views updated May 23 2018


Virginia Smith

In the mid-twentieth century, the subject of "cleanliness" was a footnote to the triumphant history of the British, European, and American public health movements, wherein progress in cleanliness was accepted as a foundation of modern life. Despite the devastation of two world wars and other, more local conflicts, Europe as a whole during the twentieth century was probably a cleaner, better housed, better groomed, less verminous place than in earlier centuries. This situation was largely due to unremitting public policies, high public expenditures on infrastructure and research, and ever-increasing consumer demands for luxury goods. Rats, lice, and fleas were subdued, children were shod and clothed, urban slums were demolished, open sewage was encased, pipes supplied water, skin diseases were treated effectively, vaccinations forestalled pandemic diseases, and general life expectancy increased. In addition during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Europe and then the United States became preeminent in net world exports and technical developments in hygienic artifacts such as pipes, ventilation systems, sanitary ware, medicines, perfumes, toiletries, clothing, and even architecture. Europe exported the Western hygienic lifestyle worldwide through its self-appointed "civilizing mission" in its colonies. After the missionaries and governors left, the architects and engineers remained.

As a twist in the history of European hygiene, the mid-twentieth century hubris about Western achievements in cleanliness began to fade. Oil spills; atmospheric pollution; food contamination through mass farming and marketing, notably the beef market; and macroenvironmental pollution of seas, rivers, lakes, and forests politicized a new generation of green activists. Many activists were products of postwar universities, but they were joined by church members, farmers, rural workers, and a substantial portion of the general public.


The academic debate on the history of hygiene in Europe has undergone various vicissitudes. For many years it was generally accepted that due to the Fall of Rome, the class to which hygiene had been addressed no longer existed, leaving hygiene in a dark age that lasted until the Enlightenment, leaving the main historical interest centered on the modern revival of hygiene, which began in the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1960s the topic had become loosely attached to what was then called "the standard of living" debate concerning the effects of the industrial revolution. In the 1970s the subject was wiped off the historical map by the new sciences of historical epidemiology and demography. According to those studies, the population rise was not determined by catastrophic filth-and-death rates but by proactive birth-and-marriage rates. While the impact of personal hygiene was assumed to be negligible, public hygiene only became effective in the late nineteenth century, following national sanitary reconstruction by the various European states. Mere personal cleanliness was relegated to the notoriously unscientific behavioralism as one of many secondary factors. It was a low point for cleanliness on the scholarly Richter scale.

In the late 1990s many historical certainties were challenged, notably by the French Annales historians, opening up new questions and sources in the history of cleanliness and hygiene. The pioneer German sociological historian Norbert Elias started in the 1930s to trace the development of the psychology of habits of "refinement" from the early Middle Ages through several hundred years of what he called the civilizing process. He ended his career with the study of the formal rituals of the royal bedchamber in the reign of Louis XIV. His work began to bear fruit in the 1960s with a new generation of French scholars (including Alain Corbin on the history of odors and the senses, André Guillerme and Jean-Pierre Goubert on the history of water, Guy Thuilliers and Françoise Loux on rural customs) and English social historians (such as Lawrence Stone on marriage and sexuality). Georges Vigarello, in Concepts of Cleanliness (1988), took up the history of cleanliness where Elias had left it (in a long footnote) and studied the change in grooming habits from 1400 to 1700. It is now generally accepted that there was a redrawing of social boundaries during this period toward intimacy and privacy.

There are two ways in which the Annales methodology can help fill in what are still the many gaps left in the long history of cleanliness. Firstly, a theory of multiple speeds, or levels of time, is helpful in accounting for the consistently recurring evidence of long-term temporal anomalies—the fact that ancient hygienic customs and technology coexist with modern hygienic customs and technology. Elias gave a good Annales description of levels of time existing simultaneously, like "a river with three currents running at different speeds. Seen in isolation the phenomena in each of these streams are unique, and unrepeatable. But in the context of differing rates of change, phenomena in a slower current are apt, from the position of a faster current, to seem immutable, eternally recurrent" (The Court Society, p. 14). The slowest current of all is the biogenetic timeframe, which helps harness the physical structure of the contemporary human body to those of its animal ancestors. The next slightly faster current is long-term human social development, which confirms the body-anthropologist's view that layers of social customs and training have polished or finished the original primate body. The fastest current is history as we generally record it, occurring over a few hundred years at most. Increasing historical interest in very early hominid societies and in long periods that left few or no written records (such as the Dark Ages) has tended to make Elias's original longue durée seem rather short, and will continue to question conventional assumptions about linear development and linear time.

