The best books on the history of washing our bodies

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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Book of the Bath

By Françoise de Bonneville

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.


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Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness

By Suellen Hoy

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.


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Stronger Than Dirt

By Juliann Sivulka

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.


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

By Merritt Ierley

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. 


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

By Jean-Pierre Goubert, Andrew Wilson

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.


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