From the weekly bath to the daily shower

Today’s headline is one I never thought to have on A Writer of History!

Professor Peter Ward is the author of The Clean Body: A Modern History. From bathing maybe once every six months to shopping at Lush for regular luxurious bath experiences, Peter takes a fresh (pun intended), fascinating look into the history of cleanliness and explains how our relationship to bathing has progressed over the centuries and continues to change. Welcome to the blog, Peter.

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“From the weekly bath to the daily shower” is an excerpt from a chapter in my recent book The Clean Body: A Modern History.  The book surveys the history of personal hygiene in Europe and North America over the past 4 centuries and the excerpt reviews changing bathing habits during the 20th century, particularly from mid century onward.  While the extract stands alone, it’s one of several closely related themes that the book explores at length.  It illustrates two interesting sets of research issues that characterize the entire book, one related to the task of writing a synthesis, the other emerging from the subject of personal hygiene habits itself.

The Clean Body is a synthesis of works on a range of topics related to the hygiene revolution over the past two centuries or so.  Much of what has been published on the subject examines aspects of the history of cleanliness in a single country, with topics ranging from the intimacies of the bathroom to the urban planning that brought water supplies and sewer systems to mass housing in the new industrial age.   Because I intended to write a synthesis, my research was largely based on the work of many others, though I supplemented it with the occasional inclusion of primary source material. By their very nature syntheses raise research issues that differ in important respects from those of documentary research.  A synthesis isn’t a historiography – a history of historical writing – but rather a drawing together and a reinterpretation of earlier research. Invariably historians who write syntheses depend on the work of earlier investigators. As a result they need to be sensitive to the breadth, the reliability and the interpretive insights of their predecessors’ efforts.  They also need to read and judge these earlier works carefully, appraising their authors’ professional skills. And when they cite or quote material from previous studies, they need to respect the integrity of their sources rather than simply reshape their borrowings to their own interpretive ends.

The Clean Body is a history of personal habits.  Its subject is long-term change in the mundane matter of body care.  The sheer ordinariness of the subject makes it difficult to investigate in earlier times because it deals with something so unremarkable that it didn’t generate abundant records at any point in the past.  With the exception of occasional diary entries and remarks in correspondence, our ancestors didn’t note their ablutions. One major reason in the deeper past was that they very seldom – if ever – bathed their entire bodies, merely rinsing the skin that showed from time to time.  Their ideas about cleanliness had little to do with washing themselves so there was little for them to record. In fact many of them probably laundered their clothing more often than they washed their faces and hands, though practices varied widely according to wealth and social status.  Later, as bathing slowly became accepted among the upper classes, it soon became common enough that it attracted little notice, and for the most part this has remained true ever since.

As a result we need to devise further research strategies in order learn more about bathing practices and the ideas on which they rested.  The most helpful – and unfortunately the most elusive as well – are the occasional bits of anecdotal evidence left by individuals who were preoccupied enough by their own lives, or those of their family members, that they occasionally recorded their bathing practices.  In addition, since the 1930s, social surveys have sometimes asked respondents whether or not they washed themselves, what parts of their bodies they did clean when they happened to wash, and how often they did so. So we do have some first hand accounts of personal hygiene practices.

Otherwise we need to turn to observers of other people’s behaviour for comments on cleanliness.  In this case the sources are much more abundant, but they’re more problematic as well because, overwhelmingly, the commentators were critical of those whose conduct they surveyed.  The critics, of course, considered themselves clean and believed that those they observed were not. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, they were drawn from the ranks of social privilege and they shared a broad consensus on the conduct they recommended for their social inferiors.  Some of the less favoured shared the same beliefs about cleanliness but they lacked the means to keep themselves clean, or at least to do so easily. Still others clung to more traditional beliefs about body care that placed little or no emphasis on regular washing.  In these varied circumstances, questions about cleanliness, its meanings and its practices, were refracted through the twin lenses of social class and ideology, requiring caution when exploring the meanings of our sources.

The Clean Body explores one of the most fundamental and pervasive cultural changes in Western history since the seventeenth century: the personal hygiene revolution. In the age of Louis XIV bathing was rare and hygiene was mainly a matter of wearing clean underclothes. By the late twentieth century frequent – often daily – bathing had become the norm and wearing freshly laundered clothing the general practice. Cleanliness, once simply a requirement for good health, became an essential element of beauty. Beneath this transformation lay a sea change in understandings, motives, ideologies, technologies, and practices, all of which shaped popular habits over time. Peter Ward explains that what began as an urban bourgeois phenomenon in the later eighteenth century became a universal condition by the end of the twentieth, touching young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and country residents alike.

Based on a wealth of sources in English, French, German, and Italian, The Clean Body surveys the great hygienic transformation that took place across Europe and North America over the course of four centuries.

Many thanks, Peter. Your post illustrates the challenges of historical research into more intimate and personal matters. It’s intriguing to see how something as basic as bathing has evolved over the centuries. 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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