The second major methodological change produced by Annales is that the subject of hygiene is clearly not confined to a single continent, as Fernand Braudel points out in The Structures of Everyday Life (1967). The chronology of the conventional texts on European hygiene is altered dramatically if world history is taken into account, particularly early world history. The worldview enables us to appreciate the effects of global climate and topography on hygiene, particularly the significance of the civilization-laden subtropical zones. In light of all this the start date of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European Renaissance is late and only relates to one end of the Asian landmass. Prehistory and ancient world history are the foundations on which all later European habits were built. Those foundations operated subliminally throughout this essay's three culturally distinct periods, the Middle Ages–Renaissance, the Reformation-Enlightenment, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This essay highlights four major themes, grooming, washing and bathing, house cleaning, and popular science. The bibliography of this article recommends sources that discuss precise details concerning this large subject.


The basic mammalian needs of the body have remained roughly the same since the Renaissance. People eat, defecate, sleep, work, and play according to the diurnal and seasonal phases of the sun and the moon. Human habits as nesting animals also have changed only slightly. People can still "nest" quite happily in a single room and, like animals, divide the nest into living quarters, or separate areas. The human sense of space is acute. Spatial ability is shown in the animal response of automatic recoil (disgust or loathing) from dangerous dirt and poison and in the danger zones and social exclusion zones practiced within and between species. Like other animals, humans constantly groom themselves. Mammalian grooming is triggered by chemical hormones and endorphins, which ease the body from its alert state into a necessary state of calm relaxation that has been called an opiate rush.

Thus biophysical human cleanliness is an initial judgment via the senses and a subsequent removal of any unwanted matter that is out of place. The anthropologist Mary Douglas drew attention to the psychology of defilement in Purity and Danger (1966) and showed how the physical separation from any designated form of dirt acts as a form of social control. Ancient purity rules drew certain social and physical boundaries in and around the body and were part of the classification (ordering divisions) of the cosmos and the social world. Language is a form of classification, and the Anglo-Saxon words "clean" and "dirty" are what linguists call basic level categorizations. The most elaborate and ritualized clean-dirty boundaries or social exclusion zones were devised within the world's ancient religions. Pollution theory and divisions of graded holiness featured more or less strongly in Buddhist, Hindu, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian religious rituals. Religious psychology appeared as a new rationale for hominid cleansing processes well before 5000 b.c. Subsequently, ideas of pollution were written down and thus entered theology.

Zoological evidence suggests, however, that the hierarchical social model predates the hominid experience. Zoologists have seen exactly how social allogrooming (grooming by others) becomes an exercise in social organization and control. Primates order a grooming hierarchy according to kinship, gender, and rank, and within this order they exchange services and social favors. For instance, the alpha male and alpha female receive the most grooming attention. In a challenging argument, the primate ethologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the social requirements of communal grooming may well have led to early forms of language—vocal grooming or gossip—as larger hominid groups literally struggled to stay in touch. Much of this zoological evidence fits well with the archaeological evidence suggesting that grooming was also a major preoccupation of early Neanderthal groups.

The history of bathing, the wet toilette beloved by humans and other bare-skinned animals, reveals a further interrelationship between biological continuity and social change. Public bathing has a long history in Europe and formed, in Britain at least, a springboard for sanitary reforms in the nineteenth century. River worship, lustral baths, and holy wells have an ancient pedigree, and they also were connected with healing. On all the continents communal bathing in the world's natural hot springs and hot mud wallows was one of the earliest pleasures of hominids and other species. In Europe as elsewhere tribal festivities often lasted for days. The thermae (hot springs) of the southern Mediterranean (Italy and Turkey) and the hot volcanic springs of northern Europe (especially Germany, Hungary, and Russia) were in use in the Roman period and later became spas. Where no hot springs existed, tribes on all continents, including the Irish and the Finns in Europe, improvised man-made sweat huts of wood, stone, mud bricks, or thick vegetation, heated inside by small fires or hot stones. Participants followed the sweat with a cold dip in a river, a lake, or a snowdrift. This technique was fully refined in the Roman baths' technology of fierce heat and plunge pools.


