THE DIRT ON CLEAN by Katherine Ashenburg


An Unsanitized History
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Cleanliness has a surprising history.

The morning routines of Americans generally include a shower, but people in other times and places have thought differently about what constitutes an appropriately clean body, writes Ashenburg (The Mourner’s Dance, 2003, etc.). Many cultures find body odor sexy; the choicest illustration appears in a letter from Napoleon, who wrote to Josephine, “I will return to Paris in five days. Stop washing.” Beginning with the social significance of the public bath in ancient Greece, the author moves on to consider early Christian ascetics’ disdain for cleanliness (“dirtiness became a uniquely Christian badge of holiness”) and the appearance of instructions about face-washing in medieval etiquette guides. During the 19th century, the burgeoning American middle class got serious about keeping bodies and houses clean, and cleanliness was imputed with a new moral value; people could judge another’s worthiness by the glow of their skin and the shine of their hair. In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters that are free of padding. 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. She closes on a disturbing note, pointing out that Americans have developed the standards of cleanliness they enjoy today at least in part because modern irrigation and rainfall levels made it possible for millions of people to shower regularly. If the global climate changes, our current habits may strike our 22nd-century descendants as odd, if not shocking.

Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-86547-690-5
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2007