The History of Cleanliness

While the meaning of all the virtues has changed over time, the application of the virtue of cleanliness has perhaps fluctuated the most. We would probably be grossed out by your parent’s standard of cleanliness, and today’s standard would likely have disturbed them. Historically and up to the present day, ideas of what constitutes “cleanliness” has varied greatly.

For an ancient Egyptian or Babylonian, cleanliness meant showering with water from aqueducts or simply from servants pouring water on you. A soap made from ashes and animal fat was used. The Greeks created the first plumbed-in showers, and citizens showered outside at various spigots scattered throughout their countries.

For an ancient Roman cleanliness meant rubbing his body with oil and dust and then adding a layer of perspiration from a day of work or play. After he had built up a sufficient patina of bodily soil, he’d have someone scrape it off with a rake-like instrument. Next, he would take a series of baths-first lukewarm, then hot, then cold. This would all occur in public at a local bathhouse, a swinging place where he’d hang out for several hours. Soap was not typically involved in any part of the process.

For early Christians, cleanliness was not next to godliness. In fact, the dirtier you were, the more virtuous you were assumed to be. Cleanliness was considered a sinful luxury and thus monks and nuns who cared more for God than their earthly tabernacles avoided bathing to show their dedication to a holy life.  (When I read this I realized where some modern day people with whom I work got the idea of bad {stink} body ordours)

For Europeans in the centuries after the coming of the Black Death, cleanliness meant anything but a bath. To observers during the plague, it seemed that people often became stricken with the disease after using the bathhouse. The theory was advanced that bathing opened your pores and thus let in disease. A layer of dirt and odor was thought to stave off infection. Bathing became avoided like, well, the plague. It would not be until the 17th century when bathing would slowly come back into vogue.

Even then, for gentlemen in 17th century France, cleanliness meant the frequent changing of his linen shirt. It was believed that linen had a special wicking power that pulled dirt and impurities from the body like a magnet. Changing one’s shirt was thought to be as effective as a good scrubbing in the bath.

Frequent bathing and showering would not become popular until the mid-1800’s when the discovery of germs was coupled with advancements in indoor plumbing and shower technology.

But it would really be the purveyors of hygienic products that would continue up the ante of what cleanliness truly meant. As advertising became more prevalent in the early 1900’s, the producers of soap, deodorant, and toothpaste set out to convince a new generation of the Western world of problems they never knew existed. For example, it was Listerine’s advertising team, not dentists, who came up with the term “chronic halitosis” to describe bad breath. Whereas as bad breath had previously been thought of as a part of life, it then became a dangerous disease to be cured and eradicated. Likewise, toothpaste manufacturers made the frightening discovery of “film on teeth,” a phenomenon that had once gone completely unnoticed. The cure, of course, was daily and religious tooth brushing. Advertisements warned potential customers that any kind of body odor could spell a premature social death.

Sir Godfrey Gregg





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Author: Sir Godfrey Gregg

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