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The History of Personal Hygiene: An Interview with Peter Ward

You explain in the book that what first attracted you to the subject matter was an interview you had with your grandfather in the 1970s. Why did you find now was the right time to write and publish this particular book? 

The Clean Body is a synthesis. It draws together a literature in several languages from the past 3 centuries on many aspects of the history of personal hygiene across the western world.  The synthesis is a form of writing that sums up the major findings of research on a subject and explores its primary structures or patterns, commenting on its controversies and suggesting new pathways for inquiry.  By creating benchmarks and signposts, syntheses fulfill an important function in historical writing, particularly helpful because the field has become increasingly specialized since the mid 20th century.  Syntheses thus provide an opportunity to sum up and distil the understandings we have arrived at over time.  

They also encourage academic historians to address wider, non-specialist audiences.  Though we tend to think of our scholarly colleagues as our most attentive readers, we also have a larger potential following among the book reading public, and it’s more easily reached through syntheses than through specialized works.  Historians are members of a shrinking minority within the university community that still has the capacity to communicate with the general reader, and I think we have a responsibility to do so.  A broadly shared sense of the past is an important feature of civil society.  In addition, through publishing for a more general audience we can help to link the reading public with our universities and colleges, where much historical research occurs.  

But writing a synthesis isn’t for everyone.  It’s an activity best suited to those who’ve laboured long in the vineyards of the past. Many years ago one of my colleagues, a fine economist whose late career interests drew him to economic history, remarked to me: “the trouble with history, Peter, is you have to know so much!”  And it’s true.  Historical knowledge and understanding are cumulative; it takes a long time to master a subject to the extent needed to write a mature synthesis. 

For these several reasons, this was the right time to write The Clean Body.  Publishing a synthesis was an attractive possibility because no one had previously attempted to do so on such a broad scale, because the subject emerged from some of my long-standing academic interests and because, approaching retirement as I was, turning a longstanding a curiosity into a book seemed more important than ever.  


You used a variety of sources in your research, including ones in English, French, German and Italian. What were a few of the “Crown Jewels” or most valuable sources that you found? 

As a synthesis The Clean Body is necessarily based on the work of others, in this case many others.  In the historian’s jargon, it relies principally on secondary rather than primary sources. Of them I found some of the major work of the French historians Alain Corbin, Georges Vigarello and Jean-Pierre Goubert foundational.  First published during the mid 1980s, and each in its own way, Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Vigarello’s Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages and Goubert’s The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age broke conceptual ground by exploring the deeper cultural meanings of popular ideas and everyday practices.

I also drew heavily on a rich literature written in Italian that’s not well known outside Italy.  In the English-speaking world, historical understandings of modern western Europe have long been shaped primarily by the British and French experiences, and in the French instance, often through works in translation, including those by Corbin, Vigarello and Goubert just noted.  For English speakers and readers in particular, most other European national histories remain to some extent in the shadows, in part because  of limited second language skills, in part because translated studies aren’t all that common.  Though I came late to Italian and I’d like to be more fluent than I am, I now have access to an large body of scholarship that hasn’t been as effectively integrated into western European historical narratives as I believe it should be, and I’ve attempted this task in The Clean Body.  I leave it to others to decide whether or not I’ve succeeded.

Why did you find it important to focus on both Europe and North America rather than one or the other? 

To put it simply, I think wholes are more important than their parts.  One of the leading features of the making of modern societies has been a gradual convergence of technologies, systems, beliefs and understandings.  Despite the many national differences in the rich world today, most nations also hold many fundamentals in common; in many respects, as well, what they share is more important than what distinguishes them from each other.  To choose an obvious example, urban transportation systems across the western world have enough similarities that it’s possible for us to find our way around cities that we’ve never visited before.  Thus, considering western Europe and North America together was a way for me to focus on the most important features of the personal hygiene transition.  

At the same time, the panoramic view also highlights important distinctions.  The pathways to contemporary body care practices varied from one country to the next, and within individual countries as well, just as general conditions of material life among them differed.  In turn, these differences influenced the direction, the shape and the timing of the new hygiene’s progress.  Though the ultimate destination was common to all, the journey varied in important ways from one community to another, and the contrasts help to highlight some of the major cultural changes experienced en route.

The Clean Body spans a vast time range. Why did you choose the time frame of four centuries? What would you say was the biggest change from then to now?

When planning this project I faced a choice between a survey that spanned the 2 millennia from the classical era to the present and one that emphasized the modern era, broadly defined. A lively and highly enjoyable popular history of bathing from Roman times to the recent past was published in 2007, and in my view it fulfills the first need very well.  At the same time, it is anecdotal, descriptive more than explanatory, and has much more to say about clean bodies than clean clothes, limitations that I’ve tried to overcome.  

