The Dirt on Clean

An Unsanitized History

For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a public two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, a scraping of the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the seventeenth-century aristocratic Frenchman, it meant changing his shirt once a day, using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else’s, but never immersing himself in – horrors! – water. By the early 1900s, an extraordinary idea took hold in North America – that frequent bathing, perhaps even a daily bath, was advisable. Not since the Roman Empire had people been so clean, and standards became even more extreme as the millennium approached. Now we live in a deodorized world where germophobes shake hands with their elbows and where sales of hand sanitizers, wipes and sprays are skyrocketing.

The apparently routine task of taking up soap and water (or not) is Katherine Ashenburg’s starting point for a unique exploration of Western culture, which yields surprising insights into our notions of privacy, health, individuality, religion and sexuality.

Ashenburg searches for clean and dirty in plague-ridden streets, medieval steam baths, castles and tenements, and in bathrooms of every description. She reveals the bizarre rescriptions of history’s doctors as well as the hygienic peccadilloes of kings, mistresses, monks and ordinary citizens, and guides us through the twists and turns to our own understanding of clean, which is no more rational than the rest. Filled with amusing anecdotes and quotations from the great bathers of history, The Dirt on Clean takes us on a journey that is by turns intriguing, humorous, startling and not always for the squeamish. Ashenburg’s tour of history’s baths and bathrooms reveals much about our changing and most intimate selves – what we desire, what we ignore, what we fear, and a significant part of who we are.

Reviews

“Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years.”
Publishers’ Weekly

“In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters… . She includes many quirky tidbits of cultural history, such as the role played by bathing in Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from Cockney flower-seller to fair lady and the appearance in the 1930s of vaguely menacing magazine ads that threatened women with spinsterhood if they dared let their breath or armpits smell.… . Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content.”
Kirkus Reviews

Praise for The Mourner’s Dance:

“Moving, exotic, outrageous… . A serendipitous tour of anthropology, cultural history, psychology and personal reflection… . It’s a pleasure to accompany Ashenburg.”
The Globe and Mail

“An intricate tapestry that maps out the emotional landscape of grief… . A richly informative and compassionate book.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Elegantly written… . The Mourner’s Dance–learned, often moving and even consoling–is a superb survey.”
Maclean’s