The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

3.63 of 5 stars 3.63  ·  rating details  ·  1,052 ratings  ·  160 reviews
The question of cleanliness is one every age and culture has answered with confidence. For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, scraping the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the aristocratic Frenchman in the seventeenth century, it meant changing your shirt once a day and perhaps going s...more
ebook, 368 pages
Published April 8th 2014 by North Point Press (first published January 1st 2007)
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Currently in America the average person can visit a drugstore and find entire aisles devoted to a previously unimaginable number of products to clean our bodies with: body wash, shampoos, conditioners, body scrubs, face scrubs, bar soap, liquid soap, gel soap, exfoliators, foaming cleansers, etc... And each of those products is available in a wide range of scents that allow us to choose to smell like baby powder, lilacs, vanilla, sweet peas, even chocolate. In this atmosphere it is easy to forge...more
I have a confession to make. This modern obsession of cleanliness has somewhat passed me by – both in regards to the home and to the body. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from dirty but 2-3 showers a week, regular hand/face washing and daily clean clothes seem to suffice for me. I’ve never bought into this ‘need’ for 2 showers a day, face masks and portable hand sanitiser to be used in every day life. I’m neither dead nor sick (surprise surprise). I’ve always wondered, quietly, to myself, for fear...more
Jun 29, 2011 Tintin rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: curious people
Shelves: nonfiction
Emerging squeaky clean after a shower where I lathered my hair with vanilla-scented shampoo and conditioner, scrubbed every inch of my body with J&J milk body wash, and rinsed off everything with soothing warm water, I often used to wonder how our ancestors did without the conveniences of soap, showers, or toilet paper.

How did they get by without deodorant? Without toothbrushes or toothpaste? How did they clean their backsides and how did they banish unpleasant odors away?

Fortunately for me,...more
I foolishly neglect to take notes while reading this book, so I don't have precise dates, hilarious anecdotes and strange factoids to share. However, all of those things can be found within these pages! Engagingly gossipy, with a clear organizational structure, this was an easy to read introduction to the very broad subject of hygiene. The book focuses mostly on Western Europe, with some side notes and comparison to the Middle East, northern Africa, the US, and a few others. Basically what I got...more
Super interesting topic, and I am glad I read this book. However, it was written kind of oddly... Most of it read like a history text book (think watching old-school documentary instead of new "fun" documentary), but then at the *very* end in a tiny section about modern cleanliness the author suddenly switches to super personal-opinion, judgy mode. I happen to agree that Americans today are way too obsessed with cleanliness, but to see such an abrupt switch in writing style was really... weird.
I seem to have read several non-fiction books recently where the pitch doesn’t quite match the book itself. With its cutesy title, The Dirt On Clean* promises to be popular history at its best. Indeed, in places, Dirt is a breezy and amusing look at the history of washing. But the whiff of academia can’t quite be washed off. Parts of Dirt feel overlong and rather boring – as if they belong in a much more serious history book.

(*Mystifyingly, this title was changed to simply Clean for UK publicat...more
A fun and interesting book that traces the history of the standards of personal cleanliness in the Western world, beginning with the elaborate baths of ancient Rome.

The author describes the many forms of public and private bathing which have been considered normal over the centuries. She points out that Christianity is one of the few religions that doesn't insist on cleanliness of the body, and describes times and places where bathing with water was thought to be impious, unhealthy or unsavory....more
Wow! I read this book for my book group, Bound Together, and boy am I impressed! This book was unlike any other. I will confess that I times I was a bit grossed out, but Ashenburg's detail on the history of cleanliness made the book impossible to put down. I cannot believe how much has changed! The transition from public bathing to the obsessive need of Americans to bathe daily is surprising when you know the scandalous past of showers! I learned so much about the social history of cleanliness a...more
An entertaining overview on Western Civilization's perspective on personal cleanliness from the time of the Greeks & Romans to current day. Very readable, yet with solid research behind it - Ashenburg provides a notes section, as well as a selected bibliography.