After the Pax Romana ended, civic life disintegrated in the western parts of the Roman Empire. According to Inge Nielsen, a historian of Roman baths, one of the first economic indicators of decline in imperial towns was the failure to maintain the costly public baths. The northern European tribal farmers were not by custom town dwellers. Instead, Europeans built ancient hydraulic devices, such as lavers (washhouses); latrines; conduits; black, white, and gray water drainage; tanks; sumps; and cesspits, into monasteries, castles, palaces, and the small urban areas of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Domestic refuse systems (inflow and outflow) had been developed during the prehistoric millennia, and the dry sewage system, recycling or scavenging collected waste into fuel, fodder, and fertilizer, was used consistently in all rural and semirural areas. Well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the majority of rural or semirural peoples, resembling their nomadic ancestors, lived in a single room with an annex, in which nothing was wasted, all was recycled, and objects were few but essential. During the previous two millennia domestic storage systems and artifacts, such as chests, bags, boxes, barrels, urns, and bottles, and simple cleaning materials, such as sand, salt, soda, and soap, had come into use. In product terms, cleanliness was always a technical necessity, enabling possessions to work better, last longer, and look attractive. Though not luxurious, this life was not necessarily unclean. Good or adequate hygiene at all dates depended on the efficiency and good order of the individual household.

Body grooming is not usually featured in histories of human hygiene. In fact, the Greeks regarded it as merely cosmetic or superficial and did not consider it a science. Nevertheless, it was probably the occasion when most prehistoric and early modern bodies were thoroughly inspected and deeply cleaned. Primate ranking patterns connected with grooming were certainly transferred to hominid tribal units. The alpha male and alpha female primates correspond to tribal chieftains, kings, queens, and emperors. Almost all the basic European tools, skills, and cosmetic ingredients of grooming developed in the palaces of the subtropical Eurasian civilizations that existed from 5000 to 500 b.c. China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt initiated body-painting, scarification, tattooing, ornamentation of body parts, and oiling, bathing, powdering, painting, perfuming, robing, and floral decoration reached new heights in the courts of Nebuchadnezzer, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra, and at dinner parties in democratic Greece and republican Rome. The first Eurasian civilization on the European mainland was Minoan Crete (about 2000 b.c.).

The Mediterranean area had long abundantly imported and exported luxury products. Though commerce was reduced in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, which had produced safe trade routes and large markets, the east-west trade in rare oils, perfumes, paints, powders, and silks was protected by the Mongolian Empire and was sustained via Byzantium and the Silk Route up to the mid-fourteenth century. After that, European merchant venturers entered shipping. The ancient Asiatic toilette provides the background for later European cosmetics and beauty care, especially the courtly toilette. The towering wigs and headdresses of eighteenth-century aristocratic Europe echo those of aristocratic Middle Kingdom Egypt in 1500 b.c. The most famous recorded toilette of modern European history is that of the French King Louis XIV, who established the etiquette for his levée (arising) and couchée (bedding) in precise gradations of intimacy and patronage. Like his magnificent predecessors, he wore complete works of body art. The Sun King liked to dress in white satin, glitteringly ornamented, with his great fur-trimmed chieftain's cloak trailing on the floor. He was groomed by his retinue and controlled by his doctors, who always made a grand medical fuss about his bathing regimen.

Far from being careless and filthy, the majority of medieval and early modern populations were equally concerned with their health, beauty, and well-being. They practiced methods of dry primate grooming, keeping their skin clean and healthy by rubbing, combing, and annointing it with unguents. Numerous small physical actions and reactions, such as scratching, stretching, picking teeth, combing hair, rubbing eyes or skin, and inspecting feet, provided essential maintenance and care of the unusually bare hominid skin.

In colder regions much of the skin was protected with clothing. As French historians discovered, people talked quite a lot about clothing, especially during the white linen and undergarment explosion of the seventeenth century that Vigarello vividly portrayed. Clothing was considered a part of dry cleaning and part of the evacuatory system, as it absorbed perspiration and other bodily juices. "I pray you keep your husband in clean linen, for that is your business," ran the advice to a fourteenth-century goodwife. In addition she should provide baths for the feet, cut hair and nails, heal sores, feed, medicate, and generally offer a "remedy for every ill" (quotations from The Goodman of Paris, translated by Eileen Power, 1928). By the nineteenth century the immaculate, white linen marriage trousseau that French peasant girls kept could contain hundreds of items.

