Nine illustrated chapters loosely trace the various ways cultures around the world have dealt with keeping their bodies clean—or not.
The introductory chapter, “Eight Myths About ‘Clean,’ ” includes such clever hooks as a warning to the squeamish about references to “poop, bodily fluids...and other shocking subjects.” Indeed, the text abounds with such tidbits as the propensity of rats to nibble on gentlemen’s unwashed wigs. The chapter on “Ancient Grime” briefly summarizes The Odyssey, using it to discuss the importance of washing and bathing in 12th century B.C.E. Sidebars tell of bathing in the Indus Valley in 3,000 B.C.E., as well as washing habits in ancient Egypt and China, while the primary narrative then revisits Greece (including Athens versus Sparta) and introduces Roman baths. (Readers may find Ashenburg’s alternation of dates and centuries confusing as they navigate this nonlinear history.) The text successfully shows the influences of religion, class distinctions, geography, individual thinkers, and advertising on cleanliness behaviors throughout centuries and over most continents, ending with current practices in Canada and the U.S.—including the ongoing debate about antibacterial products. Colorful pages brim with sidebar anecdotes related to bathhouses, soap, toilets, and surprised international travelers. There are some liberties taken to keep the text simple and accessible, but the myth-shattering is well-documented.
This lighthearted overview may well lead readers to further research. (sources, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)