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Cleanliness matters — at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe.

From childhood, we’re taught to take pride in the frequency of our bathing, teeth brushing and hand washing. The shininess of our hair and the freshness of our breath are, we are assured, measures of our well-being. For our bodies to be socially acceptable, let alone attractive, we need to cleanse them of their oils and odours and transform their surfaces and smells with soap, shampoo and toothpaste. We spend almost as much time and money laundering our clothes as we do cleaning our bodies. It’s a lot of work, being this clean.

The first colour ad for Ivory Soap, from 1896. In his book, Peter Ward explores the marketing of hygiene products. (Associated Press files)

The first colour ad for Ivory Soap, from 1896. In his book, Peter Ward explores the marketing of hygiene products. (Associated Press files)

As Peter Ward shows in his new book, The Clean Body, our significant investment in personal cleanliness is a relatively recent historical development. A retired professor from the University of British Columbia, Ward has studied four centuries of western hygiene habits to determine just how dirty and clean the bodies of previous generations were. The result is a fascinating discussion of topics as varied as changing attitudes toward lice, the surprisingly gradual adoption of underwear by women and the popularity of rental bath tubs that floated in France’s Seine River.

In his exploration of the history of hygiene, Ward makes excellent use of anecdotes. He opens the book by explaining that Louis XIV had only two baths in his life — this despite his great wealth. The Sun King limited the bathing he did to a morning hand wash and, every second day, wiping his face with a towel that had been dampened — not with water, but with wine.

Of particular note is Ward’s exploration of how innovations, such as indoor plumbing, made increasingly high levels of cleanliness achievable. Ward explains that changes in hygiene habits required a steady supply of clean water and convenient ways to dispose of waste water. Beyond the home, he shows how cities made significant investments, not only in the infrastructure that delivered water directly to homes, but also in facilities for bathing and laundry, such as public bathhouses.

Some of Ward’s most interesting insights centre on the marketing of hygiene products. Take for example the Victorian-era soap company Crosfield’s, and the innovative approach they took to advertising. Competitors in a rapidly growing marketplace, Crosfield’s attracted the attention of customers interested in the health and beauty benefits of bathing by employing a team of four llamas to pull a carriage full of soap from Liverpool to Glasgow.

Ward’s detailed treatment of laundry history includes the invention of washing machines and laundry soaps as well as earlier approaches to this chore, such as the Great Wash days of European history. Held outdoors two or three times a year, these events brought the community out to soak, soap, rinse and wring out the clothes they had worn for months, work that neighbours undertook together.

If the book has a weak point, it is Ward’s tendency to describe access to indoor plumbing as a fait accompli.

Taking up this book in a city with dozens of homeless camps and in a province where housing conditions oblige some Manitobans to carry water in buckets for bathing, readers may find it difficult to accept what Ward asserts: that the conveniences of hot showers, flush toilets and laundry facilities are the universally accessible achievements of centuries of innovation.

In contrast, Ward’s treatment of previous generations’ experiences is extremely sensitive to social inequality, in particular to the role of class privilege in establishing standards of cleanliness. Ward offers, for example, a thorough discussion of how social values associated with hygiene justified the mistreatment of people by institutions such as schools, workhouses and prisons.

Generally speaking, The Clean Body is a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of practices that we would be mistaken to think of as natural or normal. Its study of centuries of hygiene is a prompt for us to reconsider our present-day pursuit of cleanliness.

Vanessa Warne teaches 19th-century literature and culture at the University of Manitoba.