I hadn't realized that modern advertising and bar soap developed pretty much simultaneously & hand-in-hand -- bar soaps all seem pretty much the same; therefore the different brands/companies needed advertising to help influence...more
Jan 05, 2011 Theresa rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Theresa by: FM107
Shelves: non-fiction
In the US today, most do not dream of leaving their homes unless they have first showered and perfumed their bodies. But this hasn’t always been the case – and it’s not necessarily because the bathing facilities aren’t available. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when water was to be avoided and that the best way to clean oneself was by wearing linen.

Ms Ashenburg takes us through the history of bathing from Roman times where is was a daily and social ritual to the Dark Ages when water...more
people weren't stanky, and then they were, and then they weren't again

i'm halfway through this and i'm bored because how much can you say about how often people did and didn't bathe? like, obviously, there's plenty to be said but it just isn't interesting enough to me. sadly i'm stuck slogging through the rest of this book because sux2bme, that's just the kind of book-reader i am. i should say that it isn't actually bad, just duuuuuuullllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll. (that's supposed to illu...more
Now it's on the stack, and I can't remember why the title appealed to me.


Northern Europeans of the Middle Ages didn't stink as much as I thought. The public baths were quite popular all over until Plague broke out. Nor did I realize that the "stews" which were closed down in Southwerk weren't just brothels, but were bath houses, too.

So, I'm enjoying this enormously. Except for an annoying tendency by the author to present beliefs as facts. Unavoidable, I suppose, because otherwise there'd be...more
A lovely pop history on humans and personal hygiene, starting with the Greeks and Romans and ending in the present day. It's a fast and fascinating read, but take it with the appropriate grain of salt (which is what happens when you have to make sweeping generalizations).

Also, she used the word "strigil" probably 124 times.
I skimmed this because it had to get back to the library, but it's a decently entertaining view of cleanliness in the West. I think today's unbelievable focus on "clean" is soooo fascinating, and it was just such a tiny part of this book. Good stuff, though.
Marilyn Belsham
Buckets of interesting anecdotes but lacking a little humour...which isn't a necessary element in this type of book, but it does help sustain interest when talking about nothing but bathing for 300 pages.
As a general overview of the book, it's a historical look at hygiene and social attitudes towards dirt. A well written and researched monograph on a topic that would be boring, if written by someone else. The author gives the reader facts wrapped up in a series of stories that make it hard to put the book down.

If you are squeamish at the thought of not showering for a day or have to apply hand sanitizer whenever you go out, this will provide some context for why you do what you do.
And, perhaps...more
Jess picked this one for our next book club book, and it was an interesting (if not always terribly engaging) history of hygiene. I found it interesting how the pendulum of the norm seemed to swing every few hundred years from clean to dirty and back again. Turns out varying ideas of what lead to health or sickness played a major role in whether frequent bathing was common.

I found I was most interested in the early and late parts of the book--about the Greeks and Romans, and then about modern s...more
This is how I like my readin' history (after spending 4 years or so reading History proper in university, I tend to leave the heavier stuff to the professionals in order to avoid PTSD-style flashbacks). Ashenberg's breezy yet competent tone guides us through with a well-humored assurance that doesn't let us forget her opening query: why do we wash the way we wash now? Her illuminating volume should provide great fodder for those prone to questioning the assumed authority behind everyday practice...more
Julie Bestry
I recently had a conversation with a friend, a physician, about sanitary conditions at various points in history, and she particularly wondered how civilization (such as it was) continued procreating when surely (almost) everyone smelled so bad! I vaguely recalled what I'd learned about the Roman baths and wondered how, and at what point in history, did reverence for cleanliness give way to filth and fear of water, and this book provided that and so much more.

Ashenburg provides an anthropologica...more
Karen Brooks
A tremendous book that reads beautifully, is researched impeccably and which, most importantly, makes social history fun and relevant. Starting in Greek and Roman times, Ashenberg takes the reader on a journey through hygiene and sanitation practices and rituals (and lack thereof) right up to the present day - in the Western World. She explores the role of sex, religion and medicine, fashion and health and the influence they have all had on how we treat our bodies. I found myself laughing out lo...more
Fiona Hurley
Every age thinks that its own attitude to cleanliness is the "normal" one. Modern Europeans and Americans think that it's normal to shower daily and apply deodorant. Other ages had different ideas.

