodies.)
I had to learn that my grandmother’s smell was not “good,” as determined by twentieth-century North American standards. My natural, uncultivated reaction was that it was neutral or better. Similarly, there are tribes that consider the odour of menstrual blood pleasant because it signifies fertility; others that find it repulsive, because their taboos include blood or secretions; and still other tribes that remain indifferent to it. When it comes to feelings about our bodies or those of other people, much depends on the assumptions of our group.
To modern Westerners, our definition of cleanliness seems inevitable, universal and timeless. It is none of these things, being a complicated cultural creation and a constant work in progress. My grandmother kept her Old Country notions of cleanliness until she died, in the late 1970s. Her daughter, my mother, left Germany when she was six, in 1925. Growing up in Rochester, she went to college and became a nurse. She also became an American, watching with the immigrant’s ever-vigilant eye as her adopted country ratcheted up the cleanliness standards in the 1930s and ’40s.
She remembered the advertising campaigns, launched by razor manufacturers, inculcating the novel idea that women’s hairy legs and underarms were bad and, in the case of underarms, encouraged body odour. She remembered when she first heard of a newfangled product known as deodorant and when she realized that something called shampoo worked better than the boiled-down soap her mother produced for washing hair. She never wore perfume because, as she liked to say, “That’s what Europeans use instead of soap.” (Not that perfume had ever touched her no-nonsense mother’s body.) Her own regime involved plenty of soap and Mitchum’s, a clinically packaged deodorant “for problem perspiration.”
In my generation, standards reached more absurd levels. The idea of a body ready to betray me at any turn filled the magazine ads I pored over in Seventeen and in Mademoiselle in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The lovely-looking girls in those pages were regularly baffled by their single state or their failure to get a second date or their general unpopularity, and all because their breath, their hair, their underarms or—the worst—their private parts were not “fresh.” A long-running series of cartoon-style ads for Kotex sanitary napkins alerted me to the impressive horrors of menstrual blood, which apparently could announce its presence to an entire high school.
The most menacing aspect of the smells that came with poor-to-middling hygiene was that, as we were constantly warned, we could be guilty of them without even knowing it! There was no way we could ever rest assured that we were clean enough. For me, the epitome of feminine daintiness was the model who posed on the cover of a Kotex pamphlet about menstruation, titled You’re a Young Lady Now. This paragon, a blue-eyed blonde wearing a pageboy hairdo and a pale blue shirtwaist dress, had clearly never had a single extraneous hair on her body and smelled permanently of baby powder. I knew I could never live up to her immaculate blondness, but much of my world was telling me I had to try.
While ads for men told them they would not advance at the office without soap and deodorant, women fretted that no one would want to have sex with them unless their bodies were impeccably clean. No doubt that’s why the second-most-frequent question I heard during the writing of this book—almost always from women—was a rhetorical “How could they bear to have sex with each other?” In fact, there’s no evidence that the birthrate ever fell because people were too smelly for copulation. And although modern people have a hard time accepting it, at least in public, the relationship between sex and odourless cleanliness is neither constant nor predictable. The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to be clean, but both sexes anointed their genitals with perfumes designed to deepen and exaggerate their natural aroma. Most ancient civilizations matter-of-factly acknowledged that, in the right circumstances, a gamy, earthy body odour can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Napoleon and Josephine were fastidious for their time in that they both took a long, hot, daily bath. But Napoleon wrote Josephine from a campaign, “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.” Early in my reading about the history of cleanliness, I began talking one day at a lunch about some of the extremes, in both directions, that I was discovering. Another guest, a journalist, was astonished. “I just assume everyone is like me,” she said, “showering every single day, no more, no less.” Her assumption, even about educated North Americans like her, is not true, but most people are loath to admit that they deviate from the norm. As I went on reading about cleanliness, people began taking me aside and confessing things: several didn’t use deodorant, just washed with soap and water; some didn’t shower or bathe daily. Two writers told me separately that they had a washing superstition: as the end of a long project neared, they stopped washing their hair and didn’t shampoo until it was finished. One woman confided that her husband of some twenty years takes long showers at least three times a day: she would love, she said wistfully, to know what he “really” smells like, as opposed to deodorant soap.
Something similar happened during the writing of my last book, which was about mourning customs. Most of the traditional customs were obsolete and considered primitive or sentimental—or both—by a world interested in “moving on” as quickly as possible. But while I worked on that book, people would tell me privately about a mourning observance that was acutely important for them, even if it didn’t seem quite right in the twenty-first century—how they wore their father’s old undershirts, for example, or had long talks with their dead wife. Now that people were confiding their washing eccentricities—usually on the side of less scrupulosity rather than more—I was amused. Is a failure to meet the standards of the Clean Police as bizarre as full-blown mourning in the modern world? The surreptitious way people revealed their deviations to me indicates how thoroughly we have been conditioned: to risk smelling like a human is a misdemeanour, and the goal is to smell like an exotic fruit (mango, papaya, passion fruit) or a cookie (vanilla, coconut, ginger). The standard we read about in magazines and see on television is a sterilized and synthetic one, “as if we’re not on this earth,” a male friend remarked, but it takes some courage to disregard it. Excerpted from The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg. Copyright © 2007 by Katherine Ashenburg. Published in November 2007 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents

"But Didn't They Smell?"     1
The Social Bath: Greeks and Romans     15
Bathed in Christ: 200-1000     49
A Steamy Interlude: 1000-1550     73
A Passion for Clean Linen: 1550-1750     97
The Return of Water: 1750-1815     125
Baths and How to Take Them: Europe, 1815-1900     161
Wet All Over at Once: America, 1815-1900     199
Soap Opera: 1900-1950     229
The Household Shrine: 1950 to the Present     263
Acknowledgments     299
Notes     301
Selected Bibliography     329
Index     335
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