I chose the tighter time frame – the past 4 centuries – because it was long enough to explore the slow diffusion of change in personal hygiene habits, and also because it let me emphasize contrasts between 19th and 20th century practices and those of earlier times. It also allowed me to address what I saw as a major omission in much of what has been published on the subject.  To me, most previous works seemed to lose energy with the arrival of the 20th century, as if the cleanliness revolution had run its course by the eve of World War I.  But this view misses an important part of the story because the transformation of body care habits has continued to our own time.  In particular, hygiene practices were democratized during the second half of the century, becoming a mass phenomenon. Meanwhile, beauty replaced hygiene as the main social imperative behind bathing and wearing clean clothes.

In the book you discuss how the idea of cleanliness as a social ideal rose with consumerism and the influence of advertising. Do you think Western cultures would have such a high standard for cleanliness today if we did not live in societies centred around consumerism? 

Probably not – though I know that historians should always be wary when answering questions about what hasn’t happened.  After all, our habits have been exposed to the language of persuasion for well over a century and it’s been highly influential. But we should also be careful not to confuse current practices with high standards of cleanliness.  Many of today’s body care practices have little to do with being clean, even though they’re conducted in the name of cleanliness. In addition, the meaning of ‘clean’ has changed substantially over the past 4 centuries, especially after World War II.  Since then the concept of cleanliness has become deeply influenced, even absorbed, by the beauty care industry and the resulting conflation of beauty with cleanliness clouds the issue.

Were there any differences in your approach to The Clean Body than your other works such as White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy toward Orientals in British Columbia; Courtship, Love and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada and Birth Weight and Economic Growth: Women’s Living Standards in the Industrializing West

My major books have differed substantially from one another, both conceptually and methodologically.  The first, White Canada Forever, was a revision and extension of my doctoral thesis. History dissertations require the author to demonstrate a mastery of archival and secondary research on a novel topic and skill in writing a sustained work of historical analysis. In this respect my thesis, and the book that it led to, were no different from most that follow this trajectory.  I was interested in exploring the Canadian response to Asian immigration as an expression of popular racial attitudes and as a set of public policies that formalized racial discrimination.  The book was also an example of historical writing from a national perspective even though it focused primarily on the westernmost province in the country.  I relied primarily on national and provincial government records and newspaper sources for this project.

In contrast, Courtship, Love and Marriage was an attempt to examine the history of family formation in 19th century Canada.  What interested me most was the interplay between the various structuralfeatures of the marriage market (religious beliefs, legal requirements, demographic and economic factors, courting customs) and growth of romantic intimacy within couples as they moved toward marriage.  In this case most of my research was done in family papers, especially diaries and letters.

In my third book, Birth Weight and Economic Growth, I went for a walk with the econometric historians, combining quantitative techniques with the tools and sources of the social historian.  The book rests on large samples of clinical data drawn from 19th and 20th century maternity hospital records in 5 European and North American cities.  The approach employs the basic statistical methods of the social sciences and is rigorously comparative.  My goal was to use a common biological marker of maternal and infant wellbeing to assess the impact of industrialization on women, whose welfare in the past had long been largely ignored.

What surprised you the most in your research and writing process? 

Looking back over the course of the project, I’m struck by the length of time over which the personal hygiene revolution unfolded.  It took the better part of 2 centuries for the transformation to reach its conclusion. There were no great discoveries or sudden turning points in this process, just a slow evolution of understandings, practices, technologies and living standards.  Initially adopted by small groups of privileged people, these customs gradually touched the lives of greater and greater numbers as beliefs about body care evolved and changing circumstances made it easier to be clean. The central theme of this story has much less to do with innovation than with diffusion, the spread of habits across social as much as national boundaries and, in the end, their central place in fashioning the modern man and woman.

What do you most want readers to take away from The Clean Body

Two things, one historical, one personal.  First the historical.  The Clean Body is a history of habits. It’s a history of the mundane, the everyday, a history without great events, great ideas and great actors.  Its chief importance lies in the fact that it deals with some of life’s most commonplace activities.  But commonplace doesn’t mean trivial.  Time use studies from the late 20th century suggest that, everywhere in the western world, most adults now devote about an hour every day to grooming themselves.  In these same countries households spend 5% or more of their annual incomes on personal hygiene.  And, at a national level, keeping clean accounts for roughly the same proportion of GDP.  So the history of the unremarkable and the ordinary have an importance of their own, one that can easily surpass the history of greatness in any of its many forms.

As to the personal, though I suspect the idea is rather passé, I’ve always considered historical writing a form of literature and good writing an essential part of the historian’s task.  By good I don’t mean florid or elaborate or preciously obscure.  I value clear, direct and lively writing because it communicates effectively.  And at its best it can also reveal a play of language that brings the reader an aesthetic pleasure quite apart from the formal meaning of the text.  I’d be delighted if The Clean Body pleased some readers in this way as well.