The Great Unwashed

Confession time.  I do not now, nor have I ever worn deodorant.  I’ve always disliked its smell, and the vague rumours that its aluminium content might be unhealthy.  And I don’t use antiperspirant, since it seems perverse to do so in our hot climate, where sweat serves the serious purpose of keeping our bodies cool.

Lifebuoy Soap advertisement 1902

Lifebuoy Soap advertisement 1902, from Wikipedia.

I’m lucky.  I live in a society with ample hot water, and I can bathe or shower daily – twice a day in hot weather – and wear fresh clothing every day.  This seems quite adequate – or at least, my nearest and dearest have yet to tell me otherwise.

But I never knew before that my personal habits made me un-Australian.

In this morning’s Australian, the opposition citizenship spokeswoman Teresa Gambaro has called for mandatory ‘cultural awareness training’ for immigrants, so that they can learn how to fit into Australian culture on issues such as health, hygiene and lifestyle.  “Without trying to be offensive, we are talking about hygiene and what is an acceptable norm in this country when you are working closely with other co-workers,” Ms Gambaro told The Australian.  She said practices such as wearing deodorant … were “about teaching what are norms in Australia… You hear reports of people using public transport (without deodorant) and I think Australian residents are guilty of this too,” she said.

I’d raise my arm to this too – but then again, perhaps I’d better not.

Like ‘in my humble opinion’, which is never humble, so ‘without trying to be offensive’ nearly always gives offence – much more, probably, than merely standing beside a smelly body on the train.

Concerns about ‘the Great Unwashed’ get raised in every society in every age.  Sometimes this is just code for the hoi polloi – the riff raff of society.  But when it does relate to matters of cleanliness, as it clearly does in Teresa Gambaro’s statement, we are faced with the fact that every society has different ideas about what constitutes cleanliness – and whether or not it is next to godliness.

In some times and places quite the opposite has been true.  Under some circumstances medieval Christians positively delighted in filth. The Archbishop Thomas á Becket wore a hair shirt swarming with vermin, which much impressed the monks who examined his corpse after he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  The vermin probably gave him a leg up to early sainthood.

Okay, we’ve come a long way since the 12th century, but even in the 19th century, people like my immigrant ancestors were advised to pack enough clothes for the voyage so that they could change their underwear once a week.  It makes me scratchy just to think of it.

The issue is access to enough fresh hot water.  It wasn’t available on an immigrant ship, just as it’s not available to the homeless today, which is why charities that deal with homelessness spend a lot of time and money on providing showers and shampoo and laundry facilities, without which people remain isolated and unemployable.   But the issue is access, not education.

We tend to assume that the road to cleanliness has always been onwards and upwards, since the technology of hot and cold running water has made washing so much easier.  But it’s not necessarily so.

Wherever they went, the Romans introduced public baths that would not be matched in most of Europe for a thousand years.  The real inheritors of the Roman system of baths were the Arabs and then the Turks.  Muslims and Jews had a much better record of general cleanliness than Christians, who often tended, as in the case of St Thomas, to gloat over grime.

When the Spanish Christians conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, one of their first acts was to shut down the bathhouses because they might be used for seditious gatherings.  Since the Christians didn’t often bathe, they had no idea what a privation this might be to people who did.

Europeans only gradually started to keep clean.  To people’s amazement, in the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth I took a bath regularly, once a month, ‘whether she need it or not’.

Mahomed's Baths

Mahomed’s Baths, Brighton, c. 1826, British Library

The habit of cleanliness, like so much else during the British Empire, was largely imported from the non-European world.  The Bengali entrepreneur Shekh Din Muhammad introduced shampoo – a Hindi word – when he set up a ‘shampooing bath’ in fashionable Brighton in 1814.  Turkish baths became popular during the Victorian era, but few working class homes had a dedicated bathroom before the Second World War.  Australians used to joke about the English keeping their coal in the bath, but bathrooms were pretty primitive here, too.

Edgar Degas, The Bath, c. 1887

Edgar Degas, The Bath, c. 1887, from Wikipedia. Degas’s nudes look fabulous, but their baths look horribly inadequate and uncomfortable!

There are still differences between us in the way we keep clean.  Woman are more likely to bathe than men, who prefer to shower – and who stand facing the shower nozzle, while women stand with their backs to the water flow (or so I have read.  Who on earth collects these statistics? And how can they possibly know for sure?)

Class plays a role too.  White-collar workers tend to shower before they go to work, while manual workers, for obvious reasons, are more likely to wash at the end of the working day.  But we are still taught to respect ‘honest sweat’ – though fewer and fewer of us raise any.

Raising hackles is much easier.

Note: Teresa Gambaro has since issued an apology here.