Ancient Romans thought it was normal to spend hours in the public baths, using no soap but scraping sweat and dirt off their bodies. Early medieval Europe had public baths which were used regularly, but these disappeared after the Black Death. Elizabeth I and Samuel Pepys lived in an age when bathing t...more
Emerging squeaky clean after a shower where I lathered my hair with vanilla-scented shampoo and conditioner, scrubbed every inch of my body with J&J milk body wash, and rinsed off everything with soothing warm water, I often used to wonder how our ancestors did without the conveniences of soap, showers, or toilet paper.

How did they get by without deodorant? Without toothbrushes or toothpaste? How did they clean their backsides and how did they banish unpleasant odors away?

Fortunately for me,...more
Emilia P
So uh, yeah.
Anthropology masquerading as history, I think. There's a lot to this, but it should have chosen to show it's bias completely, or to be much more blandly historical/over-focused. The thesis is basically: the Romans had it right, the early Christians hated the body (ugh!! not true!!), the Dark Ages folks washed sometimes, depending on their country. The plague closed the bathhouses, and then nobody in Europe had bathrooms until the end of the nineteenth century, and even then, not most...more
Aug 21, 2008 Amy rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history buffs and those interested in cleanliness
Recommended to Amy by: Friend at Work
This was another fun one. The book starts out at the Roman and Greek baths where folks from all walks of life would meet at the elaborate bath houses and spend all day bathing. But it all goes downhill from there! By the middle ages, folks were afraid of water and avoided it at all costs. Even in the Victorian era, Europeans were not bathing more than once or twice a year...insted they changed their linen clothes a few times a day because it was believed that linen cleaned the body! And I was st...more
The material's inherently interesting--the history of the West's relationship to bodily cleanliness and bathing--and she's done all the work, bringing all the research together, so if you want to learn about how we forsook water for about four hundred years, and believed that a protective layer of dirt was the only thing keeping us from getting sick, and how much effort it took to get the populace of major cities to use the public baths and showers that were installed a hundred or so years ago,...more
I started The Dirt on Clean while flying to Italy, which was perfect timing. The beginning chapters, which focus on cleanliness in ancient Greece and Rome, were a perfect primer on the two major baths of Rome: Diocletian and Caracalla. Both of which you can visit.
Although this isn't a particularly deep read, it was a bit of fast fun. I already knew the general flow of the history of western cleanliness (and most people with a passing interest in social history will be in the same boat), so there...more
It was entertaining, but not as thorough as it could have been. It only scratched the surface of the subject, disappointingly. First off, it should really be called The Dirt on Bathing or something similar, because it doesn't really touch heavily on any other aspect of cleanliness. As well, even with it's focus on personal cleanliness, it missed a great opportunity to include any information on an important aspect of the subject: cleanliness related to the toilet. There's a brief mention of bide...more
I got this book because I was interested in the idea of not showering ABSOLUTELY every day during our severe drought. When I saw this on the new book shelf I wondered what it would tell me (historically speaking) about my feeling of being dirty twelve hours after a shower when all I did was sit at my desk.

I'm not sure if this book resolved my dilemma, but it was interesting. This book was not academic, but more simply written and cute. The one thing I did not like were the quotes to the side of...more
I really liked this book. Katherine Ashenburg is a funny and extremely well researched author. She understands our western culture need for clean and she puts it in perspective against the rich tapestry of the rest of the world's version of clean. She makes the times and peoples she's writing about seem tangible. I could completely imagine what it would be like to be a eighteenth century french woman, or in ancient Greece. Ashenburg's descriptions are vibrant and she never gives up her quirky an...more
This is a fascinating book in some parts. A better title for it would be something along the lines of 'The Dirt on Clean: a Western history of personal hygiene' because I was anticipating something broader in scope than the book delivered, but it was interesting nonetheless. I don't really anticipate that what Ashenburg has to say on the subject will be all that surprising to most people. But, on the other hand, it really is a curious thing - the notions that we have on cleanliness and hygiene....more
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