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Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (Society and the Sexes in the Modern World)
Kathleen M. Brown
Yale University Press, 2009
464 pp., $60.00
The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
North Point Press, 2008
368 pp., $24.00
Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity
Oxford University Press, 2008
480 pp., $31.95
Lauren F. Winner
Cleanliness and Godliness
When is a body—or a kitchen, or a pair of blue jeans—clean? The story of people's evolving standards of cleanliness is told in three entertaining, informative, and at times disturbing books: Kathleen Brown's Foul Bodies focuses on cleanliness in early America, while Katherine Ashenburg's The Dirt on Clean and Virginia Smith's Clean trace changes in thoughts about and practices of cleanliness from antiquity to the present.
The books are filled with interesting tidbits. We read about Napoleon getting turned on by body odor ("I will return to Paris tomorrow evening," he once wrote Josephine: "Don't wash"); about stain-removal strategies in 18th-century Philadelphia; about the efforts of advertisers in the 1920s to promote Kotex without offending readers' delicate sensibilities. In addition to the curiosities, Brown, Smith, and Ashenburg treat numerous important topics—the connections between cleanliness and empire, for example, and the difficult-to-shake association of cleaning with women. One theme that threads throughout all three books is the relationship between religion and cleanliness, and in particular the relationship between Christianity and the clean body.
Many Christians in the first millennium castigated a preoccupation with cleanness, and practitioners of other religions—Muslims and Hindus, for example—viewed Christians as peculiarly indifferent to bodily hygiene. Ashenburg reads Christians' vexed relationship with cleanliness as one example of their vexed relationship with the body. Furthermore, early Christians were uncomfortable with the pagan licentiousness of the Roman baths. Finally, some ascetics embraced the discipline of alousia, the state of being unwashed, arguing that after the spiritual cleansing of baptism, one ought to spurn the superficial project of washing one's skin and hair. Often, Christian ascetics' renunciation of cleanliness was, as Smith notes, linked to the cult of virginity and chastity: to wit, Saint ...