The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

The Dirt on Clean

Knopf Canada, 2007
384 pages

The apparently routine task of taking up soap and water (or not) is Katherine Ashenburg’s starting point for a unique history of private life. Every age and culture was convinced that their version of cleanliness was the correct one, from the Roman who spent a few hours a day soaking in public baths of various temperatures to the 17th-century Frenchman who never touched water and believed he cleaned himself by changing into a fresh linen shirt. Our own over-deodorized world — where germophobes shake hands with their elbows and where sales of hand sanitizers, wipes and sprays are skyrocketing — is as extreme, and potentially unhealthy, as the 17th century. And, as with every other age, our definition of “clean” says much about us. Filled with amusing anecdotes and unexpected insights into our notions of privacy, health, individuality, religion and sexuality, The Dirt on Clean takes us on a journey that is by turns intriguing, startling, humorous — and not always for the squeamish.

Update, November 2021: For a 14-year-old book, The Dirt on Clean has remarkable staying power. Shepherd, a site about books, asked me to write about the best books I read while researching and writing this history of washing our bodies. It was fun reconnecting with these excellent works. Read about the best books on the history of washing our bodies.

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Did You Know?

That Queen Elizabeth I of England boasted that she bathed once a month, “whether I need it or not”? That French peasants believed that a strong body odour promised robust sexuality? (One of their proverbs was, “The more the ram stinks, the more the ewe loves him.”) That our current North American standards of over-cleanliness are probably making us sick? Katherine Ashenburg takes on such fascinating questions as these in The Dirt on Clean, her spirited chronicle of the West’s ambivalent relationship with the washed and unwashed body. She searches for clean and dirty in plague-ridden streets, medieval steam baths, castles and tenements, and bathrooms of every description. She reveals the bizarre prescriptions 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 that have brought us to a place Ashenburg considers hedonistic, anxious and oversanitized.

The book Publishers Weekly calls “brimming with lively anecdotes … smartly paced and endearing” reveals surprising things about our changing and most intimate selves — what we desire, what we ignore, what we fear, and a significant part of who we are.

Clean Facts

1. 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.”

2. 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.

3. The world’s earliest known bathtub, from around 1700 B.C., was found in the Queen’s apartments at the Palace of Knossos on Crete, and is made of painted terra cotta.

4. The Sybarites, a luxury-loving people who lived in southeastern Italy beginning in the 8th century B.C., invented the steam bath.

5. People rarely used soap to wash their bodies until the late 19th century. It was usually made from animal fats and ashes and was too harsh for bodies; the gentler alternative, made with olive oil, was too expensive for most people.

6. The Roman imperial baths were so gigantic that a single chamber — the hot room of the Baths of Caracalla — housed 20th-century productions of Aida that included chariots, horses and camels, as well as the cast and audience.

7. In Finland, where the sauna is a national institution, when government leaders cannot agree on an issue, they adjourn to the sauna to continue the discussion.

8. The accumulated sweat, dirt and oil that a famous athlete or gladiator scraped off himself was sold to their fans in small vials. Roman women reportedly used it as a face cream.

9. Recycling saintly secretions: St. Lutgard’s saliva was believed to heal the sick, as were the crumbs chewed by another medieval saint, St. Colette. A man sent from England to the Netherlands for St. Lidwina’s washing water, to apply to his afflicted leg. The water from St. Eustadiola’s face- and hand-washing cured blindness and other illnesses.

10. Medieval Christians proved their holiness by not washing. A monk came upon a hermit in the desert and rejoiced that he “smelt the good odour of that brother from a mile away.”

Read an Excerpt

The people we encounter walking down city streets or sitting on subways are showered, mouthwashed and deodorized. We have come to expect this. They eradicate all natural smells; then, onto their odourless bodies, they import carefully chosen scents. These people are listening to their private musical repertoire on their iPods, messaging people on their BlackBerrys or talking on their cellphones. The illusion is that they exist in their own individual, hygienically sealed bubbles.

If you had been born only a couple of hundred years ago, you would have regularly slept in the same bed with your family or co-workers or fellow guests at an inn, emptied your bowels at a public latrine with no dividers between you and the other users, and might expect to be buried in a mass grave. According to the cultural critic Ivan Illich, it wasn’t until 1793 — when the French Revolutionary document “The Rights of Man” championed the right to privacy — that we took a radical step toward sleeping in our own beds and, ultimately, toward dignity.

