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The joy of dirt: Why cleanliness may be going out of fashion

Dec 17th 2009 | PARIS

From The Economist print edition


Grub, filth, grime, muck, gunk, slag, grit, grunge, smut, dross, dust, sludge, squalor. Insulted, hounded and despised, dirt these days has nowhere to hide. A constant shower of advertising and health warnings orders you to scrub, cleanse or purify every corner of the body, office or home. Bugs lurk at every turn. Skin, as much as household surfaces, must be scoured, sterilised and sprayed. The latest scare is the computer keyboard: supposedly it contains nearly 70 times more microbes than the average lavatory seat.


The effort to remove dirt, and imbue bodies and bathrooms with the scent of tangerine, mint or almond instead, is big business. Each year, the world spends $24 billion on soap bars or liquid gels and wash, according to Euromonitor International, a research firm. Another $106 billion goes on cleaning laundry, dishes, lavatories and other surfaces, including the baths and showers the bodies themselves get scrubbed in. Shock studies periodically expose and deplore sloppy habits. Fully 76 per cent of kitchen sink cloths are infested with germs. One in three American men does not wash his hands after using a public lavatory. Worries about the spread of swine flu are currently doing wonders for the market in pocket-sized antimicrobial handwash.

There is nothing fixed, however, about Western fascination with dirt-or terror of it. As recently as 1965 only half of British women wore an underarm deodorant. Back in 1940 just over half of American households had a proper bathroom. In 1951 nearly two-fifths of English households lacked a bath-and not only for reasons of post-war poverty.

Regular all-over bathing, elaborated in ancient Greece and Rome and celebrated in luxurious contemporary ensuite bathrooms, was distrusted for about 400 years in the second millennium. Water was thought to carry disease into the skin; pores nicely clogged with dirt were a means to block it out. In the 17th century the European aristocracy, who washed little, wore linen shirts in order to draw out dirt from the skin instead, and heavy perfumes and oils to mask bad smells.

The meaning of dirt is as slippery as a bar of wet soap. Attitudes to hygiene in the West have evolved not only with modern medicine and microbiology. The history of cleanliness is also the story of the development of household appliances and furnishing, of mass consumer marketing and global brands.

Too posh to wash

Paradoxically, it was fear of disease, including syphilis and the Black Death, that put water out of favour, as Virginia Smith explains in “Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity”. A particular danger was thought to lie in public baths, reintroduced to Europe by crusaders returning from Turkey and the Arab world, and which had become popular in medieval Germany and Switzerland, as well as Florence, Paris and to a lesser extent London. Medical opinion had it that such exposure to hot water could open up the skin and let the plague, or other ills, in. Moralists also denounced depraved behaviour in the baths. By 1538, François I had closed the French bath houses. Henry VIII shut the “stews” of Southwark in 1546.

Thus began an era when rich folk and poor rubbed along with dirt just fine. Even private baths were judged suspect. According to meticulous notes kept by Jean Héroard, the French court physician, the young Louis XIII, born in 1601, was not given a bath until he was almost seven. Throughout the 17th century, writes Georges Vigarello, in “Le Propre et le Sale”, it was thought that linen had special properties that enabled it to absorb sweat from the body. For gentlemen, a wardrobe full of fine linen smocks or undershirts to enable a daily change was the height of hygienic sophistication. Racine and Molière owned 30 each.

Indeed, bathing, certainly in hot water, was considered a veritable health risk. France’s Henri IV was famously filthy, “stinking of sweat, stables, feet and garlic”. Upon learning that the Duc de Sully had taken a bath, the king turned to his own physician, André du Laurens, for advice. The king was told that the poor man would be vulnerable for days. So a message was dispatched informing Sully that he was not to go out, or he would endanger his health. Instead, he was told, the king would visit his Paris home: “so that you come to no harm as a result of your recent bath.”

