Review: Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing by Katherine Ashenburg

I have a confession to make. This modern obsession of cleanliness has somewhat passed me by – both in regards to the home and to the body. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from dirty but 2-3 showers a week, regular hand/face washing and daily clean clothes seem to suffice for me. I’ve never bought into this ‘need’ for 2 showers a day, face masks and portable hand sanitiser to be used in every day life. I’m neither dead nor sick (surprise surprise). I’ve always wondered, quietly, to myself, for fear of being thought of as a dirty harlot, whether I am more natural than others or just plain weird and so the blurb on that back of this delightful looking book pulled me in immediately (admit it – a good cover always helps).

Katherine Ashenburg does pretty much what the title suggests. The book details a seemingly well-researched and thoroughly referenced history of washing through Europe and America, starting with the Romans and ending, of course, with modern day. It is full of delightful little factoids that I will most definitely be repeating for a while (until they are pushed out of my memory by other dirty thoughts). From communal – even social – defecating to the belief that blocking the pores with dirt will prevent infection to the obsessive, unnatural cleanliness of modern Americans, this book provides an amusing, entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Occasionally, it is true that the narrative is a little jumpy and lacks a polished shine but these occurrences are few and far between and can certainly be forgiven when Ashenburg’s charming and passionate voice shines through. Even in the course of the more mediocre parts of history, particular the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when washing was distinctly average (extremes are far more exciting), Ashenburg’s personal delight and excitement by the things she has learned through her research is obvious and that in itself can create delight and at the very least, interest in the reader.

If you are interested in social history and enjoy an amusing and easily readable narrative, this fascinating little book is most definitely for you. It will take you on the roller-coaster of ever changing ‘clean’ rules and regardless of where you land in the ‘cleanliness scale’, it will show you that are most definitely not alone.

Note: Review first published on Goodreads.

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