Are you one of those people with a little bottle of hand sanitizer on your desk? Did you know that most people didn't use soap to bathe themselves until the late 19th century? Katherine Ashenburg's new book, The Dirt On Clean: An Unsanitized History, is a history of cleanliness. Salon has an interview with Ashenburg, and if you're a germaphobe, prepare to be grossed out. In Ancient Rome, a man would oil his body, rub in with dust, and then go out in the playing field and work up a sweat. Then he'd pay someone to scrape off the sweat and dirt, and soak... in the public bath. In the early days of Christianity, Ashenburg says, "Cleanliness was kind of a luxury, like food, drink and sex, because cleanliness was comfortable and attractive. The holier you were — and this really applied to monks and hermits and saints — the less you would wash. And the more you smelled, the closer to God people thought you were." Buddhists and Muslims thought Christians were filthy, "and they were right."
When the great plagues came, the Black Death, in the 14th century, the king of France asked the medical faculty at the Sorbonne in Paris, "What is causing this hideous plague that is killing one out of every three Europeans, and what can we do to prevent it?" And the doctor said the people who were at risk for getting the plague had opened their pores in warm or hot water, in the baths, and they were much more susceptible. So in France and England and most European countries, for about five centuries, people really believed that it was very, very dangerous to get in water.
These days, from teeth-whitening strips to hand sanitizer, Americans are obsessed with cleanliness. Ashenburg explains that this development started with the Civil War — patient deaths were limited just by washing them and their linen, preventing infections. The idea of keeping clean caught on. "Cleanliness is democratic because it doesn't cost much money. It's progressive. It's forward-looking. It has wonderful results," Ashenburg explains.
Of course, many doctors and scientists believe we've gone too far — that we're not giving our immune systems enough dirt and germs, and therefore allergies and asthma take over. In fact, Ashenburg spoke to doctors who believe washing your hands is important, but claim there's no health benefit in bathing every day. "We've never needed to wash less in the developed Western countries, and we've never had more pressure to wash more. If your job is in front of your computer, and if you have a house full of labor-saving devices, you're not scrubbing floors too often, and if you have access to a car or public transit where you live, you're just not sweating the way that people did 50 years ago. But I think the daily bath is almost becoming the minimum. I'm hearing about more and more people who take two showers a day."
Why do we feel the need to be so clean? And isn't it crazy that our germophobia can actually be making us sicker? Save special conditions (camping, Burning Man, traveling in a foreign country), would you be able to start being dirtier in your everyday life? Could you take fewer showers? Ditch the hand sanitizer? Or do you just feel better when you're clean?