In England, Elizabeth I bathed only once a month and James I, her successor, seems to have washed only his fingers. One medical pamphlet printed at the time by Thomas Moulton, a doctor of divinity and Dominican friar, advises particular caution during outbreaks of the plague: “use no baths or stoves; nor swet not too much, for all openeth the pores of a manne’s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloude.”

The myth of the danger of water was long-lived, and its demolition during the 18th and 19th centuries protracted. Louis XIV had sumptuous bathrooms built at Versailles but not, explains Mathieu da Vinha in “Le Versailles de Louis XIV”, in order to clean the body. Valets rather rubbed his hands and face with alcohol, and he took therapeutic baths only irregularly. Yet a century later Napoleon and Josephine both relished a hot bath, and owned several ornate bidets. In “Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing”, Katherine Ashenburg notes that bathing was tied to diplomacy: the more tense the moment, the longer the soak. As the Peace of Amiens fell apart in 1803, Napoleon lay in the tub for six hours.

The quest for cures helped to bring water back into fashion. Europe’s aristocracy took the waters at mineral spas, often on the sites of former Roman baths, to subject the ailing body to water treatment, rather than to cleanse away dirt. During the 19th century, germ theory combined with foreign trade, colonial administration and travel spread all manner of new ideas: hammams from Turkey and north Africa, “champu” (shampoo) from India, or bidets and olive-oil-based savon de Marseille from France. Water, and hygiene, were trickling back, and dirt was the new pest.

Suds you like

The English language demonises dirt. It is packed with phrases such as “to do the dirty”, “to dish the dirt” or “dirty money” or “dirty word”. In England, policemen are denounced as “the filth”. All politicians seek to avoid “washing their dirty laundry in public”. Those of humble origins were born “dirt poor”, and the wealthy are often “filthy rich”.

Getting rid of dirt, or merely its absence, by extension, is a good thing. “A clean bill of health”, “a clean record”, “clean sweep”, or “good clean fun” evoke wholesome flawlessness, renewal or order. The act of washing, whether of a corpse in Jewish culture or of the hands and feet of the happy couple in a Hindi wedding ceremony, carries ritual symbolism in many cultures and faiths. Many religions link ablution to absolution.

Such associations seem to have penetrated deep into the Western imagination. “In cleaning”, writes Mindy Lewis, editor of a recent collection of essays entitled “Dirt”, “we make sense of our lives, sort our messes, restore order to our psyches, work out our anger and frustration, rediscover the beauty in our lives, and express our love for (and resentment toward) others.” Cleaning away dirt, her contributors suggest, can be healing or oppressive, comforting or obsessive, or each of these at different times.

One essayist in “Dirt” describes how her neurotic desire to keep her house spick and span led to the break-up of her marriage: “For me, the act of cleaning house came to represent my endless pursuit of control, in a life where virtually none existed.” Another contributor explains how cleaning became an expression of self-worth. “The truth is, cleaning gives me a sense of purpose at times when it doesn’t seem like I have a role in this world,” she writes. “At home, there are always things to be dusted, sucked up, disposed of.”

Plainly, today’s aversion to dirt has some scientific basis. Ever since Louis Pasteur in France and Robert Koch in Germany developed the germ theory of disease in the 1860s and 1870s, basic hygiene has helped to curb the spread of disease. The discovery lent scientific credibility to the work of 19th-century sanitary reformers, whose early efforts had had only mixed success. At the time, indifference to dirt was widespread. “Of all the civilised nations, ours is one of those which cares least about cleanliness,” declared a report commissioned by the French Ministry of Public Education in 1884. It went on: “even among the well-to-do classes, strict bodily cleanliness does not always extend beyond the visible parts of the body.” As for the rural poor, it points to the “terror that the recommendation of a bath inspired in most peasants.”

By the end of the 19th century, public-health reform had led to the building of public baths and wash houses, once common in medieval Europe. New York City constructed 25 public baths in the Progressive era, a time when waves of poor immigrants from Europe were arriving. “The greatest civilising power that can be brought to bear on these uncivilised Europeans crowding into our cities lies in the public bath”, declared the Chicago Free Bath and Sanitary League in 1897.

