The Clean Body: A Modern History

The Clean Body: A Modern History by Peter Ward covered the habits of personal hygiene, or lack thereof, in Europe and North America from the nineteenth century onward. Ward was exhaustive in his coverage, not merely listing the products that were used, whether soap, shampoo, toothpaste and laundry detergent, but the social conditions and daily habits that led to the evolution in cleanliness practices. It would be hard to bathe regularly if your house wasn’t equipped with a private room; likewise those who lived in houses that didn’t even have running water were less likely to have a bath at all. Thus house design was influenced by this change in attitude towards personal hygiene.

Ward exposed the disparity between class and cleanliness, and also how urban and rural living affected one’s tendency to wash. Western society of the past fifty years has bred overall clean body habits, where the majority of people shower or bathe, brush their teeth and wash their hair every single day. This was unheard of two hundred years ago. The bathing habits back then focussed on washing only the skin that was exposed, so people concentrated on their faces and hands. There was a disconnect between hygiene and good health. This changed as scientific discoveries proved the connection between uncleanliness and disease. Early soap advertisements promoted good health as the result of using their products. Now with all people taking a daily shower and washing their hands we do not need to promote health via hygiene. The advertising of today promotes clean bodies as more attractive and desirable than healthy, thus aesthetics is the new goal of hygiene. Yet by the 1800’s:

“Before the end of the nineteenth century, then, the idea of regular bathing had come to be embedded in leading notions of hygiene. The German hygienic reformer Oscar Lassar established it as the defining goal of his crusade during the 1880s, and he was only one of many champions of cleanliness for whom it became a core objective. Public bath promoters like Lasser [sic] wished to imbue the lower classes with bourgeois standards of body care: the new hygiene would improve the habits of the poor, animate their sense of self-control, and uplift their physical and moral condition. Bathing was a discipline that, once accepted, would prompt them to embrace the duty of their own body care and, in turn, their own general welfare. Many proponents wrapped the cause in the rhetoric of advancing social progress.”

Thus cleanliness, a characteristic of only the rich–who after all could afford the time and space to bathe–was promoted among the lower classes. Ward often described how slowly it was for new hygiene habits to become regular, and western Europe lagged behind the squeaky-clean USA. The author supplemented the text with figures and tables that showed washing machine usage, time spent doing laundry work, and soap and detergent consumption to back up these claims.

I needed two weeks to finish this book. Its 66 pages of endnotes–in a book that was only 308 pages long, excluding the index–made for a tiring read at times. As one who always reads notations such as endnotes, footnotes, acknowledgements and the bibliography, facing these 66 pages was daunting. The Clean Body was a slow read though meticulously researched. You might end up shaking your head wondering how people a couple centuries ago managed to stand each other living amongst the literal unwashed. I suppose mutual stink cancelled the others out.

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