The filthy, stinking truth

The messy history of cleanliness, and why our obsession with dirt may be making us sick.

Published November 30, 2007 12:34PM (EST)

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The thought of a daily shower would have filled the 17th century Frenchman with fear. To splash away with abandon, to open your pores and leave your body vulnerable to all that disease, would be practically asking to get sick. In fact, our bathing habits would have disgusted him, much like his habits disgust us: never washing his body with water or soap, for instance. Or changing his linen shirt to get clean.

How cleanliness has changed in the West is the engrossing (and sometimes gross) subject of Katherine Ashenburg's "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History," which skates merrily from ancient frolics at the public baths to today's obsession with hand sanitizer and teeth-whitening strips. Ashenburg, whose previous book was a popular history of grief called "The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die," argues that contemporary cleanliness has more to do with appearances than hygiene. Considering our relative lack of physical exertion compared with our ancestors, why do we consider a daily shower an ideal, anyway? Apparently, the less we sweat, the more we clean. But our very fear of dirt may actually be making us sick.

Salon spoke with Ashenburg by phone from her office in Toronto.

What did clean mean in ancient Rome?

If you were a man, you would take off all your clothes, put a little oil on your body, rub it with dust and go out into the playing field to work up a sweat. Then you would get somebody to scrape off your perspiration with an instrument that looks like a little tiny rake, called a strigil. Then you would get into a tepid bath, then into a really hot bath, then into a cold bath.

You never used any soap, and it was all done in public. If you were just a normal person, you'd probably spend a couple of hours every day in the bathhouse, where you could get wine, food, sex, a medical treatment, a haircut. You could have a depilator pluck the hair in your armpits.

Why wasn't soap popular?

Soap was a combination of animal fat and lye. The Egyptians went to great lengths to make a soap that was mild enough to use on bodies, but many cultures, including the Romans and Greeks, didn't really. So they scraped themselves. Basically, it was a kind of drastic exfoliation. They probably got as clean as soap makes you. Most people, except very rich people, didn't use soap until about the second half of the 19th century.

Why did public baths go out of fashion?

They went out of fashion because the infrastructure to run them -- the mechanisms that brought them water, that heated their water, that separated out the different heats of the various pools -- required an enormously sophisticated and complicated infrastructure, which the Roman Empire had. But when the empire started to fall apart, people couldn't maintain that, and the invading barbarians disabled the aqueducts. There was never an empire large enough to support that again.

How have attitudes about cold versus hot water for bathing changed over the centuries?

They haven't changed much. One of the most wonderful, long-lasting, historical continuities is the people who support cold-water bathing, who think it's virile and virtuous, versus the people who want to bathe in warm or hot water. They don't attach any moral significance to their choice of warm or hot water. They just think it's way more comfortable, and easier, to clean yourself in warm or hot water. There's a German expression, Warmduscher, "warm showerer," which is one of the ways you describe a man who is short on masculinity. I just love it that these two camps have been going for centuries.

We all know the saying, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," but there was a time when quite the opposite was true. Could you talk about that?

Christianity turns out to be the only great world religion -- great in the sense of widespread and influential -- that had no teaching or interest in hygiene. In the early years of the church, the holier you were, the less you wanted to be clean. Cleanliness was kind of a luxury, like food, drink and sex, because cleanliness was comfortable and attractive. The holier you were -- and this really applied to monks and hermits and saints -- the less you would wash. And the more you smelled, the closer to God people thought you were.

So then did Buddhists and Muslims think Christians were filthy?

Absolutely. And they were right, too.

And didn't Westerners have a reputation among Asians for being filthy?

Yes. They probably were, relatively speaking, compared to affluent Chinese and to Japanese people of every class. One of the reasons may have been the influence of Christianity. Europe suffered this hiatus in cleanliness for about four or five centuries. When the great plagues came, the Black Death, in the 14th century, the king of France asked the medical faculty at the Sorbonne in Paris, "What is causing this hideous plague that is killing one out of every three Europeans, and what can we do to prevent it?" And the doctor said the people who were at risk for getting the plague had opened their pores in warm or hot water, in the baths, and they were much more susceptible.

So in France and England and most European countries, for about five centuries, people really believed that it was very, very dangerous to get in water, and this only really broke down in the 19th century. There was nothing like this, nothing corresponded to that belief, in Asia or in India, so they had an unbroken tradition of cleanliness. They also had religions, like Islam and Hinduism, that took cleanliness very seriously, which Christianity never did.

