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The 'Dirt on Clean' in an Oversanitized World

Medieval Europeans weren't as smelly and sweaty as the modern-day world perceives them to be. Public bathhouses were very popular and the wealthy had private baths.

It was only in the 14th century — after the Black Death killed at least 25 million people — that the French determined that hot baths left people susceptible to illness. That belief would hold firm in Europe for the next 200 years.

In her new book, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, Katherine Ashenburg looks at the fascinating history of cleanliness — or the lack thereof — and how humans' obsession with hygiene has led to today's over sanitized world. Americans, Ashenburg writes, were just as grimy as Europeans until the Civil War. But the Union convinced citizens that good hygiene helped control disease.

Ashenburg looks across cultures at what constitutes a clean body. While some cultures consider body odor offensive, many find it acceptable and even sexy. Ashenburg relates Napoleon's directive to his wife, Josephine, to "stop washing" just five days before he returns to her in Paris.

Americans are obsessed with odor and washing, Ashenburg writes. Magazine ads from the 1930s warned women that they could be spinsters forever if they had body odor. The market is full of products to keep Americans germ-free, including padded covers designed to keep babies' hands off germ-laden supermarket carts. Modern irrigation and rainfall have allowed Americans to enjoy showers once a day, but climate change could alter bathing habits, Ashenburg warns.

Andrea Seabrook spoke with Ashenburg about the history of cleanliness and how Americans have taken hygiene to extremes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.