By itself, the construction of public baths was not enough to persuade people to go and wash in them. George Orwell wrote about working-class life in the industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire in 1937, in “The Road to Wigan Pier”, and claimed that basic hygiene was uncommon. Some houses, he suggested, “were so appalling that I have no hope of describing them adequately:

A tub full of filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and pieces and pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper!

As Orwell goes on to ponder the question, “do the ‘lower classes’ smell?”, he points out that: “the habit of washing yourself all over every day is a very recent one in Europe, and the working classes are generally more conservative than the bourgeoisie. But the English are growing visibly cleaner, and we may hope that in a hundred years they will be almost as clean as the Japanese.”

Just as public-health reform in 19th-century industrial England and America concentrated on the need for basic hygiene, so do today’s efforts at curbing disease in the poorest bits of the world. Pumping clean water into villages and slums, and encouraging hand-washing is considered one of the most efficient means of reducing infant mortality. Each year, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 3.5m children die from diarrhoea or related diseases that could be prevented by simple hygiene.

George Orwell goes on to ponder the question “do the ‘lower classes’ smell?”

Yet, in the West, standards of cleanliness seem to have moved beyond science into the realm of fashion and fad. Certainly, the array of sprays, gels and lotions, to be applied in vast shrine-like bath tubs or under today’s power showers, would have appalled much of Europe for most of the past millennium.

In 1879 a mid-western American entrepreneur named James Gamble launched a gentle, all-purpose white soap bar. Harley Procter, the son of his associate, named it “Ivory”, and it is one of Procter & Gamble’s best-selling soap brands today. America led the crusade against dirt. Better plumbing, a taste for innovation, and a mission to civilise immigrants all played a part. In the last decades of the 19th century, writes Ms Ashenburg, “cleanliness had become firmly linked not only to godliness but also to the American way.”

In Finland and other Nordic countries, the culture of the steam sauna kept up levels of hygiene. But, in general, with their cranky bathroom plumbing and indifference to body odour, Europeans were considered irredeemably backward. There seemed to be no end, by contrast, to the inventiveness of American firms when it came to setting new hygienic standards. All-over washing, the application of deodorant, the shaving of armpits, dental mouthwash: each was transformed into essential rituals for the self-respecting modern American woman.

“But I’m 31…I’ll never get married now!” wails Frances, a glossy-haired young woman leaning forlornly against a tree, in a 1936 advert for Lux soap in the Woman’s Home Companion. Fortunately, her girlfriend has a tip to help her win back her beau: washing her underwear in Lux. “Avoid Offending!” instructs the ad. “Many girls lose out on friendship, romance, happiness-because of one shocking, unforgivable fault…perspiration odour in underthings.” Thanks to Lux, Fran learned to wash her underwear in fragrant suds, and thus to hold on to the man of her dreams.

American soapmakers devised an ingenious way to market their product. They sponsored drama series on radio, and later television, designed for the suburban housewife, known as soap operas. Procter & Gamble was behind “The Guiding Light”, first broadcast on radio in 1937, and which became the world’s longest-running soap opera. Lever Brothers and Colgate-Palmolive were also enthusiastic sponsors.

A spotless body went hand in hand with a spotless home. The post-war move to the suburbs, and the spread of fitted kitchens and bathrooms, supplied ever more surfaces to be scrubbed and wiped. The mass production of the automatic washing-machine freed women, or their staff, from many hours spent elbow-deep in the laundry sink. Advertisements, usually featuring a man in a scientific white coat and an enthralled housewife, repeatedly raised the bar: clothes needed to be whiter than white, fabrics ever softer, surfaces to sparkle and shine.

Dirt-hounding has even become a spectator sport, judging from the success of prime-time reality-TV shows, such as Britain’s “How Clean is Your House?”. In this series, Kim and Aggie, the queens of clean, descend upon suspect houses armed with mops, scourers and wagging fingers. When swabs from surfaces reveal stratospheric levels of bacteria, up go howls of disapproval and in comes the industrial cleaning equipment.

