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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History [Paperback]

Katherine Ashenburg
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 28 2008 0676976646 978-0676976649
For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a public two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, a scraping of the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the seventeenth-century aristocratic Frenchman, it meant changing his shirt once a day, using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else’s, but never immersing himself in – horrors! – water. By the early 1900s, an extraordinary idea took hold in North America – that frequent bathing, perhaps even a daily bath, was advisable. Not since the Roman Empire had people been so clean, and standards became even more extreme as the millennium approached. Now we live in a deodorized world where germophobes shake hands with their elbows and where sales of hand sanitizers, wipes and sprays are skyrocketing.

The apparently routine task of taking up soap and water (or not) is Katherine Ashenburg’s starting point for a unique exploration of Western culture, which yields surprising insights into our notions of privacy, health, individuality, religion and sexuality.

Ashenburg searches for clean and dirty in plague-ridden streets, medieval steam baths, castles and tenements, and in bathrooms of every description. She reveals the bizarre rescriptions of history’s doctors as well as the hygienic peccadilloes of kings, mistresses, monks and ordinary citizens, and guides us through the twists and turns to our own understanding of clean, which is no more rational than the rest. Filled with amusing anecdotes and quotations from the great bathers of history, The Dirt on Clean takes us on a journey that is by turns intriguing, humorous, startling and not always for the squeamish. Ashenburg’s tour of history’s baths and bathrooms reveals much about our changing and most intimate selves – what we desire, what we ignore, what we fear, and a significant part of who we are.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

From Amazon

A book about filthy people really has no business being thoroughly entertaining. But author Katherine Ashenburg's The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, which charts the history of human hygiene, is a winner from start to finish despite concerning itself with a motley cast of real-life characters who either don't wash at all (medieval Europeans) or who wash themselves with almost ritualistic fervor (ancient Romans and Greeks).

With exhaustive research and a brisk writing style, Ashenburg similarly transformed grief into a must-read subject in 2002's poignant The Mourner's Dance. Here, she lays out factoid after unbelievable factoid, each demonstrating how hygiene impacted society in ways much greater than just causing a stink. For example, in the mid-17th century, because "washing the body happened so seldom, it ceased to be a subject for painters." In ancient times, men and women bathed communally, spawning a lucrative prostitution business. And the dawn of the advertising age took notions of personal cleanliness and cosmetic care to often ridiculous proportions. In Ashenburg's capable hands, this is really fascinating stuff, with plain old dirt receiving one of the most compelling (and improbable) biographies of the year. --Kim Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

According to Ashenburg (The Mourner's Dance), the Western notion of cleanliness is a complex cultural creation that is constantly evolving, from Homer's well-washed Odysseus, who bathes before and after each of his colorful journeys, to Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, who screams in terror during her first hot bath. The ancient Romans considered cleanliness a social virtue, and Jews practiced ritual purity laws involving immersion in water. Abandoning Jewish practice, early Christians viewed bathing as a form of hedonism; they embraced saints like Godric, who, to mortify the flesh, walked from England to Jerusalem without washing or changing his clothes. Yet the Crusaders imported communal Turkish baths to medieval Europe. From the 14th to 18th centuries, kings and peasants shunned water because they thought it spread bubonic plague, and Louis XIV cleaned up by donning a fresh linen shirt. Americans, writes Ashenburg, were as filthy as their European cousins before the Civil War, but the Union's success in controlling disease through hygiene convinced its citizens that cleanliness was progressive and patriotic. Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years. 82 b&w illus. (Nov. 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars I feel clean Aug. 26 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Fun book to read, starting in Greek and Roman times this journey will open your eyes, pretty funny stuff, thank you Katherine.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
In this book, the author discusses the varying views that people have had through the ages on the subject of the cleanliness of the human body. Spanning the period from ancient Greek times to the twenty-first century, the book contains details on the varying extents to which people sought (or desperately avoided) bodily cleanliness; the associated reasons for the many shifts in perspective are also presented. There is much fascinating information presented here and in great detail. On the down side, there may be too many details for the casual reader, and some of the detailed descriptions are (or seem to be) repetitive. Unfortunately, this tends to nudge some passages towards the boring side. The writing style is clear, friendly and accessible, although it seems to lack that certain spark that would make the book difficult to put down. But despite these minor drawbacks, this book certainly does contain a lot of fascinating information that should be of interest to anyone. However, I suspect that history buffs would likely relish this book the most.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye Opener July 27 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author shows any curious reader the fluctuations of human cleanliness--well, mostly uncleanliness--from ancient Rome to our days. This is a well-researched book, which took the author four years to write and edit. It is a treasure chest offering the oddities of beliefs regarding the human body. For centuries "not washing" yourself was considered healthy and supported by medical doctors. The author reports about unbelievable deficiencies [forwarded by medical people of consequence] for "healthy" dirt and stench.

Exceptionally revealing are the vignettes offered on most pages like: how to cure the goat-like stench of armpits or when the chamber pots were emptied onto the streets of Madrid or where in Europe "the devout do not wash their bottoms." This would be a great read while, after a day's work, commuting home in an overcrowded subway, tram, or bus, with their many human smells filling the space.

But there's also another aspect. Whenever I watch now a movie set in--say--1720, I can imagine what's missing in this movie: dirt, filth, and the invisible stink.

This is a fascinating book.
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