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Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the… (1960)

by Lawrence Wright

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Who would have supposed that the Romans had lagged hot-water pipes? that Queen Elizabeth I had a valve water-closet? that Louis XIV had cushions in his bath? that sponges have sex? This book, says the author, is meant to entertain, even if scholarship does keep breaking through.

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Lawrence Wright rather unexpectedly turns out not to have been a historian or a building engineer: his day job, in which he achieved quite some recognition, was architectural painting. Like Evelyn Waugh's Charles Ryder, he seems to have spent a lot of his working life recording grand buildings that were on the point of being demolished. He also seems to have had quite a distinguished career as an RAF officer in World War II: the thumbnail bio Penguin supply records that he remained a keen glider pilot in civil life. This was his first book, the accidental result of a commission to put together a display on "the history of the bathroom" for a building exhibition at Kensington Olympia, and it has turned into a minor classic of social history, in the same sort of tradition as E.S. Turner's [What the butler saw].

Wright takes us through a more-or-less chronological account of our ancestors' approach to personal hygiene and the artefacts involved, from ancient times to around 1914. He's writing to entertain, so he does tend to pick out quirks and eccentricities at the expense of the "big story" sometimes — and there is no shortage of quacks, crazy inventions and ridiculous superstitions in this field, many of them very funny as Wright describes them. But he does have a message of sorts: he has no faith in the conventional idea of the continuous improvement in social conditions facilitated by technical improvements and scientific knowledge. As far as he's concerned, you can already find most of the technical elements of good sanitation in Minoan civilisation, and at least some of them persisted through Roman times into the culture of medieval monasteries and castles. The dirty, plague-ridden cities of the early modern period were like that not because people were ignorant about the causes of disease or because they didn't have the tools to do any better, but because they had other things they wanted to spend their money on, just as (working-class) people of Wright's own time are more likely to use their precious savings to buy a TV set than to install a bathroom. Change happens through fashion, legislation or peer pressure, not through the unstoppable force of history.

Obviously this isn't necessarily an argument you can defend very far (and Wright doesn't make any claims to generalise it), and there are other narratives of sanitation and public health that would come up with a different answer, but it is interesting to be made to look at things this way for once.

One odd thing — among many — is how the fashion for steam-baths reached Western Europe first with the Romans, then with returning crusaders, then with 17th/18th century orientalists, then in the late 19th century, and then again (too late for Wright) with the fashion for all things Scandinavian in the sixties, being quickly forgotten again each time.

There is also, incidentally, some pretty sharp criticism of the inefficiency of mid-20th century British plumbing practices there, very little of which seems to have had any effect. But it is striking to remember how much has changed since 1960, when baths were (at best) weekly, showers unknown, most older houses didn't have bathrooms, and those that did usually had them in the form of rickety extensions or crudely partitioned half-bedrooms. And no-one you knew had a second bathroom or even a "guest cloakroom".

Incidentally, Wright has a lot of fun with the evolution of bathroom language, where the trend to euphemism that has been going on for as long as anyone can tell (a garderobe in a medieval castle wasn't necessarily for hanging clothes any more than the equivalent place in a modern American home is for bathing or resting) has meant that we have to keep on inventing new words to take the place of those that have shifted in meaning. And he points out how it works in other ways as well, with innocent words like stews and bagnio (he could almost have added sauna) that started out simply meaning "bath-house" shifting to refer only to places of prostitution.

Ultimately, though, this is a very diverting and funny book: Wright has a sharp eye for interesting bits of period artwork (who else would have pointed out Albrecht Dürer's roller-towel?), and he is also an expert at spotting the ridiculous in the source material, and has a knack for deflating quacks and charlatans very efficiently. He refuses to take the past more seriously than it deserves, and there are some fantastically absurd sentences here. Just a couple of examples:

On the end of the Roman Empire: "As Lord Grey might have said, the taps were being turned off all over Europe; they would not be turned on again for nearly a thousand years."

On the legendary founder of Bath: "Bladud was that rather rare combination, a leper, a swineherd, and a glider pilot." ( )
  thorold | Nov 29, 2019 |
I think I have really taken for granted the development of bathroom fixtures and plumbing! Many, many people have tinkered and toiled with baths, basins, and toilets over hundreds of years, to make them the models of efficiency and cleanliness (generally speaking of course), that we have come to expect in the industrialized world today. I never appreciated the number of styles of bath that had been developed, advertised and generally used as a medicinal cure rather than a pleasurable cleansing that we are accustomed to. This book was written as a follow up of a display that the author had developed on the History of the Bathroom, and as such, it reads much like a brief catalogue of items in some regard. There are moments of humour, and many of the vignettes of toilet and bathing trivia, leave you wishing for just a bit more detail. ( )
  nellista | Oct 5, 2008 |
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Who would have supposed that the Romans had lagged hot-water pipes? that Queen Elizabeth I had a valve water-closet? that Louis XIV had cushions in his bath? that sponges have sex? This book, says the author, is meant to entertain, even if scholarship does keep breaking through.

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