65. The Dirt on Clean (Katherine Ashenburg)

Monday, May 12, 2008
65. The Dirt on Clean - Katherine Ashenburg

Covering the centuries from the heydey of the Greeks and Romans to present day, Ashenburg explores one of our most private (and sometimes public) rituals - bathing. Over the course of our (Western) history, we've had a love/hate relationship with water and our notions of "clean" have changed as often as Madonna changes her outfits during a concert (as I've never been to a Madonna concert, I can only guess that she changes her outfits a lot).

From public baths (both ancient and more recent) to private in-home tubs and showers, Western culture has had a myriad of views towards dirt. The Romans spent hours in public baths, not only scraping the dirt from the bodies but socializing, conducting business, and the occasional assassination. The Middle Ages saw various resurgents in the popularity of the public baths but essentially most people believed dirt provided protection from infection and disease by clogging the pores and not allowing these sorts of sicknesses into the body. People were lucky if they bathed once a year (and that was often a swim in the nearest river/lake that was often bitterly cold). They would have been shocked by the current North American obsession with bathing, scrubbing, deoderizing, perfuming, and disinfecting our bodies.

While Ashenburg's book is a well researched, enjoyable read on a subject many still consider taboo today, I was a bit disappointed. The Dirt on Clean focuses on Europe and eventually North America as it grows and waves of immigrants continue to arrive on its shores. There is nothing but a passing reference to Eastern bathing practices over the years or thier current views on personal cleanliness. It would have been nice to compare and contrast the views of East vs. West. And, and this is not a reflection of her book but rather my own expectations, I didn't realize that it was all about personal cleanliness. I was expecting to have chapters on how bathing along with housekeeping and other cleanliness rituals have changed over the years. Having said that, it IS an interesting book and covers a subject that affects us all but few of us discuss.

Captain Recommended.


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