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  • The Clean Body: A Modern History by Peter Ward
  • Jonathan Reinarz

The Body, Cleanliness, Hygiene, Germ Theory, Popular Culture

Peter Ward. The Clean Body: A Modern History. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019. 336 pp.

This book is about clean bodies, or dirty bodies that became cleaner over the past two centuries. If reduced to two broad themes, it focuses on both bodies and the clothes that envelop them. The period itself is broken down in a way that considers the influence of certain individuals as a modern obsession with cleanliness took root in the West. Initially, cleansing rituals appeared to mirror those of the middle and upper classes, before the emergence of the germ theory from the 1880s suggested science and medicine might equally inform these debates. Schools and other institutions, not least public baths, played a large part in disseminating hygienic practices, but so did the makers of soap, who reminded people, when their acquaintances were presumably too polite, that they might not be as clean as they thought. Collectively, these actors made a condition that appeared a privilege at the outset of the nineteenth century an entitlement, if not an obligation, by the end of the last century.

The Clean Body opens, like many histories of smells and fragrances, with a malodourous monarch, in this case Louis XIV, who reputedly took only two baths during his entire reign, the first when recovering from a bout of convulsions, an exercise that was repeated a year later. If his Highness appeared relatively clean, it was largely due to the routine of changing royal garbs that wiped away dirt and sweat, and morning ablutions of his hands and face with spirits of wine. Concepts of cleanliness, Ward reminds us, were about keeping up appearances, and new practices would be gradually added to such ceremonies. Not surprisingly, many stemmed from religions rituals, including baptism and blessings, which involved water being splashed about in ways that emphasised its purifying powers. That said, immersing oneself in water in the early 1800s might equally provoke anxiety. Modesty also played a part in hindering bathing routines. As a result, many laborers were more often bathed in sweat, which removed grime as effectively, especially when the cost of washing made baths inaccessible to most people, except perhaps those admitted to hospitals or poor houses (who were cleansed on admission). Given such restrictions, the well-groomed body became associated primarily with those of a certain social standing, but habits gradually changed.

The emergence of the word "sanitary" is regularly associated with Edwin Chadwick, who preached about unhealthy towns around the time the first public bath in the UK was established in 1842; Buckingham Palace did not even have a bathroom when Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. By 1904, at least 19 American cities boasted year-round public baths, though used by less than 1% of the population. Only 3% of Parisian homes had a bathroom by 1900. If you were lucky enough to live in model villages built by UK industrialists in Port Sunlight or [End Page 348] Bournville (as this reviewer does), workers might have enjoyed the luxury of a bath. Many other families waited decades until their homes were connected to local water mains, and shared toilets became common. Ordinary men were most likely to take up the habit of bathing when in the army, or prison.

If your neighbors appeared visibly clean, you likely spotted them soon after la grande ¡essive, the great wash, a tradition that continued in France into the twentieth century. The bateaux-lavoirs along the Seine, made famous by Picasso and other artists making their homes there, were businesses that improved water access for those keen to launder. Laundresses employed there and elsewhere were soon made famous by writers like Zola, whose Gervaise Macquart remains one of the most familiar portraits of Parisian working-class life. Among London's wealthiest families, laundry charges made up 4% of household expenses (p.104). Europe's soap industry was in fact centred on London (and Marseille), where many candle makers diversified into products with a rising demand. Sales of Lever Brothers' soaps funded the construction of Port...


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pp. 348-350
Launched on MUSE
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