October 24, 2007
'Dirt is only matter out of place'
So wrote Virginia Smith in her new book, "Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity."
Holly Brubach reviewed it along with Katherine Ashenburg's "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History," another book on the subject which, in a perfect example of synchronicity, has just been published.
Wrote Brubach, in this past Sunday's (October 21, 2007) New York Times "T" Style magazine supplement, "Even more surprising is the fact that two books filled with fascinating information on the same subject barely overlap."
I guess there's a lot of dirt out there, what?
But I digress.
Smith's quote about dirt (in the headline up top) continued, "... and is neither 'good' nor 'bad.'"
Ashenburg wrote that "... to risk smelling like a human is a misdemeanor, and the goal is to smell like an exotic fruit... or a cookie."
I'll go with the "exotic fruit," perhaps the one pictured above and below, thank you very much.
Here's Brubach's review.
- Soap Dish
Let me see a show of hands: how many of you were planning on reading a book — no, make that two books — on the subject of cleanliness this fall? Or ever. That’s what I thought.
And neither was I, to be honest. It’s probably safe to say that I take indoor plumbing for granted. I’m glad it exists, but I don’t feel compelled to spend a lot of time contemplating what happened during the preceding 2,000 years that made the tub in my bathroom possible. But that’s where I was wrong. Because, I’m happy to report, both “Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity” (Oxford University Press), by Virginia Smith, and “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History” (North Point Press), by Katherine Ashenburg, are utterly engaging as guided tours of human history seen through the lens of a single idea. Even more surprising is the fact that two books filled with fascinating information on the same subject barely overlap. Each author approaches the task from her own point of view, and there is evidently plenty of material to go around, leaving the reader with the sense of just how vast a topic this must be.
Smith, for instance, starts from an evolutionary perspective, offering observations of animal behavior and insights into early humans. So much for the notion that cleanliness is a relatively recent invention, with centuries of civilization culminating in antibacterial shower gels and disposable razors. “The famous traveler who froze to death on a Tyrolean pass in c. 3300 B.C.E.,” Smith informs us, a man 25 to 40 years old, was “shaved and beardless, and had recently had his hair cut.” For those of us under the misapprehension that Saturdays at the day spa are a new phenomenon, she sets us straight, with the news that “the cosmetic routine now called ‘pampering’ — baths, aromas, facials, manicures, pedicures, hairstyling and costuming, conducted in sensuous surroundings with or without groups of friends — emerged at both ends of Eurasia during the Bronze Age from c. 4000 B.C.E., along with most of the necessary tools and raw materials.”
Ashenburg, for her part, operates within a more literary frame of reference, mining “The Romance of Flammenca,” Madame de Sévigné’s letters, Thackeray’s novels and others over the course of a lively account in which we learn that: Napoleon spent two hours in a steaming bathtub every morning while an assistant read him newspapers and telegrams; Louis XIV had halitosis; Caucasians possess merocrine sweat glands “in profusion,” while Asians have few or none; and Kotex were first manufactured by a Wisconsin company during World War I as absorbent bandages for Army hospitals in France.
Both accounts tend to bog down when they get to the Middle Ages and religion. Christians, it seems, are unique among religious zealots in their disregard for cleanliness, a phenomenon Ashenburg attributes to a dogmatic refusal to care for the body or even feel comfortable in it, “devaluing the flesh so as to concentrate on the spirit.” For many saints, monks and hermits, dirtiness became a badge of holiness.
In time, science and medicine supplanted superstitions about how disease was transmitted, and a more rational understanding of hygiene took hold. By the 1890s, germs were “the invisible enemy, fought at every turn,” Smith writes, documenting the battlefields in the war on dust and its havens in the Victorian household: velvet curtains, wallpaper, heavy carpeting, ornate upholstered furniture and knickknacks. “Even dress length was affected,” she says, “after domestic science reformers criticized long hems that brushed in the dirt and dust, bringing potential disease from the street directly into the home.” Though Smith never makes the connection, the reader wonders to what extent this concerted attempt to banish germs figured in the genesis of Modernism, with interiors overhauled in sleek, hard surfaces and objects reduced to a minimum. Her announcement that 75 to 80 percent of vacuum-cleaner dirt consists of human skin cells is enough to put some of us off scatter rugs and throw pillows for life.
An honorary fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Smith bases her narrative in Europe, with details of England in particular, although she does lay the credit — or is it the blame? — on America for a handful of important contributions, among them: “the concept of ‘BO’ (body odor),” the introduction of underarm deodorants and the “habit of showering.” In movies and on television, Smith writes, America exported “the hygienic ideals of the affluent American suburbs, including a fervent nouveau riche obsession with domestic and personal cleanliness.” Ashenburg, by contrast, more closely tracks the progress of cleanliness in America and ingeniously links the rise of soap to the growth of the ad industry.
Both authors bring to the task a sense of humor and a forthright willingness to call our prevailing assumptions into question. “Dirt is only matter out of place,” Smith assures us, “and is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ ” Ashenburg marvels at the absurdity of our current standards, which would seem to imply that “to risk smelling like a human is a misdemeanor, and the goal is to smell like an exotic fruit... or a cookie.”
If there’s a moral to be extracted from either of these books, surely it has something to do with the uneasiness that historically has characterized our relationship to our bodies. How to manage the shame, the revulsion, the fears that arise in response to every reminder of the fact that we’re animals — this is the perpetual question, and each era, each culture, finds its own response. Smith tells us that our “primate cousins” spent 10 to 20 percent of their time on grooming, an inordinate commitment, she says, in light of the fact that they also need to find food. It’s a trade-off familiar to anyone who has ever opted for a bikini wax over a trip to the grocery store.
I'm very fond of Mario Buatta's observation that dust protects furniture.
If you ever stop by you'll learn why that's an understatement.
October 24, 2007 at 05:01 PM | Permalink
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Posted by: gabriel christou | Oct 25, 2007 8:47:52 AM
Fancy Italian chefs! Don't even get me started! . . . Oh, wait a minute--wrong Mario. Nevermind.
Posted by: Teg | Oct 24, 2007 6:17:03 PM
Oooh, two things here:
1) It is dreadfully, dreadfully unkind to display pictures of durian when I have no access to durian.
2) It's probably a good thing that Book of Joe is not yet enabled for scratch-n-sniff.
(And now I need two more books; it may be time for more bookshelf coverage...)
Posted by: AG | Oct 24, 2007 6:12:42 PM
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