The Dirt on Clean: Katherine Ashenburg

Lucky you! Today is the day you get to learn too much about my personal hygiene! Because you can’t read a book like The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History without being forced to consider your own thinking on just what it means to be clean.

I heard an interview with the author on some science podcast I listen to ages ago, and was intrigued enough by what she said to bring the interview and the book up in later conversations, but not intrigued enough to actually remember to buy the book. Thankfully, I have T. in my life who gave me Dirt for my birthday this year. I assume this is because he stores up my random noodlings and acts on them when a present-giving occasion comes around, and not because he wants me to re-consider my take on hygiene and is encouraging me to do so in the most passive-aggressive way possible. 

But there is a lot to make you re-consider these things in Dirt. Ashenburg does the nice linear history here, making for an easy, quick read. She starts us off way back in the days of the ancient Greeks, taking Odysseus as a particularly well-washed example of his kind and looking at the things he did that made him so. And she sets us up in the first few pages for a running theme in the book, the perceived connection between physical and moral dirt. The Greeks had to wash before praying or offering sacrifices, the Romans see a dirty body as being equivalent to a lazy and unworthy. And modern Christians of all stripes, like Jewish people, tend to hold firm to the idea of “Cleanliness is next to godliness”. Surprisingly, however, this is a relatively modern way of thinking.

Turns out early Christians were filthy. And proud of it, the idea being to punish “the body so that the better part, the soul, could flourish.” Ashenburg gives us several unbelievably disgusting saints, complete with first-hand witnesses to the horror, such as the biographer of St. Olympias noting approvingly that her clothing was “contemptible.” Oddly enough, though, these dirty holy people spent a great deal of time washing those less fortunate such as lepers; “Humility and charity demanded that the most scrupulously filthy saints help others to be clean.” And as the great Roman baths faded from existence after the Goths disabled the Roman aqueducts in 537, some really weird ideas about hygiene started springing up, the most notable being that water was scary and dirt was protective.

This mindset put down some deep roots, and until the beginning of the 19th century, Western Europeans were stinky, filthy people who avoided water like the plague (which was killing them and which they blamed on the practice of bathing), with the possible exception of Jewish people thanks to the ritualized washing Judaism requires. At this point, you’re probably seeing a pattern here. All these washing habits belong to white people. And you’d be right to notice that.

Ashenburg admits right from the outset that she will be focusing on the history of Western ideas of cleanliness, and merely touching on other customs. Given the wide range of ideas involved in something so basic as perceptions of cleanliness, this is a smart move, but I was frustrated by the fact that, as we move into the modern era, this focus ends up being on England, France and the United States, with occasional mentions of Spain, Finland and Italy, and Germany referenced a little more often. In the discussion of cleanliness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the focus is almost entirely on England/France versus the US. I suppose this is because of the innovations that each of these countries made in the world of personal hygiene, but it felt really narrow. I would’ve liked to have seen more discussion of other Western countries, particularly Spain with its historical ties to Islam. (To be fair, Ashenburg does touch upon this last point, but just.)

Another frustration/irritation was how the main text is littered with quotes and bits of trivia about bathing and cleanliness. It’s distracting as hell. (Although some of this litter is really quite interesting, like Louis XIV’s ordinance that the feces left in the corridors of Versailles were to be removed once a week. Think about that the next time you watch some romanticized historical drama about the Sun King.) The whole book has the feel of a magazine article, thanks to all these bits and pieces intruding on the main text. And when I want to read a magazine article, I open a magazine, not a book.

Towards the end of the book, Ashenburg’s biases really start to show; clearly, she is in favour of less cleanliness in our modern times. Which is not a bad perspective and actually one that I’ve been coming around to myself. (I am shampoo-free! Because shampoo makes my scalp really itchy and it turns out that when I don’t use it, I don’t suddenly turn into a disgusting pig monster. Who knew?) But there is a little preachiness and editorializing in her tone that I am not so in love with. I also think that I do not need “freshening cloths” (yes, you can guess what those might be for), but there’s a sort of “the kids these days” to the way she comments on recent hygiene developments in the last chapter.

All that said, The Dirt on Clean is a fascinating read. How we ended up so over-the-top in our cleaning habits in North America is just nuts. And in the context of a history where people believed that clean linen had magical powers and that plugging the pores with dirt was the best way to stay healthy, it seems crazy to think that most North Americans bathe once a day, if not more, and that the mere whiff of body odour on the bus is enough to cause eyeball-rolling and outraged recountings to friends.

Given that I am one of the shower-a-day tribe, I doubt that I could ever go au naturel and be all comfortable with an unsanitized me. Or unsanitized anyone else. But I do think that smelling like mangoes or whatever weird perfumes and lotions we are anointing ourselves with is probably not sustainable. As Ashenburg herself notes, “We are concerned about the environment, but we avoid thinking very much about the gallons of clean hot water we use every day and the toxins in our cleansers that we pour down the drain.”

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