Daily primate grooming was enshrined in the first and most famous health poem, Regimen sanitatis salernitanum. An early medieval digest of six Greco-Roman nonnaturals of hygiene, air, exercise, evacuations, diet, sleep, and passions of the mind, the poem was widely copied in many vernacular European languages and circulated in both manuscript and printed forms. Under the heading of "Sleep," a late-medieval Scottish manuscript regimen suggests:

When a person rises in the morning, let him stretch first his arms and his chest and let him put clean clothes on and let him expel the superfluities of the first digestion . . . then let him rub his body if he has time . . . then let him comb his head and wash his hands out of cold water if it is summer and out of hot water if it is winter . . . and let him wash his eyes . . . then let him rub his teeth. (Regimen sanitatis, translated by H. Cameron Gillies, 1912)

Longer grooming sessions on the parts, hair dressing, nail cutting, body bathing, dentistry, and paintwork, were performed at different times of the day, or on certain days of the week, usually Fridays, Saturdays, or Mondays, before or after the days of religious observances. The male and female heads of households received most of the grooming attention, with or without domestic body servants. All members of the household took time out for festive grooming sessions before important personal rites, such as birthdays or marriages, and probably before the public holidays on the religious calendar.

Special grooming attention was paid to the old, to the young, and to adolescents during their rites of sexual display and courtship, when the body had to appear especially healthy and beautiful. As in antiquity, males could purchase body services, specifically the daily shave, from visiting barber-surgeons, in barbershops, or in bathhouses. The professional reign of barbers lasted from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. Thereafter barber-surgeons became medical surgeons and hid their old cosmetic skills. Delousing was a constant problem. Even with relatively sparse hair, humans offer plenty of opportunities for vermin or parasites, and the most obvious apelike traits humans exhibit are elaborate nit-picking or delousing grooming sessions. Intimate delousing was still common in the twentieth century. Communal delousing occasionally appears in European drawings and paintings from the medieval period onward and in rare literary reference. Similar practices certainly continued in remote rural areas in Russia during the nineteenth century.

Everyone aspiring to respectability in early European society regularly washed "the parts," especially the face and hands. From the earliest times European peoples washed and strip washed in basins or dipped in round tubs, inside or outside the house, depending on climate and custom. Domestic washing was quite distinct from domestic bathing or full immersion. Significantly bathing apparently was not on a daily or weekly rota but was on a calendar month or seasonal rota. Elizabeth I of England, like her bishops, had a monthly bath "whether she needed it or no." As Vigarello emphatically reported from French texts, Europeans widely believed that exposing the naked skin to air and water carried grave dangers, like catching cold, and the colder, temperate areas of Europe did not favor casual exposure of the body. Climate, topography, wealth, knowledge, personal preference, and bodily strength or habit determined bathing practices. On the whole, for most of this period bathing was regarded as an optional extra or a luxury, much valued when available. It was considered especially necessary for filthy and muscle-weary travelers, laborers, and people with certain medical conditions.

New domestic bathing arrangements began to appear between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, in Italy, France, and England the aristocracy engineered multiple water conduits and drainage systems and installed fixed stone baths and washbasins in their houses. They manufactured porcelain handbasins and, in France, bidets. In smaller town houses elongated portable tin baths gradually supplanted round wooden tubs. The first domestic, portable showers gained popularity during the nineteenth century.

The old traditions of public bathing for pleasure thrived in the Middle Ages. In the eastern Roman Empire, centered at Constantinople in Asia Minor (now Turkey), public baths were incorporated into Muslim culture when the rising Islamic empire took over those Roman colonies. Through contacts with Arabic baths and Arabic translations of classic texts on balneology, technical knowledge spread to medieval western Europe. Presented as an exotic luxury, bathing remained a part of medieval European court culture, as in the Islamic-style court of the Kingdom of Sicily, which was ruled by a Viking-Norman family during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The wife of the English king Henry II, Eleanor, originally from French Aquitaine, an old Mediterranean Roman province, made sure she had bathing facilities wherever she held court. Extant pictures depict medieval courtly bath feasts held as receptions for honored guests, with tanks set out in the open air. Similarly embroideries show court ladies bathing in tanks en pleine air (in the open air), guarded by female attendants.

