OUP: How did you come to write a book on personal hygiene?
Virginia Smith: It all started in Italy when I was as a teenager. All these immaculately dressed people would emerge from tiny dark apartments on malodorous medieval lanes, dressed in spotless white cotton shirts, linen dresses, or white lacy ankle-socks, with lavish jewellery and immaculate grooming, all ready for their daily passegiata. How did they do it and why did they do it? Why was there such a difference between themselves and their environment? At the time I was looking for an MA subject, and cleanliness was something that had been brought up as an historical topic, but only as a general assumption, not as hard fact. There was no secondary source literature, and no obvious sources. So it was a challenge – but I never expected it to take so long! All the time I was on new territory, pretty much investigating on my own, and there was so much to uncover. I started with public baths in the 19th century; discovered the pre-existing regimen of health, and (in the end) worked my way backwards to the Neolithic. And all the time I wished I had a team of ‘excavators’ to help with a project that was really far too large for one person. Archaeologists have the right idea – they would not dream of digging over a site solo, or working individually on a major complex.
OUP: You note in your book that hot baths and cosmetics were considered sinful in 19th century England. Why was this, and what were the main reasons for the move away from this way of thinking?
Smith: The reason goes way back to Church attitudes towards bathing and the body, described in the chapter on asceticism. The Roman public baths and the lavish lifestyle of the Roman state were considered depraved by the early Church Fathers, and their prejudices were preserved in their sermons and writings. Cosmetics and the urban life were also condemned in the Old Testament by the ascetic Judaic prophets, who considered ‘adornment’ a sin. The Protestant Reformation revived these prejudices, and the plague and syphilis epidemics killed off the old medieval hot-baths (the stews) that had served the urban classes – you had to strip-wash at home using basins, to avoid infection. But Cold Baths were discovered to be ascetic, bracing and wholesome in the late seventeenth century, and so began the craze for swimming and sea-bathing. It was only at in the middle of the eighteenth century that the warm domestic bath made a come-back amongst the aristocracy, and was later taken up by the doctors as a necessary therapy for skin-care, and the civilized life. It may seem extraordinary that we had to be persuaded of this; but this sort of professional medical history may mask the fact that preparing large quantities of hot water for private use was quite an undertaking, and required time, space and servants. We can be fairly sure that royalty and the nobility always had these at hand – Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots certainly had their own baths-men and bathing-places (Mary had a bath-house specially built at Holyrood Palace). It was not until the 20th century that we could afford to build palatial bathrooms, with running hot and cold water, in every home.
OUP: Moisturisers and other skin-care products aimed at men seem to be gaining in popularity all the time. What do you think has prompted this?
Smith: Several reasons. Firstly, it was all carefully planned by the cosmetics industry – they spotted a gap in the market in the early 1980s, at about the same time as clothes manufacturers were gearing up to persuade men to be more relaxed about leisure-shopping. They wanted men to spend more on grooming, and they also wanted the teenage market. They have succeeded in both. Furthermore, there seems to be a big potential market outside Europe, especially in cultures where male grooming was never sidelined by Christianity. Secondly, though, I think that men themselves were being increasingly challenged in the work-place by women. Good grooming is to some extent a social power-play which gives you an extra edge – quite apart from being sexually flirtatious, which is always on the cards… But again, it is also just one of those luxuries that used to be reserved for the few, and is now possible for the many. Our appearance is one of the first things we spend money on, beyond the immediate necessities, when we have a bit of extra cash.
OUP: According to recent news reports skin allergies are on the increase. Are we now becoming “too clean”?
Smith: I think Sara Dixon’s article is balanced and judicious – she is right, there is no hard and fast evidence about skin allergies, or indeed the rise of children’s allergies in general. Eczema is a strange disease which certainly has genetic roots – it runs in our family – but may also be affected by environment. It is also connected with asthma (we need a doctor’s view here). The current so-called ‘hygiene theory’, derived from asthma studies, suggests we don’t stimulate our immune system fully in childhood, because we are too clean; a similar phenomenon has also been found in wild and laboratory rat populations. We may need a peck of dirt – but we are right to fear human and animal excreta. I am not sure how this links with the theory of toxic chemical trace elements. But there is a long way to go on this one.
All I would say is that anyone using Johnson’s mild baby bath-oil, and sluicing gently in warm water daily (especially in infancy) is doing no more than our mothers and grandmothers did – and probably going back much further than that. If children in the past suffered no obvious problems from this regime (and in fact benefited by the prevention of the ‘filth’ skin diseases), it seems to suggests that the current rise is from some other cause. I would also add, that dry skin really does need oil to ease the condition; whether that is best applied through water, or directly with the hands is a moot point. Another thought – does it point to any lack of essential oils in the diet? (I can’t at the moment see any historic case for this.)
OUP: What is your own beauty regime?
Smith: I certainly spend more freely on my grooming and adornment than I ever used to! I have also learnt a lot about cosmetics – like learning to love my feet, and my teeth. I floss nightly, and regard it as a relaxation, and a time to think, and do feet and finger-nails as often as possible. I spend more time on grooming, at least since I was a teenager. I put that down to middle age and grown-up children – who had time or need when they were small? Going out to part-time work stopped me from being a complete slob. I always admired trim neatness and cleanliness, but could never quite achieve it myself. Perhaps that’s why I take an outsider’s view!
OUP: What is your favourite book?
Smith: It’s a toss up between anything by Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, and anything by William Golding. I do think that Golding’s Pincher Martin is one of the greatest books I have ever read, and I use Golding as the standard by which to judge all modern writers. He is also very much a historian’s writer because of his sheer empathy with his subjects, which cover a huge time range, from The Inheritors onwards.