Book Review – Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity by Virginia Smith


VIRGINIA SMITH is a talented and a bestselling author of twenty-four novels, an illustrated children’s book, and over fifty articles and short stories. Her books have been finalists in several Awards of Excellence. Two of her novels have won several Awards. ‘A wife’s duty’ is one of my personal favorites. However, I would wish to review one of her books titled: “Clean, A history of personal hygiene and purity”.

In an overview, Smith looks at how different cultures in Europe have interpreted and striven for personal cleanliness. She also shows how throughout history this struggle to attain hygiene and purity has brought great social benefits and also great tragedies.

The book starts from the premise that cleanliness is datable and traceable and that the three words (cleanliness, personal hygiene and purity) represents three distinct historical dimensions in that order. The author then goes ahead to define dirt as matter out of place which is neither good nor bad (chapter 1). I disagree with the author when she states in her book that nature does not care what we think or how we respond to matter in all forms. In fact nature does react to how human beings respond to matter in all forms. The late peace Nobel laureate and renowned environmentalist, Wangari Maathai once said “If you destroy nature, nature will destroy you” (Nyamwaya, 2011). A similar message was also echoed by Pope Francis who during one of his lessons cautioned that “if we destroy Creation, in the end it will destroy us!” (Francis, 2014). Both statements clearly points out that indeed our actions on matter in all forms have an impact on nature. An example of this is the global climate change which is an issue that the world is facing as a result of “matter placed wrongly” and this issue remains as one of the greatest concerns of our times.

The author provides a history of humanity and how mankind has evolved to appreciate cleanliness, personal hygiene and purity in different and distinct historical times. She elaborates how the human body itself acts as a cleansing mechanism through the metabolic process which absorbs what is useful to the body and discards the rest as “dirt”. She refers this as inner cleansing which helps the body to defend itself against harm. The human body’s five senses, sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing enable the body to interact with different forms of matter. Historically, humans have adapted to changing conditions and developed activities like cleaning of teeth, combing of hair, hand washing etc. which are all aimed at rejecting dirt and exercising cleanliness. These grooming practices do not just apply to humans but also to other animals. Different animals have their unique grooming behaviors that could be linked to cleanliness but not necessarily personal hygiene. The author uses a good example of the primates grooming and she has a pictorial representation of the same. Throughout her book, visual representation play an important part of her argument.

Talking of cleanliness the author goes back in history to the era before Christ. She clearly explains how cleanliness evolved and has changed in time. She uses the example of Roman baths (Chapter 4) which were public baths where both sexes would get into natural hot springs and wash themselves clean. This was an activity that was practiced thousands of years ago. I find it very interesting that these Roman baths are very similar to the swimming pools we have today, only that the rationale behind them is different. The roman baths were strictly for cleansing purposes but the swimming pools are for recreation purposes. Cleanliness was an integral part of Roman civilization process. It should be noted that hygiene issues brought the roman baths to a stop. Some concerns such as sick people bathing together with the healthy became a major problem. This again shows how cleanliness and hygiene were distinct but connected in historical time.

bathing         hot pool

Bathing in the 19th & 20th century                   Bathing in a natural hot pool

Sources of the photographs (Wikipedia)

In fact the Roman baths is reminisce of the bathing that takes place in Lake Victoria. People of all sexes undress and get into the lake to wash themselves. Children are not left out as this is a usual practice among the communities living by the lake. At the same time the lake is used by the community as a resource for household needs such as provision of water for cooking and drinking.

Common cultural practices in the African culture such as sipping of traditional beer using the same pipe for everyone further brings out hygiene concerns. In addition rituals carried out during ceremonies such as circumcision makes one wonder of the hygienic impact of all these. These are just examples from the African context of what the author is discussing in this chapter.

In chapter 3, the author highlights how Olympic Games were carried out in ancient Greek whereby the participants would undergo special purification and strengthening regime that was aimed at increasing their productivity at the games. The participants who were secluded from the rest would eat special food and undergo body exercising activities to strengthen their muscles. Ancient Greek had parks and gymnasiums that provided the space to engage participants in the purification process. A methodology that the author uses particularly in this chapter is the use of words in their local language (Native language) and offering their meaning. Examples include ‘Gymnos’ – a Greek word for naked.

Her argument in this chapter is that hygiene does require a degree of effort, time and space which I agree. In Kenya for instance, eating healthy and keeping good standards of hygiene comes with a high standard of living which then translates to a huge cost all the same. A huge percentage of Kenyans live under the poverty line and therefore hygiene is never in their minds. They will focus mainly on getting food on the table and a shelter above their heads. Poverty indeed has a role to play when it comes to hygiene especially in the African context. This then poses a challenge to African countries as there seem to be more need to maintain high standards of hygiene compared to Europe for instance. Our African culture highly makes use of the hands when taking meals as opposed to the folk and knife culture of the Europeans. Hand washing then becomes prudent in Africa. Water scarcity in some areas becomes an impediment to this practice making hygiene expensive for many.