The theme of recreational bathing carried into the many medieval town stews, barbers' hot baths, and the custom of "going to the stoves" (or "hot house") with groups of friends who brought in wine and food. In particular, recreational bathing often featured in marriage rites, and was strongly associated with love and courtship. Communal "stoving" remained popular in northern and eastern Europe during the twentieth century.

As to the vexed question of licentiousness, most ancient European public baths were closely controlled by Roman edicts, followed in the early medieval period by locally enforced laws. The early Christian church only condemned public baths that allowed the tribal habit of mixed bathing. Complaints about bawdiness and disorder increased during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even those houses that practiced single-sex bathing were affected by plague epidemics of increasing severity and by sexually contracted syphilis, which appeared in the 1480s. By the end of the fifteenth century, when fear of contamination drove many customers away, most local public baths closed. Hothouse bathing returned to London in the mid-seventeenth century under a new name, the bagnio.

The larger thermae and cold-water medicinal baths survived, particularly in Italy and Germany, and their healing powers attracted increasing medicoscientific observation. After 1553 multiple transcriptions of the Venetian Thomas Junta's authoritative work De balneis (1553), appeared in Latin, French, German, and English. De balneis comprises a directory of Italian and German mineral baths and a summary of classical and medieval scholarship on bathing. Balneology became a science and outdoor spa bathing an increasingly fashionable pastime for men and women.


During the millennium after the Fall of Rome, tribal populations in Europe slowly multiplied under the ancien régime and in other parts of the world. Toward the end of the eighteenth century the European population grew in a steep upward curve and this growth did not stop. Was the phenomenon attributable to additional food supplies, adaptation to microorganisms, vaccination, the growth of relatively stable political and economic systems; or public paving, drainage, pest control, and private baths? Microdemographic studies indicate that life expectancy was affected by innumerable factors, and improved personal and domestic hygiene were undoubtedly among them. The European hygienic mentalité developed more quickly between the seventeenth century and the twentieth century than it had in the previous eight hundred years. In some ways nothing changed, but in other ways everything changed, through simple accumulation: more people, more material goods, more words, and more ideas. The Renaissance supplied the words; the Reformation supplied new ideas; and new ideas extended consumer demand and fueled further expansion.

"Rational" hygienic science seems a product of the science of the Protestant North, ambivalently relating to and questioning the old southern masters for their own ends. The printing press was the key technological advance in the development. By the 1480s, during the Renaissance, a complex and coherent ancient scientific cosmology had existed in written form for approximately eighteen hundred years, and the early printers exposed as much as possible to public view and to the public purse. Alongside lucrative work for churches, literature and popular science were their mainstay. Throughout Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, the Greek hygienic doctrines of temperate regimen were translated from Latin into the vernacular, commented on, and above all experimented with. Seventeenth-century science focused the medical gaze on the body; in the eighteenth century, bodies were counted, measured, weighed, dissected, examined, and analyzed on an unprecedented scale as the scientific Enlightenment spread rapidly throughout Europe.

Many self-employed and semi-employed observers and experimenters in the seventeenth century found in the new "mechanical" or "chymical" physiology simply a new professional opportunity to extend their skills. But for others, especially in Protestant England, Holland, and Germany, the Reformation had touched everything and given natural philosophy a new moral stance. To be a "puritan" meant to take an ascetic view of life. The new science of hygienic physiology was interpreted as a resounding confirmation of God's work and natural proof of the Old Testament hatred of uncleanness and abominations. Like the practices of the Jewish and Christian sects of the late Roman period, with whom the puritans strongly identified, the observance of ascetic purity rules meant a great deal in the daily lives of many seventeenth-century sectarians. To take one example, the English Anabaptist Thomas Tryon (1634–1703) was a proponent of an ascetic cold regimen, advocating cleanly and godly vegetarianism, fasting, herbal remedies, bathing in cold water and air, and cool beds. He wrote seventeen books on godly hygiene for a new sectarian audience of middle- and lower-class tradesmen, artisans, and housewives. Tryon was just one among many medical Dissenters and visionaries of the period, a hotbed of Protestant ideas described by Charles Webster in The Great Instauration (1975). Many of these beliefs and publications crossed the Atlantic with people who settled in America. In Europe they worked their way quietly through eighteenth-century society in the form of a new moral earnestness and reemerged in the grass-roots religious revivals of the nineteenth century.