Privacy and dignity are good things, but it looks as if North America, especially, doesn’t know where to stop. Perhaps above all, it’s about control: To smell like a body — which alters on its own with time, physical exertion, anxiety and climatic and hormonal variations — demonstrates that we’re not completely in charge, something we increasingly expect of ourselves. As more of the world spins out of control, it seems there is a greater drive to manage what we can, however pointless it may be.

Fears about disease are unquestionably exacerbating our twenty-first-century preoccupation with hygiene, whether the disease is the Norwalk virus, bird flu, SARS, another new disease called community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or problems associated with the bacillus E. coli. In 2002 and 2003, SARS struck 8,096 people and killed 774. Forty-three of those deaths occurred in Toronto, more than anyplace outside Asia, and that taught Torontonians in short order the virtues of face masks, Purell and handwashing.

According to Vincent Lam and Colin Lee, Toronto emergency-room doctors and the authors of The Flu Pandemic and You, those straightforward, low-tech practices are about the only hygienic steps that might protect us in the next epidemic or pandemic. Get a flu shot by all means, they say, exercise caution with live birds and cook turkey and chicken well. But during a pandemic or even a normal flu outbreak, wash your hands often and properly, cover your face when sneezing or coughing, and keep a distance of at least one metre from sick people. If you’re taking care of a sick person, wear gloves and a mask.

For normal life, the one hygienic measure Drs. Lam and Lee advise is handwashing, to protect ourselves and others from the spread of germs. If you’re a farmer or a manual labourer — jobs with lots of contact with the ground and potential for cuts — or if you play contact sports, washing your body could prevent organisms from entering through a “portal of entry,” a cut or a microcut. Otherwise, as far as health is concerned, the most you have to fear from not washing anything but your hands is skin problems, such as fungal infections.

Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who writes and broadcasts as Dr. Germ, agrees that the only parts of the body that need washing for serious health reasons are the hands, but he stresses the wily stubbornness of the thousands of microbes that regularly coat our hands. “Microbes never give up,” Gerba says admiringly. “They adapt and they follow our new habits.”

He itemizes some of our new habits in the age of information: We spend most of our time in an office, surrounded by electronic equipment that loves to collect germs, where the janitors are told not to interfere with our personal space — that is, not to clean our desks. We travel more and in enclosed spaces such as airplanes, where the toilet will be used by an average of 50 people per flight and is exceptionally germy. And by travelling, we spread diseases all over the world.

Although Gerba says “we have to reinvent hygiene because our world has changed so much,” his mantra is an ancient one: clean hands, clean hands, clean hands. He washes his own whenever he leaves his desk, when he goes to the bathroom, after he teaches. When asked, people in movie theatres swear they washed their hands in the restroom, but Gerba and his gimlet-eyed researchers say only 65 percent do, only half of those who wash use soap and only half of the ones who use soap wash long enough; it should be for 15 to 20 seconds. By contrast, he says, to get to a sink in the restroom at a sanitarians’ conference, “you have to wait in line.” We spoke on the phone, and just before we hung up, I asked Gerba if he would have shaken my hand if we had met in person. “Sure, unless you had a cold,” he said, and then paused for a beat. “And after we shook hands, within a few minutes I’d be looking to sanitize my hands with an alcohol gel.”

Charles Gerba denies that he’s afraid of germs, because, he says, he knows where to find them, and his basic message is a sensible one. But, with his gleeful counts of germs on sinks and fecal bacteria in clean laundry, he is contributing to the anxious sense that we live in a world populated by billions of unseen enemies.

We all know people who go to extraordinary lengths never to shake hands or touch a tap in a public washroom, and whose cupboards are filled with antibacterial soaps. Inventions that address their fears are multiplying. One new product, a plastic box to be installed above the doorknob in a public toilet, sprays a disinfectant mist on the knob every 15 minutes. (However, Gerba says, “Never fear a doorknob.” Unlike a sink, it is not moist, and moisture supplies the most hospitable breeding ground for germs.) Another innovation, the SanitGrasp, replaces traditional door pulls in restaurants and other public places with a big U-shaped object that allows the door to be opened by a forearm.

