Book Review: The Dirt on Clean

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
by Katherine Ashenburg
Knopf Canada (2007), 358 pp.

How often do you shower? More to the point, how often should you shower?

The answers, in Katherine Ashenburg’s wonderfully detailed and culturally revealing history of bathing, will depend on where you live — or when. For instance, more than half of French men and women don’t bathe every day — and one in four French women don’t put on fresh underwear. This is bound to cause lip curling among North Americans, who can never be too odourless, or too clean. “Unlike the French,” Ashenburg writes, “we are still leery of our visceral, animal side and prefer to smell like tea or cupcakes.”

The Greeks and Romans were big on cleanliness, using a metal tool called a strigil to scrape off the oils and perfumes they used instead of soap. The imperial Roman baths were elegant gathering places, a full-service combination of spa, mall, gym, and brothel. But Christianity ushered in a much dirtier era, when some saints fervently embraced the transcendent state of alousia, or unwashedness. Public bathing, with its sensual and social delights, fell out of favour. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, washing in water was considered unhealthy, since plugged pores were believed to be a barrier against disease. The author takes particular delight in outing this era, “among the dirtiest in the history of Europe,” when the powdered wigs, rancid pomades, and long-stewing body odours of the French royal court must have turned a warm room into a potent brew.

In this century, the big, sybaritic bathroom has become the defining space in the modern North American home, and the business of selling plug-in scent dispensers, teeth-whitening strips, and bacteria-killing sprays just keeps growing. Ashenburg has fun tracking the rise of new advertising strategies, as the makers of deodorants, mouthwashes, and feminine care products began to capitalize on our bottomless fear of all the ways in which our bodies can “offend.” With a wealth of illustrations and a current of subversive wit, this is a “bathroom book” with substance.

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