Sunday, August 8, 2010

The History of Hygiene

Whether you call us "Western Civilization" or "European Culture," we're pretty clean people: we take showers and baths, and between those, we wash our faces and hands. We shampoo our hair, and wash our clothes and dishes. We clean our houses and wash our cars. How did we get to be this way?

We started off well: the Greeks and Romans were clean folk, who bathed regularly.

Despite the stereotypes, the Middle Ages were also a clean time: people took a dive into the nearest river or pond, scrubbed themselves clean, and washed their clothes as well. In fact, soap-making was a big deal in the Medieval Era.

Soap-makers were members of a guild in the late sixth century. Karl the Great ("Charlemagne") even wrote about soap: a Carolingian document, dating to around 800, and sometimes attributed to Charlemagne, mentions soap as being one of the products the stewards of estates are to tally. Soap-making is mentioned both as "women's work" and the produce of "good workmen" alongside other necessities such as the produce of carpenters, blacksmiths and bakers. Although some historians have mistakenly called them the "Dark Ages," these were, in fact, pretty sanitary times.

But then we got dirty. Those murky segments of time known by various names - the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Ideas, the Age of Reason, etc. - were years in which people relied more on a dash of cologne or some white powder on the face than on actual washing.

Professor Lynn Thorndike, at Columbia University, writes that "Francis Bacon tells us that people bathed less in his time than they used to do."

How did our culture ever get clean again?

As the English expanded their colonization efforts, they encountered fastidiously clean cultures in southern Asia (India) and eastern Asia (China). Through contact with these cultures, the English learned, or re-learned, the habits of cleanliness. From England, the trend spread to Europe. And from Europe, to the Americas, to Australia, and other outposts of Western Civilization.

And so we are clean!