Dishing the dirt on clean

These days, marketing has turned to the need to get rid not just of dirt but stress too. Bathrooms have become temples of relaxation. Mosaic tiles and sunken baths nod to Greek and Roman inspiration; organic bath essences promise spa-like regeneration. Americans still buy more bars of soap than Europeans each year. But, if liquid washes are included, Europeans today only just trail Americans in spending per person.

Attitudes to dirt still vary hugely. To the bafflement of visitors, the French ban baggy swimming trunks from all public pools on hygiene grounds, insisting that skin-tight attire is cleaner. The British and Argentinians are particularly assiduous about putting on deodorant, says Unilever, which makes the stuff; but Asians, including the Japanese, far less so. Whereas an average of 72 per cent of men in 12 big countries worldwide wear deodorant, says one study, only 14 per cent of Chinese men do.

This could, however, just be a matter of time and income. Between 2007 and 2012, sales of bath and body products will jump by 21 per cent in Asia, making it by then the world’s biggest market, according to Euromonitor. As more people move to cities or out of slums, into homes with hard floors, lavatories and plumbing, so the crusade against dirt wins new recruits. “Between now and 2015 there will be an extra 400m toilets,” notes Keith Weed, head of home-care and hygiene at Unilever, with enthusiasm: “The more toilets, the more surfaces that need cleaning.”

Today, the message is not just to disinfect surfaces but to avoid contact with them at all. There are automatic-flushing lavatories, foot-operated taps and strange-looking devices that enable you to open door-handles by applying pressure with the forearm. “With all the advances in restroom hygiene, it’s hard to grasp why the door handle has been so universally ignored,” declares a maker of such products. Japanese high-tech lavatories have a built-in temperature-controlled nozzle that squirts water to wash your bottom, then dries it with warm air, delivering a “hands-free clean”.

Has the persecution of dirt, however, gone too far? Some immunologists believe that children now growing up in hyperclean, sterile environments are failing to develop immune systems properly because of inadequate exposure to bacteria. This idea, known as the hygiene hypothesis, is a possible explanation for growing incidences of eczema and other allergic diseases in rich countries, which are rare in poorer ones. Various studies have shown that children growing up with older siblings, who bring germs into the house, or on farms, where they come into daily contact with animals, muck and unpasteurised milk, are less likely to develop hay fever or asthma, though the scientific evidence is not conclusive.

A recent experiment by dermatologists at the University of California, San Diego, suggests a molecular basis for the hygiene hypothesis. They found common bacteria living on the surface of skin that can help wounds to heal by releasing a special molecule to stop outer-skin cells getting inflamed. Bacteria-free skin, in other words, may provoke inflammation and slow healing.

First-time parents, writes Mary Ruebush, an American immunologist and author of “Why Dirt is Good”, frantically try to keep their babies away from dirt. “When that pacifier falls on the floor, the parents cannot throw themselves on it quickly enough to wash it off, soak it in bleach, run it through the dishwasher, the microwave, you name it.” The trouble is, she adds, such a baby will not have the contact with germs that are needed to build up a strong immune system. Children rather should be encouraged to play in the dirt.

The idea is gaining some ground. Unilever, for instance, has an advertising campaign for OMO, its laundry-cleaning brand, entitled “Dirt is good!”. The firm’s market research showed that mothers were frustrated by the message that dirty clothes are bad. “We wanted to reposition dirt as an expression of freedom,” explains Mr Weed. Let children get dirty, goes the message, safe in the knowledge that OMO will clean up afterwards.

Some researchers in Britain have even found what they think might be dirt that can make people happy. An experiment on mice showed that certain bacteria normally found in soil stimulated neurons in the brain that produce serotonin, which influences mood. The results, says Chris Lowry, at Bristol University, “leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt. ”From demon and pest to guarantor of happiness and childhood health? Not bad for humble grime.

Source: © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009

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