Why did a 17th century Frenchman think that changing his linen shirt was the path to cleanliness?

In my childhood, there were laundry soap advertisements that talked about ring around the collar. For us, that just meant your clothes were dirty, and you needed to wash them. But the 17th century looked at the ring around your cuffs and your collar and thought linen was like a wick that drew out the dirt. They really thought, not only was it safer to change your linen shirt, but it actually cleaned you better. They thought the flax in the linen exerted some kind of magnetic attraction to the sweat and drew it out of your body.

So they must have smelled terrible.

They must have smelled terrible. But the ocean in which they swam was the odor of rank sweat, or fresh sweat. So I think they were quite used to it. In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard said, "We all stink. No one smells." I think that sums up their tolerance for it.

We had an enormous tolerance for cigarette smoke 20 years ago. Every indoor space was filled with it. I never smoked, but I never noticed it particularly. Now, I actually checked into a hotel room on a smoking floor by mistake last week in Montreal, and I thought it was the worst thing ever. But 20 years ago, I wouldn't have even noticed it.

What was the role of perfume?

During the 17th century, which I think was probably the dirtiest century in Western history, people put on perfume so they wouldn't smell their neighbors. For example, Madame de Montespan, one of Louis XIV's mistresses, swathed herself in clouds of self-defensive perfume so that she wouldn't smell the king's halitosis. She didn't like the way he smelled, and he hated the way she smelled, because perfume gave him headaches. They had a great big fight about it one day in his coach, where they were also accompanied by his queen, his legal wife, and this was recorded by one of his memoirists.

So you wore perfume to keep from smelling other people?

That's right. I never came across an instance of somebody saying they were wearing it because they were worried about how they smelled.

When did bathrooms become popular in the United States?

By about the 1840s in America, architects who made pattern books -- books that everybody could buy and then build according to the patterns in the book -- added a little room that was called a "bath-room" for the first time, which meant that, eventually, there would be fixed plumbing in that room. But for a very long time, until well into the 1920s in rural places, you would just move your tin tub into the kitchen on Saturday night and fill it with warm water, and then everybody in the family, one by one, would get into the same water, starting with probably the father, who was the most important, and going down to the daughter-in-law, who was the least important.

How did we shift away from the idea that water would open your pores and leave you vulnerable to disease?

Very gradually. One of the things that probably enabled it to happen was the fashion for spas in naturally occurring springs all over Europe. The Romans always situated their baths near a mineral spring if they could, because their doctors believed there were health-giving properties in them.

Even when people were afraid to get in water on a regular basis, if you were sick, if you had arthritis or were infertile or had some medical condition, under your doctor's care you would go to some place like Baden in Switzerland or Bath in England and take the treatments, which included getting into water. The only people who could afford to go to these spas were wealthy and prosperous. I think they became chic.

By the mid-18th century, doctors had a little bit more understanding of physiology, and that your pores needed to be open so that they could let out sweat and other things. They thought you let out an awful lot more through your pores than people actually did. It gradually began to be thought of as healthy to clean your pores and let yourself perspire, but it took a long time.

From teeth-whitening strips to hand sanitizer, why are Americans so obsessed with cleanliness today?

I think it's a continuation of something that started with the Civil War, when the Americans had surprising success with this thing called the Sanitation Commission, which was headed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park. It achieved an enormous success in limiting deaths just by washing the patients, their linen, the walls of their rooms. It drastically cut into the deaths by disease and infection.

Before the war Americans had been just as dirty as Europeans, and they came out of the war thinking cleanliness is democratic because it doesn't cost much money. It's progressive. It's forward-looking. It has wonderful results. They quickly thought this is yet another way in which life in the New World is so much better than life in the Old World. The invention of modern sophisticated advertising, which began in America at the end of the 19th century, achieved an enormous success, often by advertising things like toilet soap and deodorant.

Advertisers want to find more parts of our bodies that we can clean and sanitize, and we've gotten less and less comfortable with ever smelling like a human body or having maybe ivory-colored teeth, or even cream-colored teeth -- normal teeth colors. Our teeth were not meant to be paper white at all, as any dentist will tell you, but we're kind of constantly upping the ante. We've gotten so far away from naturalness that it's really over the top now.

