History of the Everyday

I’ve always been particularly interested in the history of the everyday, the mundane, the intimate. After all, these are the most important places in our own experience, places where most of us live the greater part of our lives. Exploring them in past time offers us unique insights into our ancestors’ private moments as well as into the broader social forces that shaped their life routines. 

My recent book, The Clean Body: A Modern History, is a case in point. It explores a transformation in body care habits that took root in bourgeois western society toward the end of the 18th century and slowly extended its reach until, some two centuries later, virtually everyone everywhere in all social ranks had absorbed them. The whens, the wheres, the hows, and the whys of this process tell us much about the experience of individuals in industrializing societies, as well as about wider patterns of social change.

My interest in the commonplace has more personal roots too. I like the challenge of examining the past’s more dimly-lit corners, those little noticed by contemporaries and usually neglected by generations ever since. Historical customs and habits often lie in these forgotten niches, condemned to obscurity by their very normality. Because historical inquiry is based for the most part on written sources, it faces a challenge when trying to learn about things so unremarkable that they’ve seldom been written down. The history of personal cleanliness is such a topic. 

What follows is a list of eight books by Canadian authors (including one by me) that touch on this subject in one way or another. Some are closely related to The Clean Body while others are only remotely connected, some are recently published while others have longer histories of their own. But each has a link of some sort to the history of the clean body.

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The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg

With a wider panorama than my own book, The Dirt on Clean explores the history of cleanliness from the classical era to our own dear time. As well, like my study it offers a survey of western Europe and North America. In fact in some respects the two works overlap. In contrast, though, The Dirt on Clean is focused largely on bathing and it pays little attention to other aspects of personal hygiene. Katherine Ashenburg’s approach is richly anecdotal and her prose highly engaging. Her book’s many strengths rest more on description than on explanation. It’s also marked by a delightful sense of fun as she uncovers what, from our 21st century point of view, seem ironies and idiosyncrasies embedded in body care practices through the ages. 

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Book Cover Architecture in the Family Way

Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses, and Women, 1870-1900, by Annmarie Adams

Annmarie Adams offers us a feminist approach to the architectural history of the dwelling. She focuses on the interrelationships among feminism, health reform and design of middle class housing in England during the high Victorian age. In particular, houses became targets for doctors and health reformers in the course of the late 19th century plumbing revolution that introduced running water, toilets and baths into the dwelling. These innovations offered residents new conveniences but they also created new dangers for their health, that of women in particular. As Adams reveals, women faced unique dangers in their own homes because of their housebound vocations and their childbearing destinies, especially because at the time middle class children were usually born in their mothers’ homes. At the same time, many feminists became active agents of health reform through their growing influence on design of the bourgeois dwelling.

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A History of Domestic Space: Privacy and the Canadian Home, by Peter Ward

A History of Domestic Space was the departure point for my later work on the history of personal cleanliness. It surveys the leading spatial changes in Canadian housing since the early 17th century and explores how they affected families and individuals. It places special emphasis on privacy, in particular, for privacy is a basically a domestic creature, both shaping and shaped by the spatial layout of the dwelling. The book suggests that, over the past three centuries or so, opportunities for privacy within the home have varied widely, and with them the texture of daily household life. In particular, the gradual spread of the bathroom reflected the growing acceptance of new hygienic customs. At the same time, the flush toilet domesticated those bodily functions that had long been banished to the outhouse. Both developments heightened concerns about a new sense of privacy that touched on personal and family life, leaving a permanent mark on building design and technology as it did so.

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Book Cover Domestic Goods

Domestic Goods: The Material, the Moral, and the Economic in the Postwar Years, by Joy Parr

Since its publication in 1999 Joy Parr’s Domestic Goods has become a classic in Canadian historical writing. A wide-ranging inquiry into the evolution of consumer culture in Canada during the two decades after World War II, it explores three related themes: economic policy, industrial design, and household technology. Parr’s primary concerns lie in the dialogues that shaped each of these areas of activity, and she emphasizes the ways in which feminine experience often challenged—and frequently overcame—male claims to technical expertise. In a discussion closely related to my own interests, she uses the introduction of the automatic washing machine during the ‘50s and ‘60s as an example of the choices and constraints embedded in post-war consumerism. Though they ultimately embraced the new laundry technology, Canadians lagged Americans by the better part of a decade in replacing their old wringer washers with the new automatics, despite strong encouragement from the men who designed, made, and sold them. In Domestic Goods, Parr attributes this delay largely to the greater prudence and thrift of Canadian homemakers, then facing the many new choices open to them in the booming consumer economy of the period. 

