A brief history of human filth

How did people deal with perspiration and other bodily odours in earlier centuries? Amanda Vickery reveals all...

This article was first published in 2011

Illustration by Owen Davey.
Illustration by Owen Davey.

In the words of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, “Dirt is simply matter out of place.”

The human history of dirt is the saga of our battle to control environmental filth and channel human waste out of sight, out of mind. Not that ‘dirtiness’ or ‘cleanliness’ are unchanging across time, space and cultures.

Filth undoubtedly has a fascinating past: from the godly cleanliness of 17th‑century Delft, to the triumphant introduction of carbolic acid as surgical antiseptic in 1860s Glasgow, the co-opting of hygiene to promote Nazi ideas of ‘racial cleansing’, to the slums of contemporary New Delhi. The definition and management of dirt determines civilisation.

Dirtiness is in the eye of the beholder. In Japanese homes, for example, visitors are asked to exchange their shoes for slippers at the threshold. Traipsing outdoor mud across clean floors is offensive. Moreover, the toilet is always separated from the bathroom. The western habit of combining the two is disgusting to Japanese sensibility.

The English have been harping on about cleanliness since the early modern period, but cleanliness now and cleanliness then mean different things. We moderns wage war on domestic ‘germs’ armed with chemical weapons, but a practical understanding of bacteria is comparatively recent. The Victorians blamed cholera on airborne miasma. A star exhibit in the 2011 Wellcome Collection exhibition ‘Dirt’ was the ghost map produced by a heretical doctor John Snow – plotting cholera deaths around contaminated water pumps in 1854.

For centuries, the only easily available disinfectant for splashing around was vinegar. It was ordering, tidying, dusting, polishing, rooting out bad smells, scenting, weekly laundry of linens and washing of hands and face that maintained the wholesome house and person.

Disguising muck was routine. “To hide the dirt, the boards of the dining room and most of the other floors in the town were made of a brown colour,” noticed an architect in Bath in 1749. But observers still knew filth when they smelt it. “The dirt and nastiness is beyond description,” complained Lady Mary Coke about some Paris lodgings in 1772. “Added to which the smell of cat’s dirt makes it almost insupportable.”

It seems strange that a people so keen on cleanliness were so unwilling to wash in water. Since the great plagues and the closing of public bathhouses, western Europeans believed that bathing was positively bad for you. Skin protected the body from putrefaction and disease. Toxins left the body as perspiration, menstrual blood, urine and faeces.

Submerging the body in water risked the re-entry of toxins through the pores and orifices. Yet you had to be seen to be clean. The solution was to change your body linens frequently. The linen chafing your skin absorbed the toxins you had excreted and could be fiercely washed even if the body could not. So a flourish of bright white linen at the neck and the sleeve publicised your hygiene. And because “Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness,” as John Wesley preached, spotless linen exhibited virtue.

When we criticise those who ‘wash their dirty linen in public’, we remember this antique link between clean linen and purity. Joseph Lister introduced white lab coats and aprons – that could be boiled and starched – as the uniform of his brave new world of aseptic hygiene at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the 1860s. Yet the white coat itself would be condemned as a carrier of infection, replaced with surgical scrubs.

The history of filth is no linear tale of science beating back slime over the centuries. The more successful our economies the more detritus we create. Faecal contamination of water is rife in the developing world and latent everywhere after disasters. Ultimately putrefaction awaits everyone.

“Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” Or as an inscribed bowl made in 1661, and excavated from a London sewer, reminds us: “You and I are earth”.

Amanda Vickery is a writer, presenter and historian. She is also professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London.  

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