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The Dirt on Clean


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About the Author

Katherine Ashenburg is a journalist, lecturer, and regular contributor to The New York Times. Her books include The Mourner's Dance and The Dirt on Clean.


According to Ashenburg (The Mourner's Dance), the Western notion of cleanliness is a complex cultural creation that is constantly evolving, from Homer's well-washed Odysseus, who bathes before and after each of his colorful journeys, to Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, who screams in terror during her first hot bath. The ancient Romans considered cleanliness a social virtue, and Jews practiced ritual purity laws involving immersion in water. Abandoning Jewish practice, early Christians viewed bathing as a form of hedonism; they embraced saints like Godric, who, to mortify the flesh, walked from England to Jerusalem without washing or changing his clothes. Yet the Crusaders imported communal Turkish baths to medieval Europe. From the 14th to 18th centuries, kings and peasants shunned water because they thought it spread bubonic plague, and Louis XIV cleaned up by donning a fresh linen shirt. Americans, writes Ashenburg, were as filthy as their European cousins before the Civil War, but the Union's success in controlling disease through hygiene convinced its citizens that cleanliness was progressive and patriotic. Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years. 82 b&w illus. (Nov. 15) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Freelancer Ashenburg is drawn to mining universal cultural experiences, although her previous book, The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, had more sober subject matter than this irony-laden, "greatest hits" sampling of Western hygienic history. The Greeks bathed for their gods, contemporary Americans are wallowing in long showers. In between these temporal poles a lot of filth accumulated, providing fertile base for endemic lice. Indeed, the appalling sanitary conditions of medieval Europe-persisting into the 19th century-made each individual a fine host for the Plague-bearing fleas that jumped from rodent to human. Ashenburg piles one delightful (delight in the grotty being a taste decidedly more for some than others) anecdote upon another. It turns out, for instance, that Louis XIV may have been the Sun King but not because he exposed his skin to air (or water). A final strength of this not particularly analytical history is the concluding chapters' demonstration of the triumphant intersection of technology (e.g. Procter & Gamble's serendipitous discovery of how to mass-produce bar soap) and the rise of the advertising industry and its key distribution vehicle, the middle-class-aimed illustrated journals. Recommended.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Adult/High School-This is a fascinating examination of the changing notions of what it means to be clean, and how those concepts fit into the worldview of different societies. The book is especially valuable for exploring the daily lives of people in past societies, but also for providing perspective on our attitudes toward ourselves, our bodies, and our world. It begins with the communal baths of the Greeks and Romans and explores the religious and ritual aspects of bathing, including Christian baptism. The public bath returned with the Crusaders, who brought the custom back to Europe in the form of the Turkish bath. With the plague and fears of communicable diseases, people avoided water-which they feared made the body vulnerable-in favor of linen cloth, which could be changed regularly, in lieu of bathing. Fear of immersing the body in water continued into the 20th century. Ashenburg, who uses interesting quotes from contemporaries to illustrate her history, speculates that in the future, when water shortages dictate new concepts of cleanliness, our own day may be seen as an age of excessive bathing and deodorizing.-Tom Holmes, King Middle School, Berkeley, CA Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

"Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years." --Publishers Weekly "Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content." --Kirkus Reviews

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