The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg

Read  November 2017
Recommended for clean historians
★    ★    ★    

I love a clean house. I actually like cleaning, particularly when it involves dusting my bookshelves. There’s something about a room where I’ve just removed the dust, hair and debris that says, ‘order,’ followed by ‘exhale.’ In the old days, I used to need/have to clean my room before I could work on any term papers. So when I saw this title, I was intrigued. I’m well aware ‘clean’ is psychologically, personally and culturally defined. I have, after all, lived with other people, one of whom would have dust bunnies the size of hamsters under the bed, and another whose tolerance for dirty bathrooms inevitably resulted in me cleaning it. Every. Week. But I digress. Unfortunately, The Dirt on Clean is largely about Western bathing rituals, from early Greek and Roman period to the English in the Middle Ages and 19th centuries, and then finally modern American. It was vaguely interesting, in a sleepy-time bath kind of way.

On the entertaining side, if you’ve ever wondered how Western bathing rituals evolved through the years, you’ll find a reasonable detailing here. The ancient Greeks (no mention of the modern ones) were well known for public baths, plumbing, and a culture that encouraged bathing for both social and health reasons. Hippocrates apparently believed hot and cold baths could bring the body’s humours into balance. Of course, bathhouses also served as an important social setting.

Ashenburg then devotes a chapter to Christianity and bathing, particularly the unusual non-emphasis on physical cleanliness/ritual as compared to other religions. In fact, excessive washing “signified vanity and worldliness,” (p.59) as well as potentially immodest exposure. Hot baths might also be stimulating, a concept that would be echoed in the Victorian era.

Several more chapters discuss varying aspects of bathing through Europe during the next millennia. Some areas retained bathing and bathhouses (the Swiss, the French) through the 1300s, but the plague ended up being a fatal blow to the conception of water as healthy because of the growing belief that baths and water opened the pores and let “pestiferous vapour in” (p.94). Mr. Francis Bacon, as a matter of fact, had a regimen where a person had a pre-bath oil and salve routine to close pores, sat in the bath for 2 hours, then wrapped in a waxed cloth that had herbs and resin for 24 hours, intending to re-close pores and ‘harden’ the body.

Further chapters explore the return of cold water bathing in the 1700s which coincided with the view that the pores should be open so that germs could be flushed away from the body. Technology facilitated the rise of bidets and ocean ‘baths’ in the 1750s. As the trend gained traction in the upper classes, the issue became how to convince the lower classes to clean up, covered in the return of baths/bathouses and development of showers in the 1800s that was connected to cholera. A subsequent chapter looks at plumbing in America during the same time frame, followed by soap and marketing in the early 1900s, and the crazy war on germs from the 1950s onward.

My problem with this book is that it was neither fish nor fowl. On one side, it talks about cleanliness from a ritual and conceptual standpoint, occasionally tying it into medical theory or physical resources. The problem with this approach is that she also uses stories as examples of rituals, when–as readers know–sometimes stories are as much about what we wish or fantasize about rather than what is. Or, you know, metaphor. Like using Fifty Shades of Grey to talk about sexual rituals in 21st century America; although they are connected, there’s a difference between cultural practices and cultural entertainment.  So my academic criticism would be that she muddles her anthropological analysis. For instance, getting the lower classes to bathe was illustrated by Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady. I’ll also note that although she rarely brings in examples of various bathing rituals in other countries, it usually lacks context.

On the other side, she also enjoys sharing the Trivia(l) Pursuit or Entertainment Tonight type of stories where we get the scandalous and shocking details of what they did Way Back When, such as when Jean-Jacques Rousseau griped that a house was so full of “maids and teasing lackeys [that] I do not find a single wall or wretched little corner” to pee in. She also tries periodically to bring in the issue of ‘smells.’ Although in the opening chapter she recognizes smell as cultural concept, she still brings it into many of the chapters where people had habits that would be considered culturally unsavory now, but then slams modern (American) culture for being so smell-conscious now.

In an effort to be appropriate, I usually read it in the bath, which accounts for the many days it took to complete my reading. it might have also contributed to its soporific effects, in contrast to those crazy Victorians thinking it heats the blood. It’s not a bad book, but when it comes to non-fiction, I prefer less attempts to be titillating and more focus on substance.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg

  1. alicegristle says:

    Amusingly, it sounds a little too clean to be a book about cleanliness. 🙂 But, I didn’t know that the modern shower was invented in the 1800s, so that’s something! Thanks for the review!

    Also, it reminds me of a pretty good non-fiction book I read recently, The Big Necessity by Rose George. Although not a flawless book, it did have some interesting and impactful info on “helicopter toilets” and the life of sewer workers, among other things.

  2. M. says:

    “In an effort to be appropriate, I usually read it in the bath, which accounts for the many days it took to complete my reading.”

    • thebookgator says:

      I love that you get me 🙂

      • M. says:

        Amazon keeps pushing the water-proof kindle on me, but idk. I might consider it if I had a bathtub to lounge in.

      • thebookgator says:

        Ha! Yes, a bath would make the biggest difference. Which made me laugh, honestly, because that means there’s so many people that read where there is water that it is a legit market. 😀 The consensus I saw online, however, is that the price is completely not worth the waterproofing and the slightly larger screen.

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