But didn't at least one doctor you interviewed argue that the most important thing for preventing disease in terms of cleanliness -- hand washing -- is actually one that many Americans do inadequately?

Yes. That's a very good point. This was Dr. Germ, or Dr. Gerba, which is his real name. He has sent his researchers into public washrooms and found that only about 15 percent of people there actually wash long enough and with soap.

So much of our current interest in cleanliness is really about appearance and not ever smelling like a human being. If we smell like mangoes or vanilla and our face looks clean and our teeth are paper white, that's good enough. But really the one seriously disease-preventing practice of hand washing is not done enough.

Does our obsession with cleanliness actually make us healthier?

No. Not at all. I think it's making us sicker in the case of the hygiene hypothesis. It's increasingly believed by a large number of doctors and scientists, who say that the fact that we're not giving one of our immune systems enough dirt and germs to kind of flex its muscles on and get strong is allowing the other immune system, the one that gets allergies and asthma, to [take over].

It's kind of like a teeter-totter: The one that works on dirt and bacteria has nothing to do, and so it becomes really unexercised, and it's sort of on the ground of the teeter-totter. The other one is way in the air. Scientists couldn't understand why we had these skyrocketing rates of asthma and allergies. Now the hypothesis is that we are oversanitized to the point of making our children sick.

Is there any health benefit to bathing every day, or is it more of a social convention?

It's totally a social convention, according to the doctors I spoke with. They said it's very important to wash below our wrists [i.e., hands], and the worst thing that could happen to you, if you suddenly became a 17th century person and never washed beyond your wrists, would be some skin conditions or fungal things. It's no doubt comfortable to be clean. But there is no health benefit to washing above the wrists [i.e., the body] other than possibly preventing some fungal things.

Did you find that conventions around bathing are driven by technological change or that societal attitudes drive the technology?

The latter, very much. The Romans had amazing technology. The great imperial baths were fed by the aqueducts in these enormous tanks called castella. The way they heated the bathhouse with this underfloor heating and heating within the walls was just so impressive.

It wasn't that anybody ever lost the know-how of that technology. It was that, for more than 1,000 years, practically nobody was interested in getting clean. Cleanliness was not a priority, so nobody wanted to put in place that perfectly good heating and water-transporting technology the Romans had.

About a third of London houses had in-house plumbing by the 1830s already, which was far above what the people had in Paris. The water inspector for Paris said the Parisians would never want this, and it would render their houses damp forever.

The technology has been around; what's important is the desire to make use of the technology.

About a quarter of U.S. houses built in 2005 had three or more bathrooms. Why has this room where you bathe become a status symbol?

We're just raising the bar all the time in the comfort and the luxury in which you can bathe, go to the toilet and wash your face. It's becoming less and less acceptable to Americans to share that bathroom with anybody else.

In the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," said she dreamed of a time when there would be one bathroom in an American house for every three or four bedrooms. People at the time thought that was just crazy utopian, just so over the top compared to what they were used to. Now a luxury apartment across from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City has more bathrooms than bedrooms.

Heating and transporting all this water for bathing uses a lot of energy. Do you think environmentalists are going to get any traction suggesting people bathe less to fight global warming?

I think it would be even harder than telling people they shouldn't be driving their cars all the time, or that they shouldn't have cars, because to smell like a human being has become such a taboo.

We've never needed to wash less in the developed Western countries, and we've never had more pressure to wash more. If your job is in front of your computer, and if you have a house full of labor-saving devices, you're not scrubbing floors too often, and if you have access to a car or public transit where you live, you're just not sweating the way that people did 50 years ago. But I think the daily bath is almost becoming the minimum. I'm hearing about more and more people who take two showers a day.

I've studied 28 centuries, and the pendulum was always swinging back and forth. It's at such an extreme now of overcleanliness that I can't help thinking it is moving back. There are a couple of things that would move it back -- real concerns about the environment and the hygiene hypothesis that it's not good for our health to have robbed ourselves of all these bacteria with which we have had a pretty fruitful coexistence.

Do you think we're due for a backlash away from our hypercleanliness? In 50 or 100 years, do you think our habits today will seem bizarrely fastidious?

Yes, I really do. I actually hope that they do because I think they have just gone beyond the bounds of sense.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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