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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

3.67  ·  Rating Details ·  1,731 Ratings  ·  225 Reviews
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 – ...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 12th 2007 by Knopf Canada (first published January 1st 2007)
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Community Reviews

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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 ...more
Feb 02, 2013 Victoria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 really liked it  ·  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,
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
Dec 13, 2010 Amber rated it liked it
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.
P.J. O'Brien
Nov 24, 2014 P.J. O'Brien rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. It temporarily fed the insatiable curiosity that I never quite grew out of. I'm the sort to stop suddenly while in the shower to wonder how the notions of indoor plumbing or soap came about. I'm always intrigued about how cultural systems and perspectives develop and how each is influenced by others.

The focus of this book is primarily Europe, and given the diverse practices even on that one continent, I think it would be hard to broaden the scope much further in one volume. I
Dec 08, 2007 Lyndsay rated it it was amazing
An utterly fun book to read, this history of cleanliness starts in Rome, and brings us up to today. From the fear that a bath would make you gay, a bath would kill you, not having a bath would kill you, swimming in the ocean would kill you, a shower would kill you, and some steam would kill you, to the belief that not bathing every 24 hours will make you a social recluse, this book raises some intersting points about cleanliness and the lack thereof in our long history of soaking for hours, or ...more
Julie Bestry
May 28, 2012 Julie Bestry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 30, 2012 Nicola rated it liked it
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
Jamie Collins
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.
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 ...more
Fiona Hurley
Jan 22, 2014 Fiona Hurley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
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
Oct 03, 2015 Kim rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historial-curios
What a fantastically interesting book!

Speaking as someone who loves her long, ridiculous baths, reading this book was a fascinating glimpse into the history of bathing, and what it means to be "clean." Informative, engaging, and honest - Ashenburg does preface by saying that this will be a look into Western ideals of cleanliness, which now makes me wonder how we stack up against Eastern traditions, which are tantalizingly hinted at. It's thought provoking as well - makes you wonder the hows and
Jane Night
Dec 14, 2014 Jane Night rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed the history in this book. This is an incredibly interesting topic and reading the book gave me a somewhat new perspective on how we look at cleanliness and also how we judge historical people.

Many of us have the idea that everyone in history was gross and stinky and that our modern bathing rituals are new and super civilized but those things are not necessarily true.

I enjoy non fiction books about various history topics so this book is something I was very eager to read. While I
May 08, 2011 Tracey rated it liked it
Shelves: libraryread-tcpl
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
Jan 05, 2011 Theresa rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Feb 07, 2012 noelle rated it liked it
Shelves: do-not-own, ebooks
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
May 22, 2016 Lee rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 01, 2008 Maggie rated it liked it
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.
Marilyn Belsham
Aug 20, 2013 Marilyn Belsham rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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.
Mar 23, 2008 Polly rated it really liked it
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.
Oct 15, 2015 Cyndi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well written, well researched micro-history of personal cleanliness and its progress through the ages.
As a side note...damn! Some ancient peoples were GROSS!!!
Nov 28, 2016 Margali rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A fascinating if sometimes disgusting history of personal cleanliness.
Jun 29, 2011 Tintin rated it really liked it
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,
Oct 14, 2016 Tracy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Entertaining exploration of why we're clean

This is an interesting and informative book on how people believed they were clean, leading up to how we associate with cleanliness today. I found myself laughing out loud at times.
Russell Bittner
Jun 13, 2015 Russell Bittner rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“In a sermon he (John Wesley, founder of Methodism) delivered in 1791, Wesley adapted a Hebrew proverb into an English phrase that became a standard of mothers and schoolteachers: ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness.’ Although now used mostly as a prod for children who need to shower or clean their fingernails, the cleanliness Wesley referred to was that of dress” (p. 131).

Even Jacob Riis, whose prose and photography chronicled New York City’s tenement houses in How the Other Half Lives (publis
Joanie Sompayrac
Mar 11, 2015 Joanie Sompayrac rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As with many books I read, I do not recall what prompted me to purchase this book, but I found it enthralling. The book essentially addresses cultural and religious preoccupations with or avoidance of bathing rituals over the centuries. While those of us who came of age during the 20th century might presume people would always want to bathe if given the facilities, this was not always the case. Yes, the Greeks and Romans enjoyed public baths as a social experience, just as we might enjoy ...more
Emilia P
Sep 20, 2011 Emilia P rated it liked it
Shelves: real-books
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
Alison C
The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg, is just what the title says it is, a book about the history of (bodily) cleanliness. Ashenburg restricts herself to Europe and North America, and her book ranges between ancient Greek civilization to the modern day. The structure of the book includes footnotes which cite sources only, and numerous interesting factoids presented as marginalia among the pages of the main text, along with an occasional page-long sidebar concerning ...more
Ashenburg tracks the vacillating opinions on bathing and standards of cleanliness through various cultures and time periods, from the sumptuous Roman and Turkish baths, through the dirt-encrusted Middle Ages, up to the hygienic-obsessive culture of modern America. I knew vaguely that hygiene had taken a nosedive in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but I never realized how vehement and purposeful it generally was. People weren't just ignoring regular bathing or lacking the facilities for it, they ...more
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Katherine Ashenburg is the prize-winning author of three non-fiction books and hundreds of articles on subjects that range from travel to mourning customs to architecture. She describes herself as a lapsed Dickensian and as someone who has had a different career every decade. Her work life began with a Ph.D. dissertation about Dickens and Christmas, but she quickly left the academic world for ...more
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“Naturally, etiquette books order handwashing before as well as after meals, but the practice also appears, with a frequency that borders on obsession, in poetry. Poets found it hard to describe a banquet or even a meal without affirming that everyone washed their hands.” 0 likes
“The English word loo for toilet may come from (1) lieu à l’anglaise, the French term for toilet, or (2) Gardez l’eau! (Watch out for the water!), called to alert passersby that chamber pots were being emptied from upper-story windows into the street.” 0 likes
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