During the eighteenth century, hygienic ideas advanced on all fronts. By the late eighteenth century, British, French, and German physicians found a ready market for the new cool sanitary regimen, popularized at both ends of the century first by John Locke and then by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Protestant Britain it was well bedded in. Cool air found its way into the bedroom in the treatment of smallpox; swaddling bands were discarded, heating drugs were reduced, and cool vegetables found their way onto the table. Domestic cold-water bathing was widespread; it was later modified to more temperate warmth.

The regimen was completed by open-air sports. The Renaissance and Reformation gentry had already promoted sporting exercises such as tennis, golf, and bowls. The eighteenth-century hygienic renaissance added swimming, cricket, archery, wrestling, boxing, and horse-racing. Jogging and gymnastics came in at the end of the century; rugby and football arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. There was also open-air bathing. Cold river bathing became fashionable in Europe during the Renaissance, at a time when the old hot-water public bath system had broken down. Beginning in the late seventeenth century the British began dipping, like the Romans, in the sea. The bracing habit of cool-bathing in spas and coastal resorts spread gradually throughout northern France and Germany in the late eighteenth century, reaching the Mediterranean in the late nineteenth century, and linking up with the old spa bath trade, which was also booming in Germany, Italy, and France. In the mid-nineteenth century mountaintop hydros, or hydropathic treatment centers, were established across Europe following the cold-water-cure craze initiated by German balneologist Vincenz Priessnitz. Eighteenth-century cities like Bath, Brighton, and Budapest developed the mass leisure industries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All these towns and cities were notorious centers of conspicuous consumption and sexual display for the wealthy. Eighteenth-century Europe, following the French lead, developed the new hygienic fashion for clothes and lifestyle au naturel, throwing away their corsets, wearing white, and worshiping the ancient Greek purity of line that in architecture was called classicism. In late eighteenth-century Europe much of the increasingly massive gains of the various empires was being poured into housing. The rebuilding of European housing, replacing perishable materials, such as mud or wattle and daub, wood, and thatch with stone, brick, and slates, had begun in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was well under way by the eighteenth century. European architecture lavishly embraced newly designed hygienic conveniences in urban terraces and squares and in suburban villas, mansions, and palaces that slowly covered the countryside. Designs addressed ventilation, heating, cooking systems, larger windows, drainage, plumbing, indoor latrines and bathrooms, and new parks and gardens. The old seasonal and diurnal patterns of house cleaning were codified for the new gentry employers and employees in household manuals published in the mid-eighteenth century. Many new luxuries and new surfaces, carpets, wallpaper, silver plate, ormulu, and veneer, required care. In 1774 a London magazine, the Annual Register, complained of "Saturday and absurd cleanliness.... Each day we scrub and scour house, yard, and limb, and on SATURDAY, ye Gods, we swim!" (quotation from The Spectator, 1711–1714, edited by H. Morley, 1887, p. 192).

At the other end of the social scale, to have wooden boards or flag floors to scrub at all was, for many in the British Isles and elsewhere in rural Europe, still an unaffordable luxury. The metropolitan rage for cleanliness barely affected rural Scotland in the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson found the ancient Scottish hut life fully or partially preserved, a precarious survival depending on scant resources. Highland huts, Johnson observed in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), "are of many gradations; from murky dens, to commodious dwellings." "Gentlemen's huts" had plastered walls, glass windows, and wooden floors. The clash of cultures is vividly evoked in a wry observation:

Often . . . the house and the furniture are not always nicely suited. We were driven once, by missing a passage, to the hut of a gentleman.... When I was conducted to my chamber, I found an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets. The accommodation was flattering; I undressed myself, and felt my feet in the mire. The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened into a puddle. (p. 91)

These older ways of life long remained in rural areas of Europe barely touched by the cash economy. Partisans found the same situations in the Italian mountains in the 1940s. Earth floors were common in England and in many other European countries at the end of the eighteenth century. They were less common at the end of the nineteenth century and almost nonexistent in Europe at the end of the twentieth century, even at camping sites.