In chapter 6, “The body beautiful” the author gives a whole new level of hygiene and purity in the modern times. She talks about housing where the modern mankind in the 18th century in Europe preferred to live in the suburbs in a nice house with electricity, clean environment, maintained lawns, and pest free area with a high standard of hygiene. I strongly support her argument in that these changes create suburban children that undergo a heavily disciplined hygiene process including time regulated feeding, time regulated cleaning and proper dressing and grooming not forgetting proper mannerism at all times.

The 18th century saw to it the development of various cleansing agents such as tooth pastes, shampoos, cheaper soaps, heavy smelling antiseptics, dandruff clearing liquid and perfumes. The trend continues as new cleansing agents hit the global market year after year and there is always a variety to choose from. According to the author, in this 18th century period there was lots of money channeled into funding hygiene campaigns in schools and homes.

In the following chapters the author chooses to focus on the “modern well-being” whereby a full range of grooming routines is practiced such as nail care, lip stick, spa bathing, shower gels, sprays, skin bleaching creams, skin moisturizers, complex hair styling, etc. In the 21stth century in Africa, all this was associated with women only although recently these pre-existing gendered roles have started to change. Both sexes spend huge amounts of money in an effort to modern grooming. This has raised lots of controversy in Africa and social discussions on media have been carried out to ascertain if indeed both sexes do require the same level of modern grooming. Questions of gender, masculinity and the use of hygiene as a means of controlling female bodies have formed the basis for arguments.

Towards the end of the book, the author discusses on the future trend of cleanliness, hygiene and purity. I agree with her argument that dirt is becoming more of a global issue than a personal concern. This is evident in global concerns that are heavily linked to dirt such as environmental degradation, climate change, Genetic Modified Organisms, extinction of rare biodiversity and religious puritanism. There is also the issue of the Ebola disease that is posing a threat to the lives of many in Africa and the world due to its ability to spread easily. Proper hygiene is one of the ways to limit the spread of the deadly disease. All these concerns are caused by matter which is out of place and this is what the author defines as dirt.

I once visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and there lay the “Great Bed of Wares”. This bed embodies the history of cleanliness and hygiene. The bed was used about 500 years ago in ancient Europe and is probably the single best-known object in the Museum. The four-poster bed is famously over three metres wide, and reputedly able to accommodate several couples in it. The bed was constructed in about 1590.


The ‘Great Bed of Wares’

The bed was only found in the Inns and one would book a space on the bed after a long journey across Ancient Europe. This then means one would end up sleeping next to strangers but again it was a privilege sleeping on this bed. Cleanliness and hygiene issues might have strongly led to the ceasing of this business and contributed to the hotels we have today where an individual has his/her own self-contained rooms and people somehow share rooms with friends but not strangers.

It is evident that the author takes a Eurocentric stand in her book and there is no mention of other continents such as Africa where hygiene and purity has different meanings and histories. The book fails to provide a global picture of cleanliness, hygiene and purity. A close look at non-European contexts can unmask the cultural politics of dirt in contemporary Africa. This is the main objective of the DirtPol Project. Cleanliness, dirt, hygiene and purity form the foundation of the project which will strive to understand people’s opinions, attitudes, opinions, perceptions and understanding of dirt. The DirtPol Project is built on the premise that ‘If the starting point is not cleanliness but dirt then one might get different data. In this regards the DirtPol Project will make use of different literature written on dirt as well as field research to ascertain that hypothesis.

DirtPol Project is about Africa and the issues/concerns faced. This makes the project a key significant because the author has not incorporated Africa into their world history of dirt and hygiene. It is a project affecting my motherland and therefore poses great interest. I feel that some of the issues that will come out as a result of this project will be different from what the author is talking about in her book. The book focuses on the European history of cleanliness which will differ from the African history of dirt but with lots of similarities in some aspects due to colonialism of African countries which was done by the Europeans.

While Smith views dirt as neither good nor bad. My opinion is that dirt has its good and the bad side of it. This can be proven by the examples provided by the author herself in her book. She acknowledges the great contribution of dirt to global economic growth and rapid human society and global development. However the negative side of dirt can be said to have greatly contributed to the birth of hygiene practices throughout history.

Since dirt is increasing becoming a global concern therefore the need to get data and information on different if not all continents. This would then shed more light on future trends of dirt in the ever changing world. Africa is waiting!


Francis, P. (2014, May 21). Environment. (R. Hamilton, Interviewer)

Nyamwaya, J. (2011, September 26). Prof. Wangari Maathai quotes. Daily Nation, p. 6.

About the author of this review: Anne Kirori is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in education and schools. Anne’s based in Nairobi, is 26 years old and fluent in Kiswahili, English and German.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex. For more information please visit

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol

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