Book Fifty-Six: The Dirt on Clean

As a fan of Temples of Convenience, Chambers of Delight, I couldn’t help but be intrigued when Bronwyn recommended this book to me, as it is nothing less than a history of bathing in the Western world, from Roman times to the modern era. Refreshingly, it also has some scathing commentary on the North American obsession with cleanliness, which was kind of nice to read. I’m a fairly clean North American, but I’ve got nothing on some of these people. I don’t even wash my hair every day (why would I? To strip all of the natural oils from my hair, perhaps, leaving a limp mop?)

This book was incredibly well researched, which always makes reading these sorts of books enjoyable. I loved the accompanying artwork, and the little tidbits of information that were coyly and slyly offered up in the sidebar now and then, along with the really fascinating history of bathing in the Western world. I was also really intrigued by her discussion of religious beliefs and bathing, as she pointed out that Christianity is one of the few religions which doesn’t offer advice or rules on personal cleanliness.

I would really recommend this book. It was a lot of fun to read, and it was incredibly illuminating. Far more than just a story about how people used to be dirty and now they are clean, it was an insightful look at European history and changing sociological attitudes about bathing, from venerating people who never bathed to obsessively using moist wipes.

I especially enjoyed the brief discussion on the “problem” of vaginal odor at the end of the book, in the chapter where she discussed the idea that we are, perhaps, a bit too clean. Without coming out and saying it, I could tell that she looks upon products like douches, moist wipes, and “freshness sprays” in the same way I do, with deep loathing and suspicion.

I think I may pick up Ashenburg’s book on mourning rituals, as well, since I like her writing style and general philosophy.


The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg. Published 2007, 358 pages. Health.