Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #7: The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg
The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History is a history of different standards and practices of personal hygiene and cleanliness in Western society. After hearing this description, it is likely that either your interest is piqued, or you are wondering why anyone would bother to read – let alone write – a book on this subject. I fall into the first camp; a history of something like bathing and cleanliness, which is so culturally specific, yet so normative as to seem invisible, inevitable, and natural, must give some insight into society as a whole and the changes that have gone on as bathing practices have changed.
If you think The Dirt on Clean sounds interesting, you will likely not be disappointed. Ashenburg starts with the Romans, who engaged in public bathing at bathhouses, which became more elaborate and ostentatious throughout the years. The Greeks also used public bathing, but it was in connection with playing sports and working up a good sweat first. Of course, they engaged in these sports in the nude. How else does one work up a sweat?
In the pre-industrial era, cleanliness was not highly prized; in the 1700’s in Europe, many bathed only a few times a year, and saw changing their shirts and splashing water on their faces as good hygiene. Now, Americans tend to place a great deal of importance on cleanliness, to a point that Ashenburg argues is overly fastidious.
Through all of this, Ashenburg repeatedly brings up the way that cleanliness is culturally defined; we may say that certain practices are necessary so as not to smell bad, but Ashenburg asserts that the nose is trainable. Cleanliness has also been used over time as an indication of moral or spiritual health; in the fourth century, spiritual leaders equated clean bodies and clothes with unclean souls, as they connected fastidious grooming with being overly concerned with the physical world to the detriment of the spiritual. Nowadays, we tend to see a lack of cleanliness as a moral failing. The Dirt on Clean ties these many disparate practices and opinions together into a highly entertaining read.
Rebecca does not wash her hair every time she showers. Some people find this shocking. This is her third time participating in the Cannonball Read.