Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History General

The Dirt on Clean

An Unsanitized History

by (author) Katherine Ashenburg

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2007
General, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2007
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a public two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, a scraping of the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the seventeenth-century aristocratic Frenchman, it meant changing his shirt once a day, using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else’s, but never immersing himself in – horrors! – water. By the early 1900s, an extraordinary idea took hold in North America – that frequent bathing, perhaps even a daily bath, was advisable. Not since the Roman Empire had people been so clean, and standards became even more extreme as the millennium approached. Now we live in a deodorized world where germophobes shake hands with their elbows and where sales of hand sanitizers, wipes and sprays are skyrocketing.

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. She reveals the bizarre rescriptions of history’s doctors as well as the hygienic peccadilloes of kings, mistresses, monks and ordinary citizens, and guides us through the twists and turns to our own understanding of clean, which is no more rational than the rest. Filled with amusing anecdotes and quotations from the great bathers of history, The Dirt on Clean takes us on a journey that is by turns intriguing, humorous, startling and not always for the squeamish. 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 who we are.

About the author

Katherine Ashenburg writes for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Walrus and Toronto Life. She is the author of three non-fiction books for adults, All the Dirt on Getting Clean is her first book for young readers.

Katherine Ashenburg's profile page


  • Short-listed, Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize

Excerpt: The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (by (author) Katherine Ashenburg)

The Social Bath

Greeks and ­Romans

Odysseus, his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, were a notably ­well-­washed family, and the reasons would have been obvious to the first audience of The Odyssey. Greeks in the eighth century b.c. had to wash before praying and offering sacrifices to the gods, and Penelope frequently prays for the return of her wandering husband and son. A Greek would also bathe before setting out on a journey, and when he arrived at the house of strangers or friends, etiquette demanded that he first be offered water to wash his hands, and then a bath. This is a book full of departures and arrivals, as Odysseus struggles for a decade to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and Tele­machus searches for his father. Their journeys are the warp and weft of this great adventure ­story.

When Odysseus visits the palace of King Alcinoos, the king orders his queen, Arete, to draw a bath for their guest. Homer describes it in the deliberate, formulaic terms reserved for important customs: “Accordingly Arete directed her women to set a large tripod over the fire at once. They put a copper over the blazing fire, poured in the water and put the firewood underneath. While the fire was shooting up all round the belly of the copper, and the water was growing warm . . . the housewife told him his bath was ready.”

Then the housekeeper bathes Odysseus, probably in a tub of brass or polished stone, rubbing his clean body with oil when he steps out of the tub. Here it is the head servant who washes the stranger, but when the guest was particularly distinguished, one of the daughters of the house might do the honours. When Telemachus travels to the palace of King Nestor, his youngest daughter, Polycasta, bathes him and massages him with olive oil. Telemachus emerges from her ministrations “as handsome as a young god.”

More than the most lyrical copywriter extolling the wonders of a modern bathroom, Homer stresses the transforming power of the ­bath–­partly because The Odyssey is a tall tale but partly because travellers in the wilds of ancient Greece did no doubt look remarkably better after soaking in hot water. Not only does a bath turn ­nice-­looking young men into ­near-­divinities, but Odysseus gains height, strength and splendour when his old nurse bathes him. With his clean hair curling like hyacinth petals, he too “came out of the bathroom looking more like a god than a man.”

The most poignant trans­formation achieved by a bath in The Odyssey happens at the end of the book. Odysseus, who has been away from home for twenty years, comes upon his old father, Laertes, digging in his vineyard. Laertes’ clothes are dirty and patched, and “in the carelessness of his sorrow,” as Homer puts it, he is wearing a goatskin hat, an emblem of rustic poverty. Before he reveals his identity, Odysseus tells his father that he looks like a man who deserves ­better–­namely, “a bath and a good dinner and soft sleep.” Laertes explains that his son is missing, probably devoured by fishes or beasts, and “a black cloud of sorrow came over the old man: with both hands he scraped up the grimy dust and poured it over his white head, sobbing.” It is a potent image of desolation, one repeated by mourners from many ­cultures–­dirtying oneself, whether by daubing one’s face with mud or covering one’s head, as Laertes does, with dust. Misfortune and dirtiness are natural companions, as are cleanliness and good ­fortune.

At this point, Odysseus reveals his identity and takes an overjoyed Laertes back to his house. The neglected old man has a bath, which once again works its magic: “Athena stood by his side and put fullness into his limbs, so that he seemed stronger and bigger than before. When he came out of the bathroom his son was astonished to see him like one come down from heaven, and he said in plain words: ‘My father! Surely one of the immortal gods has made a new man of you, taller and stronger than I saw you before!’”


The ancient Greeks cleaned themselves for the reasons we do: to make themselves more comfortable and more attractive. They also bathed for reasons of health, since soaking in water was one of the major treatments in their physicians’ limited arsenal. Hippocrates, the great ­fifth-­century doc­tor, was a champion of baths, believing that a judicious combination of cold and hot immersions could bring the body’s ­all-­important humours, or constituent liquids, into a healthy balance. Warm baths also prepared the body, by softening it, to receive nourishment and supposedly helped a variety of ailments, from headaches to the retention of urine. Those suffering from painful joints were prescribed cold showers, and female ills were treated with aromatic steam ­baths.

