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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

3.70  ·  Rating details ·  2,170 ratings  ·  277 reviews
A spirited chronicle of the West's ambivalent relationship with dirt

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
Paperback, 358 pages
Published October 28th 2008 by St. Martins Press-3PL (first published October 12th 2007)
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Eyke Plus, the ancient Aztecs had "soap plants", "soap trees", and "soap roots" they used for washing, bathing, and cleaning as well as bathhouses, deodora…morePlus, the ancient Aztecs had "soap plants", "soap trees", and "soap roots" they used for washing, bathing, and cleaning as well as bathhouses, deodorants, and dentifrices in a context uninfluenced by Romantic and Arab hygiene.
In a parallel, ancient Egypt is credited with the oldest example of deodorants and perfumes. Also, ancient Chinese feizao balls were basically bathbombs that were used as detergents for cleaning clothes (which I think should be brought back).
Plus, the thousand or so years of uncleanliness that followed the fall of the Roman Empire fails to account for the hygiene practices of the ancient civilizations that preceded it, including the Roman's, Greek's, and Byzantine's practices. (less)
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May 24, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I love a clean space. I actually like cleaning, particularly when it involves dusting my bookshelves. There's something about a room where I've just removed the dust, hair and debris that says, 'order,' followed by 'exhale.' In the old days, I used to need/have to clean my room before I could work on any term papers. So when I saw this title, I was intrigued. I'm well aware 'clean' is psychologically, personally and culturally defined. I have, after all, lived with other people, one of whom woul ...more
If anyone ever tells you that you shouldn't be spontaneous. That every decision in life needs a solution. Shove this book in their face. I just saw this book randomly on my Goodread's rec list and thought, "Why not?. What could you possible tell me that I don't already know? Challenge me, book!" And this book, did not disappoint. Everything was built up and up and up and I can tell you that I was giving myself a good scrub down and wash while I was reading this book. Water and Sanitation is some ...more
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
Jan 16, 2013 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
Louise Culmer
Jun 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
very interesting history of hygiene in western society, from Ancient Greece through to present day America. people's ideas of what 'clean' means, and how to achieve it, have varied considerably over time, and the author takes us cheerfully through the centuries explaining the various ways people have made themselves clean to satisfy the standards of their own era. IT is clear for example that, contrary to popular belief, medieval Europeans were quite keen on bathing. the only point at which I th ...more
Jan 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A historical romp. I enjoyed it. Big picture of personal cleanliness. I learned somethings about American history I did not know about. I never before knew that American cities had bathhouses.
Jun 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
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, K
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 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 o ...more
P.J. O'Brien
Feb 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nov 29, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Julie Bestry
May 28, 2012 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 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 a ...more
Apr 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a wonderful book! The writing is lively and the anecdotes are great. I learned so much ... and laughed a lot.
Karen Brooks
Dec 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Kaethe Douglas
Jul 14, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jane Night
Dec 14, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
juicy brained intellectual
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
Tracy Trofimencoff
This is one of the best and most interesting books I have read in a long time. Ashenburg has examined this sometimes taboo subject with both fascinating facts and illustrations. She takes the reader through a journey of clean or in many cases, the filthy hygiene of the past into the obsessive cultural of clean of the 21st century. This book sparked many conversations in my house along with laughter and shock at some of the past practices of what it means to be clean. I highly recommend this book ...more
Apr 18, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 16, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 08, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
They did what?!!! Was my frequent reaction reading this book. It examines bathing and hygiene practices right back to Roman times. After reading this I remain endlessly grateful for my current life in the 21st century and my own hot shower on tap. Just can’t imagine life without being able to bathe (but apparently some people never did….!)
Dec 09, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 B
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.
Krista D.
A solid book on the history of western sanitation, accessible enough for anyone to read. Bonus points for the inclusion of Muslim and Jewish wash habits in the middle ages, which provided an excellent contrast to the Christian views.
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-read
The history of how the definition of clean changed over the years and how it became what it is today. A really interesting book.
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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 succ ...more

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