The best books on the history of washing our bodies

Katherine Ashenburg Author Of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
By Katherine Ashenburg

Who am I?

I’ve always been drawn to social history, so the chance to learn what people used for toilet paper in the middle ages or how deodorant was invented and popularized in the early 20th century was perfect for me. The three years I spent researching The Dirt on Clean included trips to see the bathing facilities in Pompeii and actually bathing in ancient mineral baths and spas in Hungary, Switzerland, and Germany, and what’s not to like about that?


I wrote...

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

By Katherine Ashenburg,

Book cover of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History

What is my book about?

The apparently routine task of taking up soap and water (or not) is Katherine Ashenburg’s starting point for a unique exploration of Western culture, which yields surprising insights into our notions of privacy, health, individuality, religion, and sexuality. Ashenburg searches for clean and dirty in plague-ridden streets, medieval steam baths, castles and tenements, and in bathrooms of every description.

Filled with amusing and sometimes startling anecdotes, The Dirt on Clean takes us on a journey that is not always for the squeamish. And there’s no reason to feel superior to our less than pristine ancestors: our modern understanding of “clean" is no more rational and in some ways more dangerous than those that came before us. Ashenburg’s tour of history’s baths and bathrooms reveals much about our changing and most intimate selves — what we desire, what we ignore, what we fear, and a significant part of what we are.

The books I picked & why

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The Book of the Bath

By Françoise de Bonneville,

Book cover of The Book of the Bath

Why this book?

A coffee table book, but a sublime one. If you want to read one book on this subject (after The Dirt on Clean, of course), The Book of the Bath is it. Not only is the text intelligent, comprehensive, and readable, it is sumptuously illustrated with paintings, photographs, and ads. Covering "The Story of Water", "Private Baths", "Public Bath"s, and "The Modern Bathroom", it concludes (perhaps because the author is French) with "The Sensual Delights of the Bath". Highly recommended.

The Book of the Bath

By Françoise de Bonneville,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Book of the Bath as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For over 2000 years, in the Far East as in the West, bathing and showering have been more than practical necessities. Bathing has become a rite and a refuge, and this is the first book to lavish due attention on the history of the bath across the centuries and around the world.

Although the room for bathing as we know it has existed for only a century, public baths wee institution in ancient cultures; and, of course, beginning n the Renaissance, bathing was not just hygienic, but a sensual and sybaritic event. In The Book of the Bath, abundant illustrations-…


Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness

By Suellen Hoy,

Book cover of Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness

Why this book?

How did Americans in the 19th century, who were described by one traveller as “filthy, bordering on the beastly,” transform themselves into arguably the cleanest people in the Western world? Hint: unexpected things such as the rise of hotels, the Civil War, and the growth of advertising are important parts of this journey towards obsessive cleanliness. Hoy charts this surprising transformation with wit and skill.

Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness

By Suellen Hoy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chasing Dirt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans in the early 19th century were, as one foreign traveller bluntly put it, "filthy, bordering on the beastly"-perfectly at home in dirty, bug-infested, malodorous surroundings. Many a home swarmed with flies, barnyard animals, dust, and dirt; clothes were seldom washed; men hardly ever shaved or bathed. Yet gradually all this changed, and today, Americans are known worldwide for their obsession with cleanliness-for their sophisticated plumbing, daily
bathing, shiny hair and teeth, and spotless clothes. In Chasing Dirt, Suellen Hoy provides a colorful history of this remarkable transformation from "dreadfully dirty" to "cleaner than clean," ranging from the pre-Civil War…


Stronger Than Dirt

By Juliann Sivulka,

Book cover of Stronger Than Dirt

Why this book?

Americans believe advertisements, especially those that promise cleanliness. Europeans, who are much less obsessed with soaps, deodorants, creams, and other cleansing products, find this naive. As described by Sivulka, Americans see ads for personal hygiene products as allies in their quest never to “offend,” to borrow one of advertising’s favorite words. Advertising and toilet soap (as opposed to laundry or housecleaning soap) grew up together, beginning in the late 19th century, and ads made brilliant use of Americans’ worries about finding Mr. Right and getting ahead in business. Sivulka’s enlightening book is copiously illustrated by a fascinating anthology of the ads themselves.

Stronger Than Dirt

By Juliann Sivulka,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stronger Than Dirt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Only a century ago the privilege of washing with soap was mainly a special prerogative of the well to do, and a bath was something most people avoided. But by the end of World War I a revolution in standards of personal hygiene had taken place. Soap was not only more widely used but was suddenly viewed as a powerful symbol of purification, civilization, and progress. What caused this radical shift in attitudes?

In this fascinating cultural history, Juliann Sivulka shows that the transformation of soap from luxury product to everday staple and symbol of success was the result of…


The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience

By Merritt Ierley,

Book cover of The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience

Why this book?

Ierley’s deftly researched and written book follows the evolution of heating, light, kitchens, and bathrooms in the American house from 1805 to the present, but the sections on bathing and bathrooms alone are worth the price of admission. His use of graphic charts is particularly enlightening: a standout is the history of comfort and convenience in the Eisenhower household of Abilene, Kansas (home of President Dwight Eisenhower), as it progresses from 1898 to the 1930s. 

The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience

By Merritt Ierley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Comforts of Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Age of Technology is nowhere made more personal than at home. Modern convenience shapes our daily routine, making today's American house a place of comfort, the like of which has never been known. Yet of all aspects of modern technology, it is the evolution of what is in the household that has
been least written about.
        
In The Comforts of Home, an unprecedented work written for a general audience with no particular knowledge of science or technology, social historian Merritt Ierley weaves in aspects of architecture, social history, and technology to present an underexplored but central feature of American…


The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age

By Jean-Pierre Goubert, Andrew Wilson (translator),

Book cover of The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age

Why this book?

Europeans had feared water since the Black Death of 1347 when the doctors of the Sorbonne pronounced that people who took warm baths were more susceptible to the plague. There followed what the French historian Jules Michelet called (with some hyperbole) “five hundred years without a bath.” Goubert’s scholarly but always readable book describes the gradual and tentative death of this longstanding myth. Beginning in the 18th century, the emergence of the idea of water as a benefit and not a danger to public health was complicated and touched many areas of life. Goubert is adept at moving from social to cultural to administrative sectors, with just the right balance of theory and anecdotes.

The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age

By Jean-Pierre Goubert, Andrew Wilson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Conquest of Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The preoccupation with water is, according to Jean-Pierre Goubert, one of the subdivisions of the religion of progress. . . . Goubert's research is entirely interdisciplinary, and his procedure is highly original. The first in his field, the author has at all points built up a study which never departs from its faithfulness to texts, documents and facts."--From the introduction

This book is the first major study of the social and cultural conquest of water during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jean-Pierre Goubert discloses the changing meanings of everyday reality as he explores the transition from water-scarce cultures, in which…


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