Utmost cleanliness, sensibility, and refinement had ruled the drawing rooms of the wealthy in the late eighteenth century, and the old smells and stenches of humanity had begun to be noticed. Greater personal hygiene, and an understanding of its natural causes, led inevitably to steps being taken in greater public hygiene, particularly where bodies were congregated together—notably in the prisons, the army, the navy, and in towns. A new theory of public hygiene at the turn of the century called it "medical police": the quality of public air (in France) and public water (in England) was increasingly discussed and scientifically analyzed. Cholera sharpened health issues in the mid-century. The first civic act was usually to provide paving for the streets; the problem of drainage was addressed next, and then housing. The management of the ever-growing suburban settlements and the removal of the unhygienic urban poor became one of the great political issues of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. Many of the oldest slums and rookeries were not dismantled until after World War II. The rennaissance of public hygiene in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was complex: the period of elaborate sanitary legislation in Britain, on the Continent, and elsewhere; breaking the codes of the microbiological system and conducting warfare on germs; national insurance schemes and the creation of the welfare state; and Darwininism, Spencerian eugenics, and social hygiene.

Added to this brew of politicians, scientists, and philanthropists was the new breed of religious sectarians that had returned to the old seventeenth-century ascetic beliefs and given them a new twist. From the late eighteenth century onward in Britain and Europe, radical therapies included homeopathy, mesmerism and phrenology, and a new raft of beliefs in "physical puritanism," which included macrobiotic vegetarianism, herbalism, cold-water bathing, air-bathing (i.e., nudism), antivivisectionism, cold-water drinking and teetotalism, and the temperance movement. Dissenters were also prominent in the working-class educational movements, initiating many books and lectures on popular science and popular physiology. The nineteenth century working-class utopia was certainly a hygienic one. In Britain, Quaker and Unitarian philanthropists, communitarian Owenites and early Socialists, and the muscular Christianity school of Anglican clergy promoted the sanitary ideal. The Garden City movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century espoused a similar hygienic utopianism.

The many naturist health sects and vegetarian societies of the 1850s, 1880s, 1900s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s sought the perfect body through healthy diet and exercise. In fact 1880–1950 was the great era of sports, not only mass, working-class sports but also sports for girls and women. Party-political sports flourished as well. The British Socialists were inveterate bicyclists and walkers, most progressive leagues had a naturist wing, but only the German Nazi Party had that particular blend of tribal body cult and Goethean vitalism.

Extermination of one's neighbors was no novelty in Europe, but the appeal to hygiene was. Bloodtie tribalism, complete with purificatory rites and boundaries, was rechristened racial purity by the Nazis and later was called ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. However, studies have shown that immigrant communities often suffer the same treatment from their host communities, which separate immigrants as "dirty foreigners." In all European colonies, the European immigrants turned host communities into an underclass on grounds of racial superiority. Most immigrants did not go so far as the puritanical Dutch apartheid system in South Africa, which was finally outlawed by world opinion and United Nations sanctions near the end of the twentith century.

The cult of the perfect body became in the second half of the twentieth century, perfectly commercial, and resoundingly secular, and unpolitical except for sexual politics. Dirt and torn clothes, punk, and grunge, became a sign of youthful rebellion. Bodies rarely stank as they had earlier, and the consumption of soaps and cosmetic products per head rose steadily after the 1870s. From the 1920s, first gas and then electricity revolutionized domestic appliances and domestic cleaning. Kitchens had been modernized once in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then again in the twentieth. The modern bathroom arrived with the piped domestic water supplies; at the end of the twentieth century the bathroom was even more well-equipped, but still filled with the same ancient luxury goods. From the 1950s a growing array of cleaning products appeared, mostly derived from the old pharmacopoeia, but less harsh, more perfumed, and increasingly repackaged in a new material, plastic, for consumer convenience: plastic tubing, pots, bottles, sprays, pumps, and so on.

The word "cleanliness" is rarely used in its moral sense and is usually applied to domestic and institutional hygiene. It certainly does not grip the poetic imagination as it did in the twelfth century Anglo-Saxon poem "Cleanness," in which beauty, purity, and cleanliness suggest a glittering, shining, wholesome, and radiant aesthetic with godlike attributes. Television broadcasts instead the daily soap operas, in which no dirt, dust, or facial blemishes are allowed on the screen.