The list of these new products stretches from the plausible to the wilder shores of paranoia. You can buy a portable subway strap so your hands never have to come into contact with the overhead bar, as well as a strip of vinyl that covers supermarket cart handles. You can store your toothbrush in a $50 holder that kills germs with ultraviolet light.

People who were once normally hygiene-conscious are behaving more and more like mysophobes (the technical term for those with an inordinate fear of germs). Others whose horror of germs was considered seriously eccentric, such as the obsessive-compulsive TV detective Monk or the television host Howie Mandel, now seem closer to the norm.

A decade ago, the editorial writers at a large Canadian newspaper were amused when the germ conscious editor-in-chief urged them to write an editorial against shaking hands. (He suggested crossing your arms and nodding instead.) The editorial never appeared. It’s doubtful that the editor’s suggestion would strike them as outlandish or exaggerated today.

On a very real level, germs concern us because the world has become a significantly more perilous place of late. In recent years, many normal activities, such as eating beef and chicken, travelling on public transit and being treated in a hospital, have turned out to be extremely dangerous in certain places. Arrogantly and ignorantly, we assumed that epidemics such as the Spanish flu of 1918 could not happen again. SARS proved us wrong, and now we dread bird flu or a yet unnamed pandemic. Our fearfulness is heightened rather than lessened by the abundance of information and misinformation available at our fingertips on the internet.

On a more symbolic level, since September 11, 2001, we know that we live in a world that harbours deadly, hidden dangers; terrorists are like germs in that way. The American writer Allen Salkin asks, “Is it only a coincidence that the same places where Americans most fear terrorism — airplanes, schools, mass transit, water supplies and computers — they also fear germs?” Probably not, and what at least some of this overwrought avoidance of germs really demonstrates is our wish to be protected, to be safe in a world that seems increasingly unsafe.

Praise for The Dirt on Clean

“In ‘Clean,’ Ashenburg rolls up her sleeves and takes us on an engaging tour of hygiene through the ages. Her masterful mix of erudition and anecdote makes this a fascinating, fast-paced read. It’s the history that’s hinted at but never taught, from bawdy bathhouse tales to now-hilarious scientific notions such as the supposed cleansing properties of linen … More than just a witty insight into washing, her book confronts our obsession with preening, plucking and performing our bodies that we smell less like humans and more like exotic fruits … Thought-provoking, charming and great fodder for dinner-party chat, this is a memorable read.” — Time Out, London, March 31, 2008

“Ashenburg rounds off with a splendid diatribe against American supercleanliness, which, like every section of the book, is full of acute perception… The only possible complaint about Ashenburg’s exceptionally enjoyable book is that, being beautifully designed and illustrated, it is not suitable for reading in the bath.” — The Sunday Times, March 23, 2008

“Ashenburg is a lively and entertaining guide … a sparkling, discursive and witty history: good, clean fun.” — New Statesman, March 27, 2008

“terrific history of personal hygiene… Ashenburg has produced a wonderfully interesting and amusing book.” — Daily Mail, April 1, 2008

“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.” — Publisher’s Weekly, September 9, 2007

“Utterly engaging as guided tours of human history as seen through the lens of a single idea … Ashenburg, for her part, operates within a more literary frame of reference, mining ‘The Romance of Flamenca,’ Madame de Sevigne’s letters, Thackeray’s novels and others over the course of a lively account in which we learn that: Napoleon spent two hours in a steaming bathtub every morning while an assistant read him newspapers and telegrams; Louis XIV had halitosis; Caucasians possess merocrine sweat glands ‘in profusion,’ while Asians have few or none; and Kotex were first manufactured by a Wisconsin company during World War I as absorbent bandages for Army hospitals in France.” — New York Times Style Magazine, October 21, 2007

“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.)… In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters that are free of padding… 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 global climate 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.” — Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2007

“With an easy, conversational tone and sense of humor, Ashenburg carries us from ancient to modern times, peppering the text with fascinating factoids gleaned from texts that range from Homer’s “Odyssey” to wartime letters to vintage soap advertisements.” — Seattle Times, November 19, 2007

