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Naturally clean

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | June 2, 2011

In the category of things we take as “natural” is how great it feels to be clean. I noticed a few online discussions about morning versus evening showering and one striking feature of the comments is how many people assert that taking anything less than a daily shower – or even two showers – leaves them feeling “funky” or “yucky.” Being unclean seems to spur a primal, natural reaction in us.

Tenant farmer washes


Of course, it is not primal or natural. Children have to be taught to feel yucky about being dirty. That feeling is not even natural for adults. Americans who today have the urge to get clean had great-grandparents who felt that bathing once or twice a week was just about right. And those folks, in turn, had great-grandparents who suspected that bathing was a danger, a cause of illness, and thought that honest workingman’s dirt never hurt anyone.

Being dirty

It was hard to be clean in 18th and 19th century America. [This source is a good overview.] Most Americans lived on farms and had to deal with the dirt, the animal and food wastes, the flies and other vermin, and all that was part of farm life. Water had to be lugged in buckets from a well; soap had to be made by hand; clothes and towels could only be occasionally (and laboriously) laundered – usually on wash day (Monday). A good scrubbing-up, if possible, might serve for Sunday church-going, but day in and day out, dirt and odor were part of real folks’ lives.

Townspeople had their own struggles with dirt. Notably, the streets were often mixtures of mud, urine, and horse droppings so that being sprayed by filth was a normal experience. And then there was the smell of sweat on bodies and rarely-changed clothes. Water for washing might, by the end of the century, be available indoors (in about one-fourth of American homes), but usually only in small amounts, for a wash basin.

And it was not that important to be clean. Ben Franklin made Cleanliness one of his 13 virtues, but what even elites of Franklin’s era thought was clean would be socially embarrassing today. Early in the 19th century, most Americans, according to reformer Catharine Beecher, regularly washed only their faces, necks, hands, and feet. Some believed that dirt was healthy and frequent washing dangerous. Bathing was suspect and when it started becoming a middle class fad, it was as a plunge into cold water, as an ordeal that provided an invigorating shock to the system, not for soaping or washing. [See e.g., source.]

Cleaning up

Ivory Soap Ad


A few developments combined over the 19th century to make bathing for cleanliness not only acceptable but desirable, first among the middle classes and then later everyone.

It became more feasible. As cities built systems of pipes that brought water – and eventually, water that had been purified – into neighborhoods, builders started adding “water closets” to expensive homes and apartments. Later, central heating systems made it easier to have a hot water spigot and to luxuriate in a warm bath (and generations later to enjoy a warm shower).

Health knowledge improved. Experts realized that washing removed the carriers of disease, germs. Public information campaigns and, notably, schools stressed the importance of washing. One important target of such campaigns were immigrants. Middle-class Americans saw them as, by nature, dirty, so reformers made the inculcation of hygiene part of their Americanization efforts.

Businessmen saw opportunities to sell bathroom fixtures and cleaning agents of all kinds. Twentieth-century soap makers, in particular, stressed the importance of cleaning for health, for good looks, for good smells, and for that feeling of freshness from, say, “Irish Spring” [YouTube] or from being “Zestfully clean” [YouTube] in that “Pure and Natural” way [YouTube].

Being clean – not just clean, but squeaky clean – came to mark being healthy, smart, modern, considerate, moral, and normal. (The “hippies” of the ‘60s could get an amusing rise out of the bourgeoisie by flagrantly and fragrantly flouting this taken-for-granted norm.) Twentieth-century Americans  instilled in their children a new emotional reaction to dirt — a deep sense that being other than  recently and thoroughly washed was yucky. Being freshly clean just feels natural.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Naturally clean

  1. Thanks for your own perspective on how being clean makes you ‘feel’.

    Washing ourselves clean, usually means putting chemicals on your skin and scalp, which may actually be worse than eating them. When you eat something, the enzymes in your saliva and stomach acids help to break it down and flush it out of your body. However, when you put these chemicals on your skin, they are absorbed straight into your bloodstream without filtering of any kind, going directly to your delicate organs.

    Once these chemicals find their way into your body, they tend to accumulate over time because you typically lack the necessary enzymes to break them down.

    So while it’s great that the cleanliness of our generations have, arguably, taken a forward step in the direction of good hygiene, we’d be remiss if it wasn’t mentioned that “clean” isn’t always clean, as body and hair cleaning products these days, if not free from toxic additives, leaves toxic residue even after we’ve bathed or showered.

    There are literally thousands of chemicals used in personal care products, and the U. S. government does not require any mandatory testing for these products before they are sold. This is why it’s so important to choose body cleaning products that are safe and don’t contain any toxic substances.

    Have a look at 15 toxic chemical ingredients to avoid, which are found in most all body care products sold.

    Stay clean, and safe at the same time.

  2. This is not precisely on-target for this essay, but you make a reference to hippies: “…’hippies’ flagrantly and fragrantly flouting….this norm”.

    This is a very interesting statement to me.

    I hear often today references to ‘hippies’ as having been ‘dirty’, ie unwashed. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and associated with many whom today might be designated as having been ‘hippies’–although we never used that term to describe ourselves, and would have been amused hearing it (it had, in my crowd, a distinctly journalist-created edge to it). Not one person I knew did not bathe! Bare feet, occasionally, maybe. But to not bathe, or wash clothing, was unheard of. Indeed, hair was longer, and clothing distinctly counter-culture, but no one stopped bathing.

    Why would they?

    Those unfortunate few who ended up living in the streets, or crashing from one sofa to another, might have had to curtail cleanliness, just like people today who are homeless do. But those relatively few individuals were few and far between compared to the huge numbers of young people who, today, might be labeled as having been hippies.

    So, what gives?

    Why the focus on the term hippie today, one used so infrequently by the very young it purported to describe, and why and how has “hippie” come to be linked to “dirty” by today’s popular press?

    • I spent a significant amount of time living with what are now called “hippies” I knew and was a friend of a great many “counter-culture” people….
      I met NONE who did not wash their bodies on a frequent and regular basis. We may have looked weird, but we still remembered our parents rules on bathing.

  3. Good article that also shows how much marketing plays a part in our life. Its not just information but how it is given to us to influence our minds. That said, we had this coming at us since we were small children and it’s hard to change our minds about dirt. I have always wondered why the Bible tells about the feet being wash as it portrays it as the ultimate cleansing.

    Josie Legate

  4. Hi,
    Great article about being clean and how the ideas have changed over the years. And to think about only taking a bath twice a week was considered being clean, hard to believe. Today you would be avoided like a skunk if you only took a bath twice in 7 days. Some people might still do it but you would not the minute you walked by them!

  5. Really funny, we talk about this a lot amongst our friends of non-Dutch origin here in Holland. One of my friends works at the department of water management in the city of Amsterdam and their findings show that Dutch immigrant households use more water per person, compared to the Dutch. They think this may be because many immigrants have a culture (from the tropics?) of taking a shower twice a day instead of one. That the indigenous Dutch culture does not have that tradition can be smelled on public transport during hot summer days! 🙂

    Also, so funny to see differenes beteen cultures as to at what point in the morning the teeth should be brushed. In our South Asian family, we always brush teeth and clean tongue with tongue scraper first thing in the morning, before even talking to someone let alone eat breakfast. But in the Dutch culture, this is the other way around: first breakfast, then brushing teeth. Sometimes the last step is forgotten due to time pressure. Thus can be noticed when someone on the train or bus asks for directions ;). The concept of breakfast in bed was unknown or strange to me while growing up in the Netherlands, which led to hilarious situations when I first started dating Dutch people as a young adult. What is the American routine for brushing teeth and why?

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