The history of cleanliness is like an iceberg—much of it is submerged below the waterline. The Annales methodology has reconstructed what was previously invisible and has greatly extended the historical range. Many gaps in the evidence remain, among them the virtually untapped longue-durée history of bathing and cosmetic grooming; Greek, Roman, and medieval hygiene; and Protestant and Catholic hygiene and their local variants. Further research on the main contours of cleanliness will probably confirm much of what has already been written on the subject but in greater detail. Most likely, the economic history of cleanliness and hygiene will prove to be the real eye-opener.

See alsoThe Annales Paradigm (volume 1);The Population of Europe (volume 2);Public Health (volume 3).


Braudel, Fernand. The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible. Volume 1 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. Translation revised by Siân Reynolds. New York, 1981.

Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Leamington Spa, U.K., New York, and Berg, Germany, 1986. Translation of Le miasme et la jonquille.

Corbin, Alain. The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside, in the Western World,1750–1840. Translated by Jocelyn Phelps. London, 1995. Translation of Territoire du vide.

Corbin, Alain. Time, Desire, and Horror: Towards a History of the Senses. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass., 1995. Translation of Temps, le désir, et l'horreur.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, 1978.

Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. London and Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Elias, Norbert. The Court Society. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and New York, 1983. Translation of Höfische Gesellschaft.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, 1994. Translation ofÜber den Prozess der Zivilisation.

Goubert, Jean-Pierre. The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the IndustrialAge. Translated by Andrew Wilson. London, 1995. Translation of Conquête de l'eau.

Nielsen, Inge. Thermae et balnea. 2 vols. Aarhus, Denmark, 1990.

Shilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London and Newbury Park, Calif., 1993.

Stone, Brian, trans. The Owl and the Nightingale, Cleanness, St. Erkenwald. London, 1971.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. Rev. ed. London, 1979.

Times of London. The Times Atlas of World History. Edited by Geoffrey Barraclough. London, 1978.

Vigarello, Georges. Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since theMiddle Ages. Translated by Jean Burrell. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988. Translation of Propre et le sale.

Webster, Charles. The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626–1660. London, 1975.

Wright, Lawrence. Clean and Decent: The History of the Bath and Loo and of SundryHabits, Fashions and Accessories of the Toilet, Principally in Great Britain, France, and America. Rev. ed. London and Boston, 1980.


views updated Jun 08 2018

clean·ly • adv. / ˈklēnlē/ 1. in a way that produces no dirt, noxious gases, or other pollutants: the engine burns cleanly.2. without difficulty or impediment; smoothly and efficiently. [ORIGIN: Old English clǣnlīce (see clean, -ly2 ).]• adj. / ˈklenlē/ (-li·er, -li·est) archaic (of a person or animal) habitually clean and careful to avoid dirt. [ORIGIN: Old English clǣnlīc (see clean, -ly1 ).]DERIVATIVES: clean·li·ness / ˈklenlēnis/ n.


views updated Jun 08 2018

84. Cleanliness

See also 36. BATHING .

an abnormal desire to wash, especially the hands.
1. absence of bacteria of a harmful nature.
2. the techniques of achieving this condition. aseptic , adj.
an abnormal fear of being dirty.
an abnormal fear or dislike of slime. Also called myxophobia .
an abnormal fear of having an unpleasant body odor.
an abnormal fear of feces.
the process of elutriating, or purification by washing and straining.
freedom fromstainor blemish. immaculate , adj.
an abnormal fear or dislike of dirt.
1. a cloth or handkerchief for wiping sweat from the face.
2. a sudatorium.
a room where a sweat bath is taken. Also called sudarium .


views updated May 17 2018

112. Cleanliness (See also Orderliness.)

  1. Berchta unkempt herself, demands cleanliness from others, especially children. [Ger. Folklore: Leach, 137]
  2. cat continually washes itself. [Animal Symbolism: Jobes, 296]
  3. Clean, Mr. brand of household cleaner. [Trademarks: Crowley Trade, 379]
  4. hyssop Biblical herb used for ceremonial sprinkling. [Flower Symbolism: O.T. Psalms 51:7]
  5. Mary Mouse constantly sweeping and dusting. [Childrens Lit.: Mary Mouse and the Dolls House, Fisher, 216]
  6. Spic and Span brand of household cleaner. [Trademarks: Crowley Trade, 546]
  7. Wag-at-the-Wa brownie who is strict about neatness of houses. [Br. Folldore: Briggs, 425426]

Cleverness (See CUNNING .)