The past was a rather smelly place, part 2

A baby skunk
This skunk may not have anything to do with this post, but it sure is cute.

Western standards of hygiene became a bit less pungent in the centuries after the Renaissance. As discussed in part 1 of this post, by the mid-seventeenth century clean linen was established as the European epitome of cleanliness and good personal hygiene. Displaying a hint of clean linen undergarment was a way to say to the rest of society, “Look at me. I am genteel and modern.” It did not, however, guarantee the cleanliness of the body beneath the linen, as most Europeans still viewed bathing as dangerous. Indeed, as Katherine Ashenburg writes in The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, “clean linen was not a substitute for washing the body with water–it was better than that, safer, more reliable and based on scientific principles” (Ashenburg, 106). These “scientific principles” argued that dirt protected the body from infection and disease by sealing the skin’s pores. Only after the Renaissance did water resume a prominent role in cleanliness and hygiene.

A rise in the popularity of mineral spas and the Romantic Era‘s glorification of the sea gradually increased Europeans’ use of water to promote health and cleanliness. While spas and springs remained largely inaccessible to all but the upper class and aristocracy throughout the seventeenth century, the medical community’s endorsement of the salubrity of mineral water helped make water in general a little less scary. Enlightenment figures such as John Locke began recommending regular bathing via immersion in water, and by the eighteenth century Western doctors assured society that the opening of the pores during bathing was healthy, natural, and desirable. The Greek and Roman view of water’s role in hygiene was once again popular and became increasingly widespread, but fear of water did not dissipate quickly.

The poor remained the most difficult segment of the Western population to convince that regular bathing in water was both safe and healthy. Lack of access to bathing facilities posed at least as much of an obstacle to public cleanliness as the old ideas about dirt as protective. Until the early twentieth century, or even as late as the mid-twentieth century in some regions, regular bathing was simply not possible for most members of the working class. By the early nineteenth century, reform-minded middle and upper class folk grew anxious enough about the spread of disease not only among the poor, but also between the poor and the upper classes that they began to frame cleanliness in moral terms and advocate the construction of public bathhouses. But it was not until they had baths at home that the working class began to bathe regularly.

Reformers forged alliances with city health officials and wealthy philanthropists to construct more public bathhouses in major cities. The United States had an easier time installing the era’s most advanced water and sewage systems than Europe: most U.S. cities were either relatively youthful or still being developed. Europe faced more complex challenges when attempting to update the infrastructures of its cities, some of which possessed layers of development accumulated over hundreds or even thousands of years. America took pride in its innovation and newness, cultivating an international reputation as a nation of unparalleled modern convenience. Cleanliness grew increasingly linked with notions of status and civility–often to the detriment of foreigners, the poor, and others who lacked the ability or the desire to meet the new, ever more pervasive standards of hygiene.

Nationalist and cultural emphasis on cleanliness, as well as the emergence of modern advertising and no small amount of classist fear of the great unwashed masses, gradually led to more frequent bathing by men and women at all levels of society. Throughout much of the nineteenth century greater numbers of men than women utilized the public bathhouses, which retained a residual association in the popular mind with immorality and unrespectability. Only when both the bathtub and soap became more affordable did most Westerners embrace regular immersion in water as a personal habit and virtue. By the early twentieth century, the private home bathroom was established as the “new totem of bourgeois life” (Ashenburg, 239). By 1940, roughly fifty-five percent of all American houses had a complete, modern bathroom. Although much of Europe continues to confront challenges in updating infrastructures linked to public hygiene, it too has encountered great pressure to conform to a new global culture of cleanliness

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