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

The past was a rather smelly place, part 1

Dirty peasants from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python's dirty peasants

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit on the history of hygiene and have found my attachment to modern concepts and standards of cleanliness and hygiene solidly reinforced. Not too surprisingly, it turns out the past was pretty darn smelly. Just how darn smelly varied, of course, depending on where and when you look. Much of the literature on the history of hygiene focuses on the Western world and although research within the last few decades demonstrates an increased effort on the part of historians to incorporate more comparative, global approaches language still presents barriers to comprehensive, global studies of hygiene. But how about an overview of cleanliness and hygiene in the West, from the Greeks and Romans to the mid-twentieth century? To save your eyes (and your patience) I’ll write this in two parts. Part one (below) spans from the Greeks and Romans to the seventeenth century.

Water plays a large role in current Western standards of cleanliness and hygiene, but attitudes about the use of water for cleansing the body fluctuated quite a bit over time. The Greeks were averse to the notion of hot baths, believing hot water robbed the body of vigor and strength. Warm, cold, and steam baths, however, were considered acceptable and served as healthy supplements to cleaning the body with oil and a scraper called a strigil. Bathing took place primarily within public bathhouses that were often either free of charge or priced to be affordable for members of all levels of society. The well-to-do could pay extra for more luxurious treatments and services such as massages, hair plaiting, personal attendants, and a steady supply of wine and snacks. Many followed a trip to the baths with a trip to the brothel, which was often situated either within or directly above the bathhouse. Beauticians and healers also positioned themselves near the bathhouses. The Romans shared the Greek’s passion for bathhouses, although the Romans were known to engage in a series of bathing exercises that utilized hot as well as warm and cold water. Both cultures viewed the bathhouse as a space of social equalization–in no small part due to the nudity it required.

Enter Christianity, one of the few major world religions with no scriptural dictates regarding cleanliness and hygiene. Jesus was known to touch the sick and the dead (people in traditionally “impure” states) and rebuked the Pharisee for washing his hands prior to eating. Early Christians tended to associate the Greek and Roman baths with hedonism and sin, leading many early Christian hermits and saints to reject bathing altogether. Once Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, thanks largely to Constantine I, the bathhouses were modified to separate the sexes and eliminate personal attendants. The purpose of the bathhouse also changed: it became socially unacceptable to bathe in order to clean oneself, relax, socialize, and indulge. Early Christians were told to bathe strictly for purposes of cleanliness and health–and only when absolutely necessary. Virgins and monks in particular were told to avoid bathing for fear the water would ignite their passions. By the ninth century most of the bathhouses in the West were abandoned, although those in the Byzantine Empire held out a bit longer. Arab Muslims, who cleansed their bodies several times per day before prayer, regarded Christians as some of the filthiest, foulest-smelling creatures in the world.

As Europe witnessed increased stability during the High and Late Middle Ages, the Church began to relax its attitudes toward personal hygiene. Improved infrastructure and trade made luxury goods more attainable and domestic life, in turn, somewhat less austere. Many Christian Crusaders returned to Europe with an affinity for Turkish baths, and even the clergy began to think being filthy might not be such a virtue after all. Some public bathhouses made a comeback, although their popularity waxed and waned in tandem with outbreaks of the plague (which many interpreted as God’s retribution for sinful behavior in the bathhouses and elsewhere). Yet the regularity of bathing and standards of personal cleanliness did not return to their former levels, as most in the West had come to see dirt as promotive of health.

Dirt, so the common view of the time went, protected the body by sealing off the skin’s pores and keeping all manner of harmful illnesses at bay. Most Europeans by this time washed only the portion of the body that was visible–the hands and face and, occasionally, the feet. To bathe by immersing oneself in water would be to invite sickness and perhaps even death. This view was popular through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and led to the promotion of the changing of linen as a safe alternative to bathing. Clean linen, in the form of men’s undershirts and women’s chemises, became the new standard of cleanliness and good personal hygiene. It even became fashionable for European men and women to show a bit of their linen undergarments in their everyday dress. The display of clean linen became a display of gentility, even if one still reeked to high heaven.

My next post will summarize the history of Western hygiene from the mid-seventeenth century through the mid-twentieth. Stay tuned.