Virginia Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity
Oxford University Press | ISBN: 0199297797 | May 4, 2007 | 416 pages | PDF | 3.5 MB
|“|| The first television commercial was for soap, claims Virginia Smith in her thoroughly researched albeit occasionally sluggish new book. She doesn't supply the dirty details about the commercial, but it's easy to imagine that she is right. After all, such ads, along with hit tunes ("Splish Splash," anyone?), nursery rhymes ("Rub a dub dub") and Sesame Street ditties ("Rubber ducky, you're the one, you make bath time lots of fun") have helped soap and bathtub rituals leave a considerable ring around popular culture.|
According to Smith, ads that pushed cleaning concoctions -- not just for our bodies, but for our laundry and living spaces, too -- blossomed along with the emergence of television during the 1950s. They were ubiquitous enough to inspire a durable nickname for serial daytime dramas, known henceforth as soap operas. Nowadays, Smith notes, soaps, shampoos, polishes and shower gels "are not quite the staple of TV advertising budgets that they were." Still, ads featuring them continue to take hold of our imaginations. I remember, for example, an '80s spot about a deodorant soap. The blue bar's magical lather so invigorated the ad's hero that he dressed eagerly, undeterred by the downpour outside his window. When his sleepy spouse asked him how he expected to get to work in such a deluge, he smiled confidently at the camera and declared, "backstroke."
Of course that ad is tame by more recent standards. Who, for instance, can forget a certain herbal shampoo that promises a "totally organic experience"? In one such ad, the bubbly balm inspired a woman to climb the walls of her shower stall, loudly exclaiming her bliss while her clueless husband listened with concern on the other side of the door. These Madison Avenue productions are meant to convince us that few experiences can be as transporting -- "Calgon, take me away" -- as a serene soak or a sudsy washing-up.
Smith suggests that we really don't need much persuasion. Our belief in the transformative power of a good scrub goes back centuries, the roots of which are carefully detailed in Clean. "The long story of washing and bathing water began in the Neolithic at some indeterminate date," Smith believes. She goes on to show that our almost instinctive devotion to cleanliness has a solid basis in neurology, chemistry and other hard sciences that help us to understand that being groomed not only does away with dirt but also "produces mildly narcotic effects; and the longer it carries on, the more swooning or relaxing effects it achieves." Totally organic indeed.
Smith, an honorary fellow of the Centre for History in Public Health in London, eschews digging into the dirty side of her discipline, preferring instead to look at "standards of cleanliness and the reformers of cleanliness." Consequently, her dutiful discussion of influential texts such as the 363-verse Regimen Sanitatus Salernitanum slows down the narrative and sometimes proves more distracting than informative. Fortunately, Smith knows that it is necessary to provide a little "gross" intelligence here and there to keep her chronicle from circling the drain. To wit: "We shed skin, hair, and toenail clippings, and generally dispose of quantities of waste matter minute by minute, day by day, year in year out -- normally between 3 and 6 ounces a day, or 4 tons in the average lifetime. Between 75 and 80 percent of vacuum cleaner dirt consists of human skin cells."
Those wet and wild ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing of skin cells -- not to mention uprights and carpet sweepers -- but they believed in the power of the bath. For Greeks, "water was a primordial thing that flowed across all the social and semantic boundaries," taking on a divine aspect when featured in purification ceremonies. The Romans adapted Greek bathing habits to their own imperial culture. Their bathhouses became "masterpieces of the art" in which "the customer could wander at will, sampling each cold, hot, tepid, or steam bath." But those were pagan playhouses that lost their gleam when the Christian church rose to influence after the fall of Rome. "The ideology of cleanliness was turned upside down," Smith writes. "Judaeo-Christian asceticism insisted that the cleansing of the inner soul was absolutely imperative, whereas the cleansing of the outer body was a worldly distraction, and its ornamentation a positive sin." Christians eventually reconciled bathing with their spiritual striving, however, and by the medieval era, monasteries were the best places to find excellent baths and latrines.
In the 21st century, personal hygiene has "reached a stage of general consensus," incorporating venerable associations of purity, sanitation and spiritual health. But Smith rightly notes that "for many people today there is one sole and sufficient reason for practising personal hygiene that eclipses all others: self-representation." There had been earlier outbreaks of cleanliness as vanity, however, and perhaps never more so extreme as in the 1600s and 1700s. "Throughout both of these centuries," Smith tells us, "flesh was privately pampered, and everywhere on display." But hygiene often took the form of perfumes, powders and paints instead of soap and water, and "fleas, lice, smeared paintwork and powerful body odors" often lurked underneath the elaborate facades.
Not so for us modern folk, right? In the technologically advanced West, "decades of increased personal hygiene and cosmetic awareness have finally paid off. . . . There are, quite literally, many more beautiful and unblemished people around." And we're as concerned about germs as we are about appearance: Smith estimates that 700 new antibacterial cleansing products hit the market between 1992 and 1998. Does that mean we're sanitized as well as shiny? Well . . .
In his book Better, Atul Gawande, a surgeon, discusses the difficulty of "getting clinicians . . . to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands." If doctors are remiss about basic hygiene, just imagine how sloppy the rest of us must be.
Apparently, filthy habits are as common as that fragrant slab of sodium tallowate, hydrogenated tallow acid, glycerine and assorted chemicals sitting in your soap dish. Think about that at the next office party, when your grimy-fingered colleague grabs a generous handful of the communal cheese curls. Then leave a copy of Clean on his desk.