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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by…

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (2007)

by Katherine Ashenburg

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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
I foolishly neglect to take notes while reading this book, so I don't have precise dates, hilarious anecdotes and strange factoids to share. However, all of those things can be found within these pages! Engagingly gossipy, with a clear organizational structure, this was an easy to read introduction to the very broad subject of hygiene. The book focuses mostly on Western Europe, with some side notes and comparison to the Middle East, northern Africa, the US, and a few others. Basically what I got out of this was that just as we are taught in schools, the Roman Empire was a shining moment of cleanliness. Before and after (once the infrastructure of the pipes started to crumble), Europeans were dirty, bathing maybe once a year, and the rest of the world was rather disgusted and astounded by them. Common misconceptions were that water weakened the skin's defenses against diseases, and that wearing clean linen, not water, was the safest and most efficacious method of staying clean. Washing ones hands, face and sometimes feet was often the most even a hoity-toity type would do. Eventually soap became easier to make, less smelly, and more effective, and sanitation too improved, and Europeans started bathing more often. The author discusses how what counts as "clean" has changed throughout the ages and varies by place, as well, and mentions that perceived dirtiness is often a method of denoting us-vs-them against immigrants, minority groups, etc. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
I loved this book. It temporarily fed the insatiable curiosity that I never quite grew out of. I'm the sort to stop suddenly while in the shower to wonder how the notions of indoor plumbing or soap came about. I'm always intrigued about how cultural systems and perspectives develop and how each is influenced by others.

The focus of this book is primarily Europe, and given the diverse practices even on that one continent, I think it would be hard to broaden the scope much further in one volume. Influences from other countries and consequent influences on North America are noted, but it's busy enough covering such a broad range of history, cultures, and geography. It describes the virtues or horrors (depending upon the place and time) of bathing in hot water, bathing in cold water, bathing in lukewarm water, or bathing at all, especially if it involved body parts that aren't generally seen. It brings up an interesting chicken-egg what-came-first musing for me: do clothing patterns determine bathing patterns or did bathing constraints determine clothing styles?

The book is full of interesting quotes, paintings, and ads. I tried to keep the various beliefs over time about the sanctity or fears of a full immersion bath in my head while browsing through an art museum yesterday. For some, to go without bathing was to show piety and humility. For others, bathing frequently was to show a desire for holiness and purity. Where heating water was an extravagant use of fuel and privacy was limited, bathing in cold water was not a comfortable thing. Perhaps it’s not surprising that bathing in comfortable temperatures was often believed to sap people of strength or make them slothful. In the days before central heating, the tendency to linger in a warm bath probably happened whenever the opportunity allowed, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that those immersed instead in frigid water jumped out quite energetically as soon as possible. Even so, stories of those who spent four to six hours at a time in warm baths were pretty mind-boggling. I can't help but think they had nothing better to do once out.

For many of us, cultural notions of hygiene were determined quite a lot by various marketing campaigns of the last century or two, punctuated here and there by war and disease outbreak. It’s a little jarring, but perhaps not surprising, that what’s now held to be good health and the minimum of manners was born out of ad campaigns between competing 19th and 20th century soap or deodorant manufacturers. Ultimately, there are still the questions: what’s really necessary for good health, respect for those around us, and our own enjoyment? The book doesn’t pretend to give the final word, but rather gives us how various societies chose to answer. ( )
  bkshs | Feb 14, 2015 |

A quite fascinating account of how the concept of cleanliness in Europe and later North America was basically a social construct, how the Roman habit of daily bathing was not resumed until as recently as a century ago. The two key images that stuck with me were, first, the concentration on clean clothes rather than a clean body for the days of the Enlightenment, with Casanova priding himself on his twelve shirts; and second, the role of military hygiene, with soldiers ordered to wash every day to prevent illness, as a catalyst for changing the wider habits of society. It may be a mere social construct but I still need my shower every morning. ( )
  nwhyte | Sep 9, 2013 |
An interesting look at washing practices over time, the war between enjoyment and practicality, warm washing and cold and the way that it has become an obsession with many people in the 20th century, while in the past it often echoed religious beliefs today it's very influenced by the new church of public opinion and advertising.

It's interesting to read the different attitudes to clean over the ages and how in some places it remains the same, while many people now regard regular bathing important, there continues some people who hold on to older beliefs.

Worth reading. Interesting. ( )
  wyvernfriend | Mar 23, 2013 |
This seemed well researched and was full of interesting tidbits, but I had a bit too much of the subject of hygiene by the end. ( )
  gbelik | Jun 21, 2012 |
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For Kate and John, who love their bath, and for Alberto, always immaculate
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For the modern, middle-class North American, "clean" means that you shower and apply deodorant each and every day without fail.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 086547690X, Hardcover)

The question of cleanliness is one every age and culture has answered with confidence. For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, scraping the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the aristocratic Frenchman in the seventeenth century, it meant changing your shirt once a day and perhaps going so far as to dip your hands in some water. Did Napoleon know something we didn't when he wrote Josephine "I will return in five days. Stop washing"? And why is the German term Warmduscher--a man who washes in warm or hot water--invariably a slight
against his masculinity? Katherine Ashenburg takes on such fascinating questions as these in Clean, her charming tour of attitudes to hygiene through time.

What could be more routine than taking up soap and water and washing yourself? And yet cleanliness, or the lack of it, is intimately connected to ideas as large as spirituality and sexuality, and historical events that include plagues, the Civil War, and the discovery of germs. An engrossing fusion of erudition and anecdote, Clean considers the bizarre prescriptions of history'sdoctors, the hygienic peccadilloes of great authors, and the historic twists and turns that have brought us to a place Ashenburg considers hedonistic yet oversanitized.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:42 -0400)

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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 and using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else's, but never immersing himself in water. In 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 germaphobes shake hands with their elbows and 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 that yields surprising insights about 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 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 to our own understanding of clean, which is no more rational than any other."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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