22 July 2023

Review: The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg

The Dirt on Clean - An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg book cover

The Dirt on Clean - An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg takes us through our delightfully dirty and grubby past, as we meander through the ages taking stock of attitudes to dirt and cleanliness and examining the drivers for the vast changes along the way.

Ashenburg explores many aspects of dirtiness, cleanliness and bathing and makes this observation early in the book:
"The archetypal link between dirt and guilt, and cleanliness and innocence, is built into our language - perhaps into our psyches. We talk about dirty jokes and laundering money." Page 8
In the Roman Empire, cleanliness was an important part of life, work and leisure, with many Romans spending up to two hours at the public baths every day. The use of strigils - a curved blade used to scrape the skin - as part of the ancient greek bathing process wasn't new to me, but get this:
"Greek athletes, who exercised in the nude - gymnasium literally means 'the naked place' - first oiled their bodies and covered them with a thin layer of dust or sand to prevent chills. After [exercise] the men and boys removed their oil and dust, now mingled with sweat with a curved metal scraper called a strigil." Page 24
I knew athletes competed nude and oiled their bodies after bathing, but didn't know they applied dust or sand to prevent them getting cold; or the meaning of gymnasium for that matter! A little later in the book, we learn:
"The accumulated sweat, dirt and oil that a famous athlete or gladiator strigiled off himself was sold to his fans in small vials. Some Roman women reportedly used it as a face cream." Page 38
While this might make us recoil with disgust, it's really no different to social media influencers today selling their bath water or sending their socks to eager fans willing to pay big bucks.

It's fascinating to me that personal hygiene habits and attitudes to bathing have changed so dramatically over time. From the bathhouse traditions that date from the Middle Ages, Ashenburg gives us a broad overview of the relationship between cleanliness and religion. Muslims perform ritual ablutions and their cleanliness has been one of the culturally defining points of difference between Christians and Muslims. If the Muslims were meticulously clean, then the Christians were known for being dirty. When it comes to saints though, the dirtier the better.
"For ordinary Christians, cleanliness was a [sic] good, bringing comfort, a sense of well-being and a measure of healthfulness. Humility and charity demanded that the most scrupulously filthy saints help others to clean." Page 63
It's ironic that human suffering, poverty, abstinence and lack of washing demonstrated religious devotion with many only washing the parts of the body that could be seen, like the hands and face.

During many plagues, it was thought dirt blocked the pores of the skin which prevented the plague entering the human body. Washing or having a bath would strip a person of this protective layer and many were certain they'd die as a result. A shortage of firewood also contributed to the decline in popularity for bathing, as resources to heat water became scarcer.

Many will know the famous quote from Elizabeth I who bathed once a month, "whether I need it or not", but did you know:
"Elizabeth's successor, James I, reportedly washed only his fingers." Page 99
Ashenburg includes many familiar and well worn quotes about cleanliness, bathing and odours from history, and some of them never cease to shock, like this one:
"Shortly before Louis XIV died in 1715, a new ordinance decreed that feces left in the corridors of Versailles would be removed once a week." Page 116
Once a week! In addition to immersing the reader in the moral dangers of bathing and bathing in public, it was also interesting to read about the debate between cool and warm water bathing, with some of the opinion that warm baths made boys and men soft.
"But cool water had never been considered as dangerous as hot water. To immerse yourself in hot water, you had to be foolhardy, German - or ill. ... Because water could infiltrate a healthy body and disturb the balance of its humours, doctors and patients hoped that a carefully designed and monitored bath might also restore the humours' equilibrium in a diseased body." Page 114
It's unthinkable to us to wear the same singlet or underwear for a week without changing or even removing it, but in the 1700s, the Marquis d'Argens wore a flannel under-waistcoat to keep warm and wouldn't take it off for fear of catching cold. It was revealed he'd worn the waistcoat for four years, but when he finally agreed to take it off, it had "so fixed itself upon him that pieces of his skin came away with it." Page 127 Eeek!

Ashenburg examines how our notion of privacy has changed, the relationship between bathing and sex and she even makes the history of soap absorbing for the reader. Although I wouldn't want to try washing clothes with a mix of animal fats and ashes. Later, toilet soap was made with olive oil:
"...(where the soap made in Castile was so prized that eventually all fine white soap made with olive oil was called Castile soap), but it was a luxury and beyond the budgets of most people in the Middle Ages." Page 32
And did you know the brand name Palmolive came about because the soap they made contained a combination of palm oil and olive oil. Who knew!

The introduction of the rain bath, or shower as we know it today was a little dry - sorry, couldn't resist. Rain baths took off in America, however older dwellings in Europe took much longer to embrace the technology, as it had to be adapted to existing conditions. The rich were loath to change their habits, preferring to bathe in their rooms, and with servants to bring the water the impetus for change wasn't pressing. The poorer classes didn't have time to carry the volume of water, the fuel required to heat it in their homes or even a tub to sit in, and so the class divide remained, demarcated by cleanliness.

If you lived in Paris in 1819, you could have ordered a service called a bain a domicile:
"....bain a domicile, delivered to the client's house or apartment, even on the top floor, all the necessities of a bath - a tub, a robe and sheet, and hot, cold or tepid water as ordered. When the bath was over, everything was whisked away, including the water, which was usually removed by a hose..." Page 187
How's that? You could basically 'uber' a bath in 1819! Ashenburg covers a lot of ground, and the number of times I've recalled facts from this book since finishing it, has persuaded me to increase my star rating from 4 stars to a full five stars.

Let me leave you with Seneca describing the cacophony of noise he has to tolerate living above a bathhouse:
"Now imagine to yourself every type of sound which can make you sick of your ears: when hearty types are exercising by swinging dumbbells around - either working hard at it or pretending to - I hear their grunts, and then a sharp hissing whenever they let out the breath they've been holding. Or again, my attention is caught by someone who is content to relax under an ordinary massage and I hear the smack of a hand whacking his shoulders, the sound changing as the hand comes down flat or curved. If on top of all that there is a game-scorer beginning to call out the score, I've had it! Then there's the brawler, the thief caught in the act, the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, the folk who leap into the pool with an enormous splash. Besides those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, think of the depilator constantly uttering his shrill and piercing cry to advertise his services: He is never silent except when plucking someone's armpits' and forcing him to yell instead. Then there are the various cries of the drink-seller; there's the sausage seller and the pastry-cook and all the eating-house pedlars, each marketing his wares with his own distinctive cry." Pages 41-42
Highly recommended!

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. This sounds fascinating, thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, it really was a fascinating read and I haven't stopped thinking about it, so definitely worthy of your challenge!


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