An Unsanitized History
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
ISBN: 978-0-676-97663-2 (0-676-97663-8)
Pub Date: October 12, 2007
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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.
FINALIST 2007 - Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize
- The world’s earliest known bathtub, from around 1700 B.C., was found in the Queen’s apartments at the Palace of Knossos on Crete, and is made of painted terra cotta.
- People rarely used soap to wash their bodies until the late 19th century. It was usually made from animal fats and ashes and was too harsh for bodies; the gentler alternative, made with olive oil, was too expensive for most people.
- The Roman imperial baths were so gigantic that a single chamber — the hot room of the Baths of Caracalla — housed 20th-century productions of Aida that included chariots, horses and camels, as well as the cast and audience.
- In Finland, where the sauna is a national institution, when government leaders cannot agree on an issue, they adjourn to the sauna to continue the discussion.
- Medieval Christians proved their holiness by not washing. A monk came upon a hermit in the desert and rejoiced that he “smelt the good odour of that brother from a mile away.”
- Because so much sex went on in the public baths of the middle ages, the term “stew” or “stewhouse,” which originally referred to the moist warmth of the bathhouse, gradually came to mean a house of prostitution.
- 16th century French deodorant: “To cure the goat-like stench of armpits, it is useful to press and rub the skin with a compound of roses.”
- When the Master of a Cambridge college was urged to provide baths for the students in the early 19th century, he responded that there was no need, since “these young men are with us only for eight weeks at a time.”
- In 1931, halitosis was cited as grounds for divorce.
- The accumulated sweat, dirt and oil that a famous athlete or gladiator scraped off himself was sold to their fans in small vials. Roman women reportedly used it as a face cream.
"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."
“In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters. . . . 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.. . . . Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content.”
Praise for The Mourner’s Dance:
“Moving, exotic, outrageous. . . . A serendipitous tour of anthropology, cultural history, psychology and personal reflection. . . . It’s a pleasure to accompany Ashenburg.”
—The Globe and Mail
“An intricate tapestry that maps out the emotional landscape of grief. . . . A richly informative and compassionate book.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“Elegantly written. . . . The Mourner’s Dance–learned, often moving and even consoling–is a superb survey.”
"But Didn’t They Smell?”
The Social Bath: Greeks and Romans
Bathed in Christ: 200—1000
A Steamy Interlude: 1000—1550
A Passion for Clean Linen: 1550—1750
The Return of Water: 1750—1815
Baths and How to Take Them: Europe, 1815—1900
Wet All Over at Once: America, 1815—1900
Soap Opera: 1900—1950
The Household Shrine: 1950 to the Present
337 – Image Credits
339 – Index
Katherine Ashenburg has worked as an academic, a CBC Radio producer and the Arts and Books editor of the Globe and Mail. She has written about travel for the New York Times and architecture for Toronto Life magazine. Her books include Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours of Southern Ontario Towns and The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die. She lives in Toronto.
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