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Book Cover The History of the London Water Industry

The History of the London Water Industry, 1580-1820, by Leslie Tomory

London, the world’s first global city, was also the first in the world to deliver water directly to private dwellings. Beginning in the late 16th century, several London water companies established networks of wooden pipes that connected suppliers with consumers and, by the age of the French revolution, over 80% of the city’s dwellings had a water connection of some sort. Most of the great cities of the western world had to wait at least another century for the same benefits and those in smaller places usually waited longer still. Leslie Tomory surveys this development in London in a detailed study that examines the economic and technological factors which shaped the industry’s growth, as well as the cultural and commercial forces that made the London experience unique in its time. The book isn’t a particularly easy read, but its breadth, its rich detail and its central importance repay the added effort. After all, the history of water is a major question in its own right and it’s one that all too often is neglected.

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The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage, by Jamie Benidickson

The humble sewer is another of the great technological achievements of the modern age. Among many things, we owe our good health to it, as well as the generally agreeable state of our urban environments. Its origins lie partly in the development of urban water distribution systems—the growing quantities of water used in turn produced growing amounts of wastewater too—and partly in the urban need to dispose of human and other wastes. The Culture of Flushing surveys its development in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom over the past two centuries. While preoccupied with the outcomes of the flush toilet revolution and the need to dispose of human wastes in a discrete, inoffensive manner, it also touches on the environmental, legal and public policy issues, combining them with a review of water quality issues in the recent past and cautionary concerns about our future water supplies.

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Book Cover So Clean

So Clean: Lord Leverhulme, Soap and Civilization, by Brian Lewis

William Hesketh Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, was one of Britain’s greatest modern industrialists. From a modest start in his family’s wholesale grocery business he built a commercial empire in soaps and detergents that spanned the western world. Brian Lewis’s So Clean is a short, lively biography of Lever and a brief history of his enterprise. It offers pride of place to Lever’s thoughts on subjects including soap making and advertising, mass marketing and industrial growth, labour relations and working class housing, as well as race and imperial expansion. Carefully crafted and limpidly written, So Clean offers a window on English society during the high tide of British industrialism and imperialism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Beyond Soap: The Real Truth About What You Are Doing To Your Skin and How to Fix It for a Beautiful, Healthy Glow, by Sandy Skotnicki

Sandy Skotnicki’s Beyond Soap speaks to the present and the future much more than to the past. A dermatologist, Skotnicki advises us all to question the claims the beauty industry makes for its soaps and creams, shampoos and conditioners. Unlike the radicals among the new cleanliness advocates—those who’ve abandoned washing almost entirely—she supports regular bathing, but only a simple shower or bath: just water, no soaps or shampoos. Her concern lies with the damage beauty products do to the skin in the name of personal hygiene. She advocates a common sense, minimalist, science-based skin care regime that relies heavily on nature (read regular exercise, a healthy diet, avoidance of smoking), though she does find a place in it for several sunscreens, a handful of moisturizers and a few body cleansers that seem to do more good than harm. 

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About The Clean Body

How often did our ancestors bathe? How often did they wash their clothes and change them? What did they understand cleanliness to be? Why have our hygienic habits changed so dramatically over time? In short, how have we come to be so clean?

The Clean Body explores one of the most fundamental and pervasive cultural changes in Western history since the seventeenth century: the personal hygiene revolution. In the age of Louis XIV bathing was rare and hygiene was mainly a matter of wearing clean underclothes. By the late twentieth century frequent—often daily—bathing had become the norm and wearing freshly laundered clothing the general practice. Cleanliness, once simply a requirement for good health, became an essential element of beauty. Beneath this transformation lay a sea change in understandings, motives, ideologies, technologies, and practices, all of which shaped popular habits over time. Peter Ward explains that what began as an urban bourgeois phenomenon in the later eighteenth century became a universal condition by the end of the twentieth, touching young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and country residents alike.

Based on a wealth of sources in English, French, German, and Italian, The Clean Body surveys the great hygienic transformation that took place across Europe and North America over the course of four centuries.

November 4, 2019
Books mentioned in this post
The Clean Body

The Clean Body

A Modern History
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
The Dirt on Clean

The Dirt on Clean

An Unsanitized History
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged :
More Info
A History of Domestic Space

A History of Domestic Space

Privacy and the Canadian Home
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Hardcover
tagged :
More Info
The Culture of Flushing

The Culture of Flushing

A Social and Legal History of Sewage
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook Paperback
More Info
Beyond Soap

Beyond Soap

The Real Truth About What You Are Doing to Your Skin and How to Fix It for a Beautiful, Healthy Glow
edition:Paperback
More Info
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