Next to godliness

Juliet Waters is a staff writer at the Montreal Mirror where this review originally appeared.

In The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, Katherine Ashenburg recalls her own assimilation into North American standards of hyper-cleanliness. Stale female sweat was once an odor Ashenburg associated with nurturing and love. It was the smell of her German grandmother, “Who cleaned her house ferociously but not her body, or not very often. (It was a northern European habit I would later read about, when travelers from other European countries, as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would marvel at the cleanliness of Swiss, German and Dutch houses and even streets, but note that it did not extend to their bodies.)”

Ashenburg had to be taught that her grandmother’s smell was not “good.” Thanks to advertising, she learned, “the most menacing aspect of the smells that came with poor-to-middling hygiene was that, as we were constantly warned, we could be guilty of them without even knowing it! There was no way we could ever rest assured that we were clean enough.”

Our time and place is hardly the only one devoted to extreme standards of clean. Consider Ashenburg’s description of a typical Roman bathhouse, circa 100 B.C. “Imagine a superbly equipped YMCA that covered some blocks, with gyms, pools, ball courts and meeting rooms. Then add onto it the massage and treatment rooms of a fancy spa and the public rooms and the grounds of a resort. Finally, give it a fee structure that would allow the poorest people to use its facilities. That approximates, but does not equal, an Imperial bathhouse.” If this sounds utopian, then you obviously haven’t been watching HBO’s Rome. Like an inside out version of northern Europe, the bodies in Rome were clean, but the streets were an overcrowded hell of grime and blood.

It took the arrival of Christianity to bring on a millennium of thoroughly dirty living. As an Arabian gardener in A Thousand and One Nights explained the filthiness of Christians: “They never wash, for, at their birth, ugly men in black garments pour water over their heads, and this absolution, accompanied by strange gestures, frees them from all obligation of washing for the rest of their lives.” He was joking, but not totally. A short interlude of bathing rituals were brought about in the Middle Ages by the Crusaders, who returned home humbled by their failed campaigns and impressed by the hamams of Turkey. But this was soon stamped out by the arrival of the Black Plague.

Water, with all its potential bacteria, soon became something to avoid. If you’re ever wondering where the French passion for high-quality lingerie began, consider how often they needed to change and wash their underwear in order to control the parasites that flourished from their hydrophobia.

The French Enlightenment, with the back-to-nature philosophy espoused by Rousseau, started the pendulum swing back to personal hygiene. The invention, in Italy, of the bidet entrenched at least the basic rituals in the aristocracy. But clean really began to take hold in the upper classes with the emergence of hygiene’s first superstar, Beau Brummell.

“Buck” Brummell, as his classmates at Eton often called him, soon became legendary for his indefinable charisma. In fact, it looks quite possible that Brummell may have been one of the first recorded sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder—certainly “the twelve to fifteen liters of water and two of milk” he used to wash himself in debtor’s prison. The effect he had in forging the link between class and clean lasts to this day.

Working her way back to the present, with its explosion of deluxe bathrooms and anti-bacterial products, Ashenburg makes a case for the cultural relativity of clean. About the only thing missing from this book is a longer look at emerging environmental movements crusade to nudge the pendulum back towards somewhat less wasteful (and less toxic) ways of keeping healthy.