“Rather than strangle the meaning from her anecdotes and examples the way my grandmother could wring every last droplet from a washcloth, Ashenburg is content to let the rich material she’s amassed speak for itself. Reading this book, as a result, feels more like participating in a stimulating conversation than attending a lecture… I highly recommend that you read this book, and that you go back and reread the prologue once you’re done. Ashenburg is one of our most interesting thinkers, and she’s one of our best writers, to boot.” — The Globe and Mail, 27 October 2007

“…Katherine Ashenburg’s illuminating and ripely sensual study of humanity’s ever-evolving attitudes about bodily hygiene, The Dirt on Clean… 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?” — Barnes & Noble Review

The Dirt on Clean offers a lighthearted tour of cleanliness in the Western world… Katherine Ashenburg conducts the tour with a discerning anthropological eye and a generous appreciation for human folly. She’s done substantial research, yet offers her findings so laced with her own lively interest that the reader feels not lectured to, but confided in.” — San Diego Union-Tribune, November 18, 2007

“Clearly, our ancestors had a more relaxed attitude toward body odors and emanations. Finding out about these wild variations is a big part of the fun of The Dirt on Clean, Katherine Ashenburg’s chipper, thought-provoking Unsanitized History… Ashenburg reminds her readers — with merry, well-researched work — that only recently has humanity cultivated its taste for privacy… Ashenburg has written an entertaining work, but a shrewd one, too, for our attitudes about dirt touch on religion, law and our deepest convictions… Ashenburg has put her nose to something elemental and profound. Her touch is light, her facts endearing …” — Plain Dealer (Cleveland), December 2, 2007

“Part of the fun of this utterly charming book lies in its casual dissemination of historical gems… Ashenburg does a lovely job of tracing the development of popular thinking about clean.” — Vancouver Sun, November 17, 2007

“Katherine Ashenburg has a real gift for making the abhorrent utterly irresistible… Ashenburg’s ability to establish context is part of what makes The Dirt on Clean so appealing. She similarly transformed grief into a must-read subject in 2002’s poignant The Mourner’s Dance, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by her ability to wring eloquence out of something as foul as perspiration, soot and plain old grime… Really, who would relish curling up with a cast of historical characters who bathe maybe (maybe) once a year…? Answer: anyone who picks up this book.” — Toronto Star, December 2, 2007

“In her new history of Western cleanliness, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (North Point, $24), Katherine Ashenburg takes a cross cultural approach. ‘For the modern middle class North American,’ she writes, ”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.’ And for centuries, she says, the filth of Europeans appalled the more scrupulous Muslims. Even if we take cleanliness seriously today, Ashenburg argues, it is a moving target. ‘Nothing,’ she says, ‘would change our bathing habits more quickly than a serious water shortage.'” — Washington Post, November 13, 2007

“This ‘unsanitized’ cultural history of hygiene is packed with illustrations, diagrams, and unusual footnotes from which you’ll learn that loo may derive from Gardez l’eau!, Old French for ‘Watch out, I’m about to dump my chamber pot out the window!’ Ashenburg’s kitchen sink approach is surprisingly enjoyable, and likely to make you insufferable at cocktail parties for weeks.” — Details, November 2007

“Taking a look at bathing customs over the last 2,000 years, the author, a journalist and lecturer, debunks myths associated with cleanliness and sheds light on the sometimes surprising origins of commonplace ideas and practices… Entertaining and humorous, [The Dirt on Clean] is an engaging read for anyone obsessed with cleanliness, or who’s just looking for a way to kill time in the bathtub.” — Nylon, November 2007

“With significant research and well-placed examples, Ashenburg outlines just how notions of cleanliness have changed and where they intersect with sexuality, social movements, and of course, hygiene…. The book successfully lays bare the fact that our idea of cleanliness is a haphazard construction. By the end, you’ll look at your bathroom a little differently.” — Quill & Quire

“Journalist Ashenburg again plunges into a subject not usually the focus of everyday conversation: cleanliness… Add to accumulation of information saucy quotes, from the Greeks and Romans to 2007, and just plain facts, and dinner dialogue will be sparkling.” — Booklist

“It is written with great zest, energy, aplomb and scholarship. It has also been designed and created with great passion. Perhaps in that respect it looks like a truly wonderful soap — that sort that might be given for a Christmas present. Unlike soap it won’t wash away! … This is popular history at its very best and it tells a wide and surprising story.” — Andrew Franklin, Publisher, Profile Books Ltd., England