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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

3.70  ·  Rating details ·  2,309 ratings  ·  312 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, 370 pages
Published October 28th 2008 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux-3pl (first published October 12th 2007)
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Eyke moved to The StoryGraph 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
Jody McGrath
Jan 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a great history on cleanliness and what was thought of being clean through the ages and throughout the world. It was very interesting. It was written in a way that children could easily understand but that adults would also find engaging. I really enjoyed this book. I would recommend this book as a nonfiction to grade schoolers, teachers and parents.
Montzalee Wittmann
All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean by Katherine Ashenburg is a fascinating book on the history of mankind and getting "clean". This book explores various TIMES in history along with various CULTURES and tells the reader what culture, at that time period, believed was "clean". Don't eat while reading this! I tried, you won't want to. It is truly amazing the different thoughts, beliefs, customs, and crazy things they did to be clean, or not to be clean, and why. A lot of knowledge in this bo ...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
Jan 31, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: covid-reads
Also known as "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Baths but Were Afraid to Ask."

A decent, comprehensive look at cultural and temporal perceptions of cleanliness through the ages, beginning with the ancient Greeks/Romans/Egyptians and bringing it all the way to modern day. It does make you examine your own ideas of hygiene and cleanliness, and why you have those positions. I found it particularly edifying to think about the ways that allegations of uncleanliness, or incorrect hygiene, are
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
Jul 31, 2021 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Ashenberg had the facts but none of the flair for storytelling. The whole book was in a linear chronology, so I expected a robust commentary on the shifting tides in our cultural mores. But nah. The book read like mindless fact-dumping: the Romans bathed this way; the medieval doctors said this; and then Americans made soap this way. Uh. How about more about what how they construct the savagery/civilisation binary? Or the connection between soap & soap opera? (Btw it was paid ad during radio sho ...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
Feb 08, 2012 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
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. ...more
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
I'd say this book was OK. There were a lot of interesting tidbits in here — very fun if you like some mildly gross anecdotes or if you like to look back at the past and laugh at people — but I don't know if I got a really good sense of how people really felt about cleanliness throughout the ages.

Ashenburg starts the book off with an anecdote about her grandmother to explain how the idea of "but didn't they smell?" may be anachronistic, but when she finally circles back to the time in history whe
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.
Munro's Kids
Jun 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kirsten, type-other
This was a great little book - lots of historical detail, all centering around cleanliness and proving that bodies and cleaning has really changed over the years. This book covered everything from Romans who scraped themselves with oil, to Europeans who were afraid of water, to sweat lodges in North America, to saunas in Scandinavia and to the modern obsession with clean. I liked that it wasn't all about Europe - plenty of info scattered in about what was going on in North America, parts of Asia ...more
Very detailed, yet fun book about the history of cleanliness, all over the world, although the main focus is the Western world. If all you know about how people kept clean, in the past, is the Roman bathes and perfume, then this book will fill you in on the different ideas about cleanliness, as well as how people achieved it from ancient times, to the present.

Each chapter begins with a view of what it must have been like in the time period, to be clean, taken from source material. And how our vi
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
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
Anni Welborne
May 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating. Clever. Disgusting. Unforgettable. This book really covers it all in a very enjoyable, easy to read format. I learned several things! Beginning with several myths about cleanliness, this book chronicles different beliefs and practices about bathing from ancient times to modern day. It covers several cultural aspects of bathing through history, including sociology, anthropology, archaeology, medical knowledge at the time, and religious theology.

The reading style flows from chapter t
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
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
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
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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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