1020 Dishing the dirt on soap

The Clean Body: A Modern History
by Peter Ward

Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019
$37.95 / 9780773559387

Reviewed by John Douglas Belshaw


This review is late. Very late. It took McGill-Queen’s a staggeringly long time to get the book into my sanitized hands — due in part to pandemic understaffing at a warehouse in Toronto — and, by the time it arrived, I was immersed in a stack of reading about pandemics and histories of health and mortality. I cracked open UBC Prof. Peter Ward’s book the same day I opened Dr. Bonnie Henry’s Soap and Water & Common Sense (House of Anansi Press, 2009 and 2020). Thereafter, they vied for my attention.

Timing is everything. Have your hands ever been cleaner than in 2020 and so far in 2021? Putting the two books side by side we get from Ward a deeply engaged and detailed history of changing understandings of cleanliness and the means to achieve it, while from Henry we get an abridged version of much of that along with a very clear admonition to wash up. Describing the “sanitarians” of the late nineteenth century, Ward shows how they advanced their cause. Henry shows us that we are living in that history here and now.

Ward’s book belongs on that shelf you’ve set aside for histories of everyday things. It’s a welcome addition. It is accessible, interesting, and you will regularly grunt in recognition of some hitherto unnoticed practice pertaining to domestic plumbing, household spaces for matters of cleanliness, and the ways we heat water. (As Ward notes, jokes about bumpkins who kept coal in their bathtub were heard often enough to suggest there was some truth to it. Well, if heating water was as problematic as Ward describes, I too would store fuel or potatoes in my tub.)

Illustration from Peter Ward, The Clean Body

The thrust of The Clean Body is that western ideas of cleanliness have changed significantly in the last two hundred years or so. It’s not just that standards have changed but that the very concept of “clean” and the means of achieving it have radically shifted. The technologies and infrastructures that support cleanliness have changed too, of course. And whole social movements have been mobilized to advance the cause of personal hygiene. Thus, we travel from an emphasis on clean clothes to a bit of spot-washing and fear of immersion in water to public bathhouses, private washing facilities, a brief detour to the land of bidets, and then on we go to irregular then monthly then weekly baths and then it’s every few days and finally … we arrive at the daily shower. Ward sticks to the main countries of Western Europe and the USA (although Canada creeps in from time to time) and stakes his turf in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in Part II) and the twentieth century (Part III).

An English farm labourer wearing a white cotton or linen working smock over his regular clothes. Photo courtesy The Museum of English Rural Life

It may surprise you — it certainly surprised me — to learn that it took to the mid-nineteenth century for western cultures to accept “immersing the body in water as a positive good” (p. 45) Bathhouses of many kinds took off, as did dipping into the ocean as well. But this dousing was not about cleanliness so much as refreshment and rejuvenation. Facilities were, in any event, at the luxury end. Common folk for the most part stayed dry. This would not change much before clean water could be delivered and wastewater removed.

The place of clean clothes in this tale is complex. Clean linen was not merely a proxy for personal cleanliness two and three centuries ago: it was a device that scoured the wearer clean through the day. The aristocracy, of course, could afford to change clothes repeatedly from dawn to bed, but plain people had to make do with a few highly durable articles of hemp clothing. Their less whiter-than-white smocks marked their status as surely as a branding iron. Industrialization and the spread of cotton textiles meant that more items were affordable but also less durable in the wash (p. 88) For the masses, that’s one step forward and at least one step back. What we see in these fragments is the necessity of laundries and armies of sinewy women capable of doing for clothes what the individual could not do to their own flesh: clean it up. In British Columbia — as Ward knows but does not mention — washday blues in the days of manual laundry work were handled in most towns by Chinese men. The absence of a large female population made the “Chinese laundry” ubiquitous.

The Wah Chong Laundry, 1884, Vancouver. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives

Much of this history is strictly urban. We bathe today because at some point in the nineteenth century social and moral reformers decided that, as urbanites, we must. They increasingly took the view that cleanliness was next to godliness and, added bonus, it would lead to social improvement through a reduction in dependency and poverty (p. 53) Or so they thought. The diffusion of bathing at home was slow: by the late nineteenth century only three percent of households in Chicago and New York had the necessary facilities (p. 67) Without running water, what more could be done?

In steps the state and capitalism. Making a clean society took government intervention, infrastructure, and education. New habits had to be cultivated and in this regard pre-WWI schools and the soap industry were allies. The classroom presented an opportunity for surveillance of cleanliness and instruction on standards of hygiene. The soap makers were carried along on the tide.

Illustration from The Clean Body

We learn how the soap industry began and how it consolidated around only a couple of major players (Proctor & Gamble and Lever Brothers). Ward describes as well, its cutthroat competitive qualities and how the sector shaped demand for cleanliness of a particular kind. And when synthetic fabrics arrived, Big Soap moved into the petrochemicals sector and devised new kinds of detergent. Which means, of course, that radio and TV “soap operas” were as much about increasing demand for oil wells as shampoo. By the mid-twentieth century, the industries dedicated to the better-smelling and better-looking body led to “the reinvention of the clean body as a commodity” (p. 203) Dr. Henry will want to know, however, that soap makers made few claims as regards hygiene until the 1890s, and that their marketing continued to focus on beauty and a clean scent, rather than fewer germs.

