A review of The Clean Body: A Modern History by Peter Ward

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Clean Body: A Modern History
by Peter Ward
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Nov 2019, Hardcover, 336 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0773559387

Peter Ward’s new book, The Clean Body, is both scholarly and entertaining. Ward, a professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia, begins his modern history of bathing and cleanliness with a personal anecdote. Back in the 1970s, he interviewed his grandfather as part of an oral history project. Ward’s grandfather was a remarkable man who went west in the early years of the twentieth century and worked in mines in the Rockies, eventually becoming a hardware merchant in a small Alberta town. In the course of telling his grandson about his eventful life, he mentioned the matter of bathing. “You had a bath maybe once in six months,” he said. “We must have smelled to high heaven although I never noticed it.”

This remark piqued Ward’s interest in the changing standards of cleanliness from the mid-1600s to the present day. (Other historians, he notes, have studied Roman baths and other aspects of hygiene prior to this time period.)

“By the late twentieth century,” he writes, “regular handwashing, frequent bathing and wearing freshly laundered clothes had become routine for virtually everyone in Europe and North America.”

It wasn’t always that way, as Ward shows, using the examples of two men who were contemporaries in the mid-seventeenth century: King Louis XIV of France, and English naval administrator/diarist Samuel Pepys. Louis XIV had two baths in his long lifetime, both when he suffered from fevers. His only ablutions were rinsing his hands in scented water, and, every second day, wiping his face with a towel moistened in diluted wine. Similarly, Pepys bathed only when coerced by his wife, who liked the new public baths in London. Pepys has written in his diary about having his wife and servants comb the lice out of his hair.

Both King Louis and Pepys considered themselves to be clean people. Louis had servants rub him down when he sweated, and changed his clothes, particularly his underwear, several times a day. Washing the skin signifies cleanliness in our present age, but wearing clean undergarments and looking clean defined cleanliness in the 1600s. It was especially important that underthings that showed, like collars, neck ruffles and cuffs, looked white and clean.

By the close of the eighteenth century (1700s), bathing was gaining acceptance among the wealthy, as “a new form of personal care for a new form of the bourgeois self.” Cleanliness was seen as an indication of “good health, self-discipline and personal responsibility.” The middle classes were critical and disdainful of the unwashed rural and urban poor.

“A rising tide of condemnation marked the nineteenth century middle class hygienic revolution,” Ward notes. Fear that uncleanliness among the poor caused epidemics that could spread to the rich was combined with genuine concern for the health and well-being of the lower classes. Edwin Chadwick, reporting in 1842 on the sanitary state of the British working class, wrote that “ sound morality and refinement of manners and health are not long found co-existent with filthy habits amongst any class in the community.”

Ward’s chapters have intriguing titles like “Public Spaces, Private Places”, which includes information about the “public bath crusade” and bathing as a form of discipline in prisons and work houses. We learn that the bidet never became a standard bathroom fixture in England and North America, but was regarded as a “continental impropriety.” In “Making the Modern Clean Body” Ward notes that from the 1880s onward, the germ theory of disease provided a scientific argument in favour of cleanliness. In “The Soap Trade and the New Hygiene” we see how the soap and detergent trades expanded into personal hygiene products and commodified cleanliness.

The book is full of interesting nuggets of information; for instance, in 1814, the British Parliament banned nude bathing in the Thames. It includes thirteen illustrations, ranging from a late eighteenth century engraving showing members of a family picking lice out of each other’s hair, to a 1920s German advertisement for Persil detergent.

In conclusion, Ward poses the question, “Have we become too clean for our own good?” and points to the growing scientific literature regarding possible damage to our skin and immune system from contemporary body care practices. Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Should we return to the tradition of the Saturday night bath? Surely not to the standards of Louis XVI.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest book is an historical novel, Votes, Love and War, about the Manitoba women’s suffrage movement, and World War I (Ottawa, Baico, 2019, info@baico.ca)