Tuesday, July 30, 2019

"A brief history of human filth"

From the BBC's HistoryExtra, July 23:
How did people through history keep clean? How did they deal with dirt, sweat and other bodily odours, and did they take baths?

Amanda Vickery explores the history of personal hygiene and human filth…
In the words of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, “Dirt is simply matter out of place.”
The human history of dirt is the saga of our battle to control environmental filth and channel human waste out of sight, out of mind. Not that ‘dirtiness’ or ‘cleanliness’ are unchanging across time, space and cultures.
Filth undoubtedly has a fascinating past: from the godly cleanliness of 17th‑century Delft, to the triumphant introduction of carbolic acid as surgical antiseptic in 1860s Glasgow, the co-opting of hygiene to promote Nazi ideas of ‘racial cleansing’, to the slums of contemporary New Delhi. The definition and management of dirt determines civilisation.

Dirtiness is in the eye of the beholder. In Japanese homes, for example, visitors are asked to exchange their shoes for slippers at the threshold. Traipsing outdoor mud across clean floors is offensive. Moreover, the toilet is always separated from the bathroom. The western habit of combining the two is disgusting to Japanese sensibility.

The English have been harping on about cleanliness since the early modern period, but cleanliness now and cleanliness then mean different things. We moderns wage war on domestic ‘germs’ armed with chemical weapons, but a practical understanding of bacteria is comparatively recent. The Victorians blamed cholera on airborne miasma. A star exhibit in the 2011 Wellcome Collection exhibition ‘Dirt’ was the ghost map produced by a heretical doctor John Snow – plotting cholera deaths around contaminated water pumps in 1854.

For centuries, the only easily available disinfectant for splashing around was vinegar. It was ordering, tidying, dusting, polishing, rooting out bad smells, scenting, weekly laundry of linens and washing of hands and face that maintained the wholesome house and person....MUCH MORE