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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

by Katherine Ashenburg

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean, it’s that 17th-century Europe must have been a pungent place. According to Ashenburg’s history of cleanliness in the western world, royalty of that era rarely, if ever, bathed, preferring instead a constant supply of clean linens and perfumes.

Ashenburg, the Toronto-based author of 2002’s The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die, traces the roots of western cleanliness back to its origins in the gymnasiums of Greece and the opulent baths of Rome. Keeping ourselves clean, just like eating, drinking, and socializing, isn’t just a simple everyday activity, but one fraught with cultural and historical meaning. With significant research and well-placed examples, Ashenburg outlines just how notions of cleanliness have changed and where they intersect with sexuality, social movements, and, of course, hygiene.

She reveals that the Greeks debated whether using hot water to wash up was a weakening and feminizing luxury, while the Romans, with their lavish, multi-roomed steam baths, didn’t seem to have the same hang-up. Certain early and medieval Christians, rejecting the importance of the body in favour of the immortal soul, deemed keeping clean almost completely unnecessary. Many of our smelly 16th-century forebears thought washing was a certain route to illness and death. Fast-forward to our own complicated era, in which every smell, every cosmetic flaw, is open to attack.

Ashenburg is at her strongest writing about the relatively recent history of such items as deodorant and teeth whitener. These products make millions each year but are creations of a cosmetics industry seeking more profits by latching on to our insecurities about our “offensive” body odours and yellowed teeth.

The Dirt on Clean suffers from the monumental scale of its subject. At times, Ashenburg struggles to maintain the forward momentum of her story, preferring to dwell on a particularly esoteric bit of trivia. Nonetheless, the book successfully lays bare the fact that our idea of cleanliness is a haphazard construction. By the end, you’ll look at your bathroom a little differently.