People sometimes remark how different the subjects of my three books have been – The Dirt on Clean was preceded by The Mourner’s Dance, which was about mourning rituals and practices, and Going to Town, which looked at the 19th century architecture of Ontario towns. It’s true they’re very different on the surface, but when I think about them, I realize that they have something in common.
I’ve always loved the history of everyday things and actions, and it’s the way I connect with the past. Not political history, not economic history, but the stories behind people’s food, clothes, furniture, and the ways they planned their houses, mourned their dead and made themselves “clean” (whatever that meant for them). While writing Going to Town, I learned, among other things, that the second floors of houses often had slanted walls and low ceilings because no one in the 19th century spent any waking hours in the bedroom. The Mourner’s Dance taught me why bereaved people ate special foods and wore certain colours.
As for The Dirt on Clean, it led me into hundreds of fascinating byways and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. I learned how commercial deodorants got invented in the 20th century, what people wiped themselves with in medieval outhouses, why very few people used soap to wash themselves until the mid-19th century, and why peasant cultures feared bathing and glorified dirt. (”The more the ram stinks, the more the ewe loves him,” was a proverbial French expression for the sexiness of body odour.) I loved collecting those pungent, surprising details and, at least for me, it makes history anything but remote.