The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History – Katherine Ashenburg

My first book of 2017 and possibly a sign of slight change in my reading habits since I started this blog. A year ago I would rarely reach for non-fiction, but over the course of 2016 I read more non-fiction than I would expect, so this follows the new pattern in my reading. It is one of my Christmas gifts and seemed like a good read after the Christmas period of overeating.

Katherine Ashenburg takes us on a journey through the ages and investigates habits related to cleanliness trying to find out how we got to our current obsession with clean and smell-free bodies. She does focus mainly on western Europe and United States, only mentioning other cultures when comparing their habit with western ones. We start our trip in ancient Greece, then move on to lavish Roman thermae. As Christianity starts Ashenburg investigates the relation between religion and cleanliness, how for different religions cleanliness is a requirement for prayer and how Christianity  abandoned the concept of bodily cleanliness, not setting any specific requirements around it. Then as she takes us further on our tour we find out the connection between cleanliness and politics.

Somehow cleanliness gets disconnected from health, as we progress throughout the ages water start being perceived as a threat, especially after Black Death and recurring epidemics after it. People started believing that public baths were the reason for people falling ill, water opening the pores for the disease to enter the body. Gradually people simply stopped bating almost completely. 16th and 17th century being probably the dirtiest in history, when common belief was that changing into fresh shirt is all it takes to maintain hygiene.

Later a new connection is formed, that cold baths may actually be healthy, a lot of water treatments are developed. People start bathing, but being clean is not the objective, being healthy is. At this point also access to water facilities starts differentiating according to class, it is all connected to industrial revolution. Finally Ashenburg moves on to the 20th century with it;s obsession of cleanliness and more common access to bathrooms, she investigates how hygiene industry worked hand in hand with advertising to create new standards and make them higher than ever.

It was a ver interesting book, setting the matter of common bath in the context of social and political history. Fascinating read with lots of examples and quotes from literature, letters and scientific books, but never boring or overwhelming. A good start to 2017 reading!

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

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10 thoughts on “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History – Katherine Ashenburg

  1. This sounds really interesting. I always say I want to read more nonfiction but then I rarely do – and when I do it tends to be memoirs. I think I’d like this one. Great review! (Also, I am glad I’m not the only one who experienced a “Christmas period of overeating!”)

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    1. Thank you! It definitely was a good read, so interesting that at times I actually wanted it to go more into details, but because of the scope of the book it was not possible. It is fascinating to what extent I took our current habits and perception of cleanliness for granted.
      When I was younger I always thought that non-fiction books are a bit of a bore, but the older I get the more interesting I find them, there are two options: they are a bore and I am becoming an old, boring person, or non-fiction books published now are simply better. I guess you know which option is my favorite 😉

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  2. This sounds fascinating. I love this kind of rather quirky non-fiction – when they’re done well, they can make even the weirdest subjects intriguing and it sounds like this one is done well… thanks for highlighting it!

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    1. It was a great read indeed! I think it helped that the subject matter is a bit controversial. Our current cleanliness habits and social norms are very strict, allowing quite small tolerance for other standards. And in the past standards were definitely different 😉
      The cooperation of hygiene products industry and advertising was really shocking for me, again I was fooled that our habits are the standard, whereas they were artificially created to create demand.

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  3. At least they changed into fresh shirts!
    I love the sound of this. I read a book a few years ago that talked about how death from drinking dirty water led us to alcohol – it was safer to drink than the water. This is also the time tea and coffee became popular. A bit different, but equally fascinating.

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    1. Haha! Not sure for how long it helped with the smell, but then if everyone stank there was no one to actually feel it, so maybe no one stank… 😉
      I find it very interesting how many habits that we now think of as obvious were actually created in the last century, how much of it is the actual need and how much is advertising. But I would agree that drinking alcohol is probably safer than dirty water 🙂

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    1. I think I’m growing up to non-fiction, I really found it awfully boring when I was younger, maybe it was because of the habit from my studies to try and retain every single fact I read, it does make for a tedious reading, but once I let myself go and stopped trying to remember everything I find non-fiction more and more interesting. Do you have any recommendations?

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      1. Yes, good point, you do have to leave your studying brain behind. I read all sorts, if you skim through my blog I suppose you can get recommendations for travel, biography, language, history, sport and music, which are the areas I’m interested in. I’d just say look out for stuff that’s on topics you’re interested in, but once in a while throw in a complete wild card. Happy non-fiction reading!

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  4. Pingback: January round-up – bookskeptic.com

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