As The Odyssey makes clear, washing was a necessary prelude to prayer and libations. Sanctuaries normally had fonts of water at their ­entrances–­not that intercourse with the gods required greater cleanliness than with humans, but the Greeks believed that any respectful relationship demanded neatness and ­cleanliness.

And, like almost all peoples, they bathed as part of a rite of passage. The first bath of the newborn and his mother was an important event, with the water sometimes brought from a propitious spring. Both the Greek bride and groom took a ceremonial bath on the eve or the morning of the wedding, washing off their single state and preparing to take on a married identity. And when someone died, not only was the body formally washed and anointed, but the chief mourners and attend­ants on the dead also needed purifying, and they washed after the funeral. Contact with the dead and with grief made you dirty, always symbolically and sometimes actually. When Achilles, in The Iliad, hears that his friend Patroclus has been killed, he acts out that connection: “Taking grimy dust in both his hands he poured it over his head, and befouled his fair face.” He refuses to wash until Patroclus has received a proper ­funeral.

With an abundant coastline, long, sunny summers and mild winters, the Greeks must have bathed in the sea from the time they first settled in the southeastern tag end of Europe, around four thousand years ago. As early as 1400 b.c., they had invaded Crete, an advanced civilization with running water, drains and (at least in the royal palace at Knossos) bathtubs. No doubt Crete influenced their bathing customs, as did the other, more shadowy cultures they met in the course of their trading and colonizing, which extended into North Africa and Asia ­Minor.

By the Athenian golden age, in the fifth century b.c., the bathing habits the Greeks had forged from native and foreign sources were in place. An ­upper-­middle-­class or patrician ­Greek–­let us call him ­Pittheus–­could clean himself in various ways. His house would probably have a bathroom, more accurately a washing room, next to the kitchen. The essential equipment was a washstand, called a labrum, rather like a big birdbath on a base, positioned roughly at hip height. A servant would be sent to the household cistern or the nearest well for water and might be enlisted to pour it over Pittheus or his wife. The room might also include a terra cotta hip ­bath–­big enough for the bather to sit in with legs extended, but not to lie down. The bath was set into the floor and drained by a channel to the outside. Pittheus gave himself a speedy, ­stand-­up wash in the morning and reserved the time before dinner for a more thorough ­cleansing.

A poor man without a bathroom at home might use the nearest well for a daily wash and make an occasional visit to the public bath. Some of these baths were run by the government, others by private businessmen; they either were free or had a very low admission price. Water was warmed over a fire, as in The Odyssey, and the rooms were heated, when necessary, with braziers. At its most lavish, the public bath had separate rooms for cold, warm and steam ­baths–­basic by later Roman standards but more than the prosperous Pittheus had at home. He, as well as his wife, patronized the public ­bath–­for the steam bath, perhaps, or for the primitive showers, in which streams of water from spouts mounted on the wall doused his head and shoulders. (A servant on the other side of the wall poured the water into the spouts.) There were no hard and fast rules about the frequency of bathhouse visits; some customers appeared daily, others once or twice a ­month.

Another advantage of the public bath was its sociability. Pittheus bathed there in an individual hip bath, one of up to thirty arranged around the perimeter of a circular room. (It’s an odd image, more like the bathing room of an orphanage or an infirmary than one intended for healthy adults.) The bath assistant, or bath man, provided customers with a cleansing substance, wood ashes or the absorbent clay called fuller’s earth. Pittheus, who could afford it, brought his own, perfumed cleansers. Games such as dice or knucklebones were available, as were wine and probably snacks. What was to become unimaginably sumptuous in the Imperial baths of Rome was modest and intimate in Pittheus’s bathhouse, but the ­essentials–­baths in a variety of temperatures in a public, recreational ­setting–­were ­here.

In addition to home and bathhouse, Pittheus had a third place in which to ­wash–­the gymnasium. One of the central Athenian institutions, the gymnasium was intended primarily as a place for middle- and ­upper-­class young men to develop their physical strength and for older men to maintain it. Its rooms were arranged around an outdoor exercise field, with a running track nearby. Either after exercise or instead of it, men used the rooms and nearby groves (the original gymnasiums were outside the town centre) for discussions and lectures. The motto mens sana in corpore ­sano–­a sound mind in a sound ­body–­is Roman, but the Greeks were even more passionately devoted to the cult of the ­well-­trained body and mind. To us it sounds incongruous that Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, two of the earliest schools of philosophy, both founded in the fourth century, were part of working gymnasiums, but to the Greeks it was a natural ­combination.