There are some, I submit, serious drawbacks to the book, the foremost of which I lay at the feet of the publisher. There is no bibliography. I’m not going to stop saying this: a repetitious suite of endnotes is no substitute for a well-organized “works cited” section. My impression is rather strong that much of the secondary material consulted here is a bit dated. There’s a lot of 1980s material and not a lot from the last ten years. A bibliography would make it easy for me to prove my hunch wrong. Also, as a researcher I look to a bibliography to provide research leads. Cheaping out on bibliographies is, as far as I’m concerned, anti-research. MQUP ought to be bigger than this.

BC Soap Works (left) on Victoria Harbour, circa 1920. Courtesy Ted Ross and James Bay Beacon

The western focus of Ward’s study is understandable but not above criticism. Combining and synthesizing the histories of four or five trendsetting nations makes sense and it is task aplenty. One wonders how distinctive, however, the western world really was. British ideas about hygiene and health were informed by imperial adventures in Asia and Africa, so it’s not as though Europe was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world on this subject. Moreover, the lack of attention paid to Canada is surprising. Sure, maybe not a major influencer and more likely a follower in many respects in the modern era, but the literature in Canada is rich and illuminating, particularly as regards race and hygiene. As much as I admire The Clean Body it has to be said: in this regard it feels old-fashioned. In these pages the western world is a white world. Ward acknowledges that the Victorian soap industry was steeped in racism and imperialism (pp. 128-9), but he doesn’t go much further than this.

A historian with many strings to his bow, Ward began as a historian of Canada (and BC) and he will surely have some acquaintance with the expansive literature on the ways in which the state and various Christian denominations imposed their ideals of hygiene on Indigenous peoples (whom they invariably regarded as “dirty”). Mary Ellen Kelm’s Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia (UBC 1998) is probably the most useful overview, but consider also the many studies completed in recent years by Maureen Lux, Ian Mosby, Kristin Burnett, and Mary Jane Logan McCallum. These and others not only describe the track record of twentieth century “sanitarians,” but they expose exactly what modern settler society thought a clean body was all about. No, we don’t have to cover all the bases, but this Canadian literature in particular reveals hard-edged western values and their forceful imposition, clearing away a lot of the more subtle rhetoric of Madison Avenue.

Organizationally, there is some repetition and redundancy between the two main Parts. Thematically, we take detours. The chapter on laundry and the twentieth century washing machine revolution is interesting, but we lose sight of the clean body quickly. Choices inevitably get made, but the reasons for doing so are not always clear. Why a section on shaving chins but not shaving armpits? Why the attention to menstrual pads but not anal cleanliness? I think most would agree that the smelliest and reliably dirtiest part of the body is the foot, but it escapes examination. Was there a personal hygiene horror story in WWI greater than ‘trench foot’? Ward has a great deal to say about the role of clothing in this saga, but not a word about socks and shoes. Again, I wish he had been up front with the choices.

Class and cleanliness get ample attention, but there are gaps. Ward makes a cautious allusion to stories of British coalminers occasionally bathing; in fact, the literature on this is rich. Orwell addressed it in The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, in which he also observed that “the lower classes smell.”[1] Orwell beats this literal nose-in-the-air snobbery to death over a few hundred pages, and wasn’t the only one. Was hygiene an instrument of class oppression or an outcome? Ward engages this a little, but more might be done.

What stands out for this reader are two things in particular. First, there’s the fun Ward clearly has in the chapter on “Bathtubs and Bathing.” No rubber duckies, but it is delightful nonetheless. Second, there’s the hidden world of the laundresses. In the pre-machine wash era, the washing of clothes was a massive undertaking involving high levels of organization, coordination of effort, availability of resources, and dedication of hours if not days of labour on a regular basis. Washerwomen, one comes to realize, were everywhere and in great numbers.

Peter Ward

Both Peter Ward and Bonnie Henry take us through the grime of the mid-nineteenth century, when connections were being drawn between filth and ill health. The miasma theory soldiered on into the mid-Victorian era, but increasingly epidemics like cholera were associated with the poor and their squalid living conditions. Efforts to alleviate deficient hygiene became tied to a larger concern for public health generally. It is no surprise, then, that the British “public health officer” — from which Henry’s office descends — appears in the midst of rapid urbanization, intensifying urban poverty, the observation of the poor by the well-to-do, and the growth of state authority. Whole bureaucracies sprang up around anxieties for the health of rich and poor alike, along with regulations and education aimed at creating the modern, clean body. This is the world we occupy today with perhaps greater awareness than was likely even a year ago. Human hygiene and the making of a clean body? You’re soaking in it.


John Douglas Belshaw

John Douglas Belshaw, Ph.D., FRHistS, is a history professor at Thompson Rivers University – Open Learning and the University of the Fraser Valley. Among other accomplishments, he is the author of Becoming British Columbia: A Population History (UBC Press 2010), the co-author, with his colleague and spouse Diane Purvey, of Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 (Anvil, 2011), the editor of Vancouver Confidential (Anvil, 2014), and the author or co-author of three open textbooks on Canadian and Indigenous histories. John Belshaw makes his home in Vancouver’s East End and is currently teaching a course on the History of Pandemics and Population. Editor’s note: John Belshaw has also reviewed books by William Gibson, Cecil Foster, Jack Little, Charles Demers, Allan McDougall et al., Alisa Smith, and Judy Tyabji for The Ormsby Review.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

 The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


[1] George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin, 1981), pp. 112-113.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.