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12 responses to “The Great Unwashed

  1. We live in interesting times, when the actual unadorned scent of a human being is considered dirty and offensive. Instead, we are told that we should smell of flowers, fruits, musk, anything but us. But in times past, the human scent was considered not just bearable but erotic: Napoleon’s letter to Josephine as he’s heading home – a 1 to 2 week trip – from Egypt, saying, “Don’t bathe! I’m coming back!”
    Disclaimer: I do use (a non-aluminum based) deodorant in the summer, but living in South Dakota, in the winter, all you need to do is wash the pits on a daily basis…

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  4. Just chiming in: I don’t use deodorant either. And I know several other folks who don’t (I think — this is not something I feel the need to ask about, but I have never detected the odor of deodorant on them.) I use public transport all the time.

  5. I used to work in the environment movement. I recall one meeting on a hot summer day, in which a number of fellow conservationists met several Liberal Party politicians and their staff. The room was air-conditioned and my main focus at the time was on the subjects under discussion, so I really didn’t focus much on the odors in the room, which seemed unexceptional to my insentitive nose. Anyhow, at the end of the meeting one of my colleagues noticed a jotting that someone had left on a scrap of paper – presumably a politican or their staffer. It complained of the ‘un-deodorized stench of greenies’ and seemed to have been left on the pad as as a deliberate insult for us to discover and reflect upon.

    I thought little about it at the time, but the furore over Ms Gambaro’s choice remarks has brought it to mind again. It strikes me there may be a genuine cultural divide that needs bridging. In that case, both sides thought the other stank. The stench we each found offensive was mainly that of disliked political opinions and conflicting views on environmental policy (or the lack thereof). But in addition, one side clearly found the smell of deodorants pleasant, whereas the other, for the most part, did not.

    Some cultural sensitivity training may be needed on both sides of the divide. It may be possible that we can learn to tolerate each others preferred odours. If not, a fallback might be to cover our faces with cloth, like bandits or women in purdah. That way we can ensure our noses are saturated in our preferred scents and shielded from smells we abhor.

    Who knows, if the crucial issue of olfactory preference could be resolved amicably, we might even be able to make headway on relatively trivial issues such as saving what’s left of our planetary life-support system?

    It’s also possible that many Liberals fear the boatloads of undeodorized refugees arriving daily on our shores are really full of environmentalists – disguised with dusky skins and affecting funny accents – and that Mr Abbott’s main reason for wanting to “stop the boats” is concern his deodorized demographic support base is being eroded, boat by boat, by people whose true agenda is to close down coal-fired power stations (don’t they smell delicious!) – and even put an end to the delightful stench of car exhaust fumes on smoggy days.

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  7. quailrancher

    Um, rubbing alcohol will serve quite well as a deodorant, and won’t hurt you. It doesn’t block perspiration, just kills bacteria. Splurge and get the most concentrated stuff. It’s still dirt cheap.

  8. Marcus Harmes

    Interestingly, up to the 1970s my mother taught school children in County Durham who were ‘sewn in’ for the winter – ie their clothes didn’t come off for the entire season. Even allowing that the north of England has cold winters, these children must have been approaching 12th century standards by the time spring came round

  9. @ Syd
    i don’t use shampoo, soap or conditioner on my hair, just cold water. gave up some years ago. it doesn’t doesn’t get too dry or greasy. and i’m more on the conservative side of the divide, for what that’s worth,
    on a tangent, with apologies to the others, what’s with your (frozen) blog?

  10. Intersting. I note that there is a movement among some modern historians to described the unwashed state of mediaeval Christians as ‘exaggerated’ and even ‘a myth’. One such historian on a recent BBC programme even declared: ‘They were probably cleaner than us!’ (speak for yourself, lady). English is full of expressions such as ‘dirty Arab’, yet a recent archaeological dig in a Crusader fort unearthed a skeleton whose mouth was full of rotted teeth, some of which had caused infections that had penetrated into his jaw, while Arabs brushed their teeth several times a day with a twig from the root of the arak tree and were under a religious obligation to wash five times a day and to bathe at least once a week, in addition to bathing after sex, after menstruation etc.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I doubt if the unwashed middle ages are a myth, though they certainly may be exaggerated. Although Marcus’s comment below suggests a fairly grim level of cleanliness into the 20C!

      I think you touch on an important point in mentioning the ritual aspects of cleanliness in Islam. And this, unfortunately, could make washing a matter of suspicion to the Inquisition! In Portuguese Goa, according to William Dalrymple, Portuguese settlers started using twigs from the Neem tree to clean their teeth, like the locals did, but when the Inquisition arrived, growing a neem tree in your garden was enough to put you under suspicion of abandoning your faith and ‘going native’, so some people cut them down to be on the safe side.

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