In the gymnasium, bathing was a humble adjunct to exercise. Greek athletes, who exercised in the ­nude–­gymnasium literally means “the naked place”–first oiled their bodies and covered them with a thin layer of dust or sand to prevent chills. After wrestling or running or playing ball games, the men and boys removed their oil and dust, now mingled with sweat, with a curved metal scraper called a strigil. After using the strigil, athletes could wash, either standing up at a basin or in a shower or a tub. Although hot water would have made their oil and grit much easier to remove, there is no evidence that the gymnasiums offered hot water before the Roman period. The manly rigour of ­cold-­water bathing suited the gymnasium’s spirit and reassured those Athenians who brooded about the weakening and feminizing effects of hot ­water.

And brood they did. The playwright Aristophanes makes fun of the perennial ­tug-­of-­war between austerity and luxury in his ­fifth-­century comedy The Clouds. Strepsiades, an older man who remembers fondly his sloppy youth in the ­countryside–­then there was “no bother about washing or keeping tidy”–has fallen under the sway of Socrates and the philosophers. Strepsiades likes the fact that they never shave, cut their hair or wash at the baths. He prefers their ways to those of his citified son, Phidippides, who is “always at the baths, pouring my money down the ­plug-­hole.” A character called Fair Argument agrees with the father, harking back to the good old days when boys sang rousing military melodies, sat up straight and would have scorned to cover their bodies in oil. That kind of no-frills upbringing, he insists, produced the ­hairy-­chested men who fought at the battle of Marathon. These days, boys who indulge in hot baths shiver in the cold and waste their time gossiping like ­sissies.

A Greek’s position on ­hot-­water bathing spoke volumes about his values, and one of the most enduring debates in the history of cleanliness centres on the merits of cold versus hot water. Edward Gibbon, the ­eighteenth-­century chronicler of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, was convinced that hot baths were one of the principal reasons Rome weakened and fell. Victorian men, influenced by their classical Greek studies, believed that the British Empire was built on the bracingly cold morning bath. It’s a prejudice with staying power, as indicated by the modern German expression for a man short on ­masculinity–a Warmduscher, or ­warm-­showerer. Plato, who in The Laws reserves hot baths for the old and ill, would have sympathized with those judgments. But, in spite of Plato, young and healthy men became accustomed to warm water at the bathhouses, if not in the ­gymnasiums.

Young and healthy Athenians, that is, but not the militaristic, ascetic Spartans, who bathed their newborns in wine (perhaps with some sense that it acted as an antiseptic) but took baths infrequently after that. The biographer Plutarch tells the story of a Spartan who watched in disbelief as a slave drew water for the bath of Alcibiades, the Athenian general, and commented that he must be exceedingly dirty to need such a quantity of water. (That remark, always attributed to people who saw little need for washing, surfaces again and again over the centuries.) The Spartans’ ­ninth-­century lawgiver Lycurgus ordered the Spartans to eat in public mess halls in order to avoid dining at home on couches. If they grew accustomed to that ­self-­indulgence, he warned, they would soon be in need of “long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick.” Warm bathing keeps company in Lycurgus’ list with the other mollycoddling tendencies he saw as threatening his city state’s military severity. Spartan ­self-­discipline remained uncompromised by hot water, and Lycurgus’ grim forecast never came ­true.

Theophrastus was an Athenian philosopher whose most enduring legacy is The Characters, a collection of thirty merciless portraits of irritating types, such as Preten­tiousness, Officiousness and Buffoonery. Through them we get a keen sense of grooming standards at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, near the end of the fourth century b.c., as well as a satirical sketch of a society still rough and ready in many ways. Nastiness, for example, typifies “a neglect of the person which is painful to others” and goes about town in stained clothes, “shaggy as a beast,” with hair all over his body. The parts not covered with hair display scabs and scaly deposits. His teeth are black and rotten. He goes to bed with his wife with unwashed hands (hands were to be washed after supper, which was eaten without forks or spoons), and when the oil he takes to the baths is rancid and thickened, he spits on his body to thin ­it.

Repulsive as Nastiness is, Theophrastus is no more fond of his foppish opposite, Petty Pride, who gets his hair cut “many times in the month,” uses costly unguent for oil and has white teeth (a rarity and considered ­over-­fussy). The middle way between the extremes of slovenliness and vanity, Theophrastus suggests, is best. (So do the arbitrators of almost every period, at least in theory, but that prized middle ground shifts considerably.)

Editorial Reviews

"Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years."
Publishers' Weekly
“In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters. . . . She includes many quirky tidbits of cultural history, such as the role played by bathing in Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from Cockney flower-seller to fair lady and the appearance in the 1930s of vaguely menacing magazine ads that threatened women with spinsterhood if they dared let their breath or armpits smell.. . . . Dozens of charming illustrations distinguish a book notable for its engaging design as well as its illuminating content.”
Kirkus Reviews

Praise for The Mourner’s Dance:

“Moving, exotic, outrageous. . . . A serendipitous tour of anthropology, cultural history, psychology and personal reflection. . . . It’s a pleasure to accompany Ashenburg.”
The Globe and Mail

“An intricate tapestry that maps out the emotional landscape of grief. . . . A richly informative and compassionate book.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Elegantly written. . . . The Mourner’s Dance–learned, often moving and even consoling–is a superb survey.”

Other titles by