Clean: a history of personal hygiene and purity. By Virginia Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007. xii + 457 pp, illus. £16.99. ISBN 0 19 9297797.


In Samuel R. Delany’s 1968 science fiction novel Nova, one of the characters claims that centuries of the expenditure of ‘an incredible amount of time and energy keeping things clean…. ended when the last communicable disease finally became not only curable but impossible’, since ‘after contagion became an obsolescent concern, sanitation became equally obsolescent’. In Clean Virginia Smith encourages us to query whether it is ever possible that humanity will manage to overcome its deep visceral feelings of disgust over dirt and disorder. The evidence she adduces and the arguments she makes lead us to hypothesise that cultures in the future, as well as those of the past, will continue to erect taboos delineating the pure from impure, the dirty from the clean, and manifest repugnance towards any violation of these boundaries.

Important theoretical studies such as Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process and Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger have analysed how humans have categorised certain substances and behaviours and even whole groups of people as ‘dirty’, and the extent to which civilisation has been built on enforcing and elaborating this categorisation, and there have been various anecdotal studies on personal hygiene and domestic sanitation. But as Smith points out in her introduction to this fascinating and far-reaching study to one of the things that makes us human, there has been remarkably little written about the history of personal grooming and care for the cleanliness of the immediate environment.

            It is almost impossible to disentangle the history of bodily hygiene from less material ideas of purity, whether in the notion that cleanliness is next to godliness, or the converse arguments of the ascetics and puritans, that the sensory pleasures involved in personal grooming and cleanliness were a dangerous distraction from achieving religious transcendence, if not innately sinful in themselves. Smith suggests that ‘patriarchal ascetic Puritanism’ has effectively occluded a long history of grooming and cosmetic care, out of hostility towards ‘its very close and happy associations with beauty, women and sex’. The Puritans perhaps thus framed their suspicion of the pleasures of something that Smith compellingly suggests has deep roots in our primate origins.

Although she has largely confined herself to these issues within the standard trajectory of Western Civilisation (apart from some consideration of proto-human origins), Smith has made the decision to take a long and broad overview of the complex intersections between bodily care, cleanliness, purity and hygiene, and carries this enormous and intricate task off very effectively. She makes the substantive point that these matters have a long history and that there is ‘datable... traceable’ evidence for human practices of cleansing and grooming in spite of their ‘well-hidden history’. She gives us a vivid picture of the 'Stone Age convenience and comfort' (p 26) of the Neolithic settlement on Skara Brae in the Orkneys, with its stone shelving, water tanks, built-in hearths and external drop-latrine. We are cautioned against the notion of overall progress to a state of hygienic cleanness and decency, something which current concerns over MRSA, and the importance of attention to routine measures of good personal and environmental hygiene, underline.

            A point that might possibly be more forcibly made is the extent to which the tasks of ensuring cleanliness and order within the immediate environment have consumed women’s time and energy throughout recorded history: which may be one reason for the historiographical neglect of this subject. Was this labour, we wonder, altogether compensated by the sensual pleasures of tending to the body Smith so eloquently evokes? It is possible to make a counter-case suggesting that grooming and cosmetic care have involved practices such as painful depilation and caustic hair-dyes (not to mention bodily modifications to make women conform to cultural ideas of beauty).

It is possible to dissent from her suggestion that the nineteenth and early twentieth century spa and hydro culture went into decline during the interwar years, only to experience resurgence of recent decades as the health retreat, since there is significant evidence that these continued to flourish and to engage with new forms of health and bodily culture such as radiation and hormone therapy as well as sun-bathing and colonic irrigation throughout the interwar period. We might, in the case of contemporary spa and beauty culture, be intrigued by the evocation of tradition (along with the exotic) in the various body therapies now on offer, even if no-one seems to be reviving the classical arts of massage Smith describes.

            A huge amount of material has been summarised in very readable fashion in Clean,, and although in her Introduction Smith mourns the amount of evidence she has been compelled to omit and the passages of close interpretation that ended up on the cutting-room floor, she has nonetheless still managed to incorporate many tellingly vivid details along with her sophisticated interdisciplinary analysis.


Wellcome Library. London                                                                 LESLEY A. HALL