Spin cycles

David Futrelle, a contributing writer at Money magazine, has written for Salon, the Nation, the Washington Post and other publications.

CLEANLINESS is a never-ending struggle: No matter how vigorously you scrub your body and your teeth, no matter how diligently you apply sweet-smelling lotions and ointments, the sad fact is that you’re going to stink again, and soon. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Your body has been carefully designed, by the invisible hand of evolution, to expel the poisons and impurities that you inhale and ingest in your efforts to stay alive. Whether the expulsions are solids, liquids or gases, unfortunately, they don’t smell much like flowers.

It’s strange that something so basic, so primeval as cleanliness hasn’t yet gotten the historical attention it deserves. You could fill a decent-sized bookcase with studies of public health disasters, of epidemics spread by sneezes and unwashed hands. You can dissect the dialectics of “Purity and Danger” in the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, or ponder the importance of potty training with sociologist Norbert Elias. But the history of cleanliness, as such, has largely been relegated to jokey bathroom books on Thomas Crapper and the birth of the loo.

In “Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity,” British historian Virginia Smith attempts to provide a serious historical reckoning of the distinctly untidy subject of tidiness, chronicling the ever-changing ways our ancestors kept themselves clean -- or at least not completely filthy. She also looks at the wide assortment of religious and philosophical ideologies that developed to accompany these practices. It’s a valiant effort, yet Smith’s account turns out to be nearly as unkempt as her subject, a shambling parade of details lacking a coherent narrative or even a clear point of view. But, oh, what details! Smith, an honorary fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is clearly immersed in her sources, and she has an expert ear for the telling quote.

“Clean” opens with a brief account of our Neolithic ancestors, who spent hours grooming and picking nits off one another like the hairless monkeys they were. But the story really starts in earnest with the Greeks, who brought the world not only hot baths and running water but also the word “hygiene,” named after the goddess Hygeia. For the Greeks, cleanliness was indeed next to god- and goddess-liness; water was central to their purification ceremonies, and many of their most elaborate waterworks were built near shrines to their wide assortment of gods. (It’s not an accident that we still refer to our groggy morning showering-and-toothbrushing as our “morning ritual.”)


Most of those who followed the Greeks in the sweaty march of history had decidedly more ambivalent feelings about cleanliness. The Romans made the Greek baths and aqueducts their own but ultimately allowed them to crumble. Early Christians, inspired by Christ’s suffering and his willingness to embrace “unclean” sinners, took up a drastically ascetic lifestyle, looking upon bodily pleasures, and even simple cleanliness, as diametrically opposed to the cleanliness and purity of the soul. By the Middle Ages, Christians worried less about cleanliness itself and more about how people went about getting clean, which might involve getting naked in public with members of the opposite sex. “In the baths they sit naked, with other naked people,” one dumbfounded 14th century monk reported of a local peasant festival, “they dance naked with naked people, and I shall keep quiet about what happens in the dark.”

Later, Christian reformers embraced bodily cleanliness and purity. (They weren’t called Puritans for nothing!) In their minds, clean bodies and clean minds were inextricably intertwined. "[A]s the filthinesse and pollution of my bodie is washed and made clean by the element of water; so is my bodie and soule purified and washed from the spots and blemishes of sin,” one Puritanical clean freak memorably put it. Unlike the Greeks, though, they couldn’t bring themselves to see bathing as a pleasure; for them, it was a sacred duty, and sacred duties aren’t supposed to be fun.

“Clean” has its distinct limitations. As Smith herself readily admits, hers is a thoroughly Eurocentric narrative, with occasional excursions into realms like Egypt, India and the United States. The book focuses overwhelmingly on the thoughts and behavior of the elite rather than on those who would eventually come to be known as “the great unwashed,” although Smith tries her best to wring whatever she can out of the few sources she has that deal with the poor. And while the book takes the story up to the present, the final chapter is scattershot; Smith does little to illuminate today’s still-rising spa culture.

Indeed, I found myself wondering about something a little more central to cleanliness -- that is, dirtiness, the yin to cleanliness’ yang. What explains the strange allure of the dirty: the small, indelicate pleasures we get from squeezing out zits and excavating wax from our ears; the primal sex appeal of scruffy, stinky rock stars? Elvis Presley, in his drugged and corpulent final days, used to wipe the sweat from his seldom-washed skin during performances and throw the gamy towels to his overjoyed fans; an assistant supplied a steady flow of fresh towels as the King staggered through his set list. Future historians will, I am sure, report that many of these towels, saved as relics by the lucky few, were quite stinky indeed.