The 'Dirt on Clean' in an Oversanitized World In her new book, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, Katherine Ashenburg looks at the fascinating history of cleanliness — or the lack thereof — and how humans' obsession with hygiene has led to today's over sanitized world.
NPR logo

The 'Dirt on Clean' in an Oversanitized World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The 'Dirt on Clean' in an Oversanitized World

The 'Dirt on Clean' in an Oversanitized World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Y: Welcome, Katherine Ashenburg.

M: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Let's start with the ancient Greeks and Romans. They seemed to have liked a bath. At least we think that from the ruins. And take us for dip in a Roman thermae, one of the imperial baths.

M: Oh, well, that must have been an amazing experience. I mean, try to imagine a really, really well-equipped YMCA, a country club, an art gallery all in enormous vast, vast spaces. And most Romans by the first century would spend a couple hours a day in this place. It was their major recreation...


M: Yeah. As well as...

SEABROOK: Just lying around luxuriating in the waters.

M: In waters of different temperatures and steam, and they had these little rakes that they called strigils, no soap, but they would cover their naked bodies with sand, exercise a while to work up some sweat and put some oil on them and scrape it off with this strigil.


M: And you could have sex, you could have a haircut, you could have a medical treatment, you could have a depilator pluck out your armpit hairs - for men and women. It was an amazing sort of all-purpose cleaning and recreational center.

SEABROOK: Let's jump ahead a little bit to Europeans, who cleaned their bodies through the Middle Ages and then came the bubonic plague. How did the Black Death change attitudes towards hygiene?

M: So people were petrified of getting into water. So they fairly quickly decided that a better way to wash yourself than water was linen - fresh, white linen, which would be a woman's only undergarment, like a long kind of night shirt and similar for a man. So they had this wholly developed scientific theory where the flax in the linen sought out the salt in the sweat. It was kind of like a wick, a very effective wick.

SEABROOK: You include in the book this wonderful painting. It's on page 99 here of "A Woman Catching A Flea" by Georges de La Tour, 1638. This woman is sitting by a candle. She looks very pretty and she's leaning over and catching a flea on her body by...

M: Yes, in...

SEABROOK: ...candlelight.

M: ...sort of close to her cleavage, it looks like.

SEABROOK: Was this common? Would people have to like...

M: This was so normal. It was just such an everyday, totally socially acceptable part of life that you would have your portrait painted doing that.


SEABROOK: Could you read from that page - page 99 of your book?

M: Sure. This is from the chapter that is largely about the 17th century, which I think was maybe the dirtiest, stinkiest time ever for Westerners. You know, we look at these gorgeous portraits and we think, oh, how elegant everybody looks, but the reality was somewhat different. So I'm going to read now from that chapter.

I: I take after my father. I smell of armpits.


SEABROOK: Something to boast about, I see.

M: That's right. That's right.

SEABROOK: Now, it's interesting to think about the sources that you used for your book. A lot of them are literary, any reference that you can find to people's cleansing rituals or how things smelled and so on, and one reference you used is the book "Emile" by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Why did you use this?

M: Well, I guess, the bigger question why so many literary sources? I guess because we don't talk about the things we don't do. So in the 17th century, people didn't get up and write in their letters or diaries, today, for the 900th day in a row, I did not wash my body.


M: And you and I don't - and you also don't write about the things you do every day just as part of your banal routine so I went to journals, novels, things like that. And Rousseau was on that cusp of change in the late 18th century when people were turning away from four or five centuries of not getting in water and fearing water. Rousseau was very, very keen on bathing children in colder and colder water. He thought it toughened them up.

SEABROOK: You say Rousseau was on the cusp of that change in attitude. Is there something - did people figure out that washing themselves kept the fleas or the plague away, or I mean?

M: Well, also in the 18th century, a lot of doctors were beginning to believe that the pores were important - the transpiration system as they would have said - that it was good to have them unclogged so that things could be excreted which was the total opposite of what people had believed for the last 400 years. They thought bad things enter through our pores, so keep them clogged with dirt.

SEABROOK: Let's come over to the United States. You know, when the first settlers came, it wasn't normal to wash every day. In fact, I remember reading in Laura Ingalls Wilder books that they would bathe once a week, I think. But the American Civil War changed those attitudes. Tell me about that.

M: So Americans came out of the Civil War thinking washing is effective. Washing is egalitarian because it doesn't cost very much, and Americans were looking for a new way to kind of mark civility and status that wasn't based on who you were born to. And after the Civil War, I think advertising stepped in, and advertising and soap made either a holy alliance or an unholy alliance, depending on your point of view, so that America very, very quickly, I think probably by the turn of the 20th century was the cleanest Western country, which it remains today.

SEABROOK: Thanks so much for talking to us.

M: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Read about how different cultures have defined cleanliness throughout the ages at our Web site,

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.