Believe me, I do not enjoy it when I am forced to assume a lecturing and somewhat preachy “school marmish” tone with my blog readers, but there we have it: it is often necessary. For those of you who are young or non-English native language readers, a “school marm” is what the female teacher in a one room school house used to be called back in the prairie and Western settlement days. It is slang for a woman teacher who has to keep a strict rein on her pupils, who are rowdy and undisciplined. So with that as a foreword and forewarning, here is the subject: how modern notions of “cleanliness” have contributed to destroying the planet’s health, has reduced rather than improved human health, and has resulted in unbalanced mental and emotional views about “cleanliness.”
This is mostly going to be a history and social lesson and rumination, but here is the theology link: The often quoted “cleanliness is next to godliness” is not a quotation from the Bible. In fact, the only cleanliness referred to in the Bible was related to 1) religious injunctions and strictures, 2) hospitality and 3) spiritual and soul cleanliness, not the vanity of the body. I’m going to return to this subject later on and describe how “cleanliness” “worked” in Biblical times, but first I need to give my mostly youthful and affluent readership a few rings on the clue phone about recent history of modern “cleanliness.”
Let us start with the primary concern (aka obsession) among westerners, which is “washing” by using water in either a bath or most modernly the shower. Baths have, in general, become passé and are often not even installed in modern structures, with the assumption being everyone either uses the shower or if they want to “soak,” they do so for recreation, social and erotic reasons in hot tubs, Jacuzzis and so forth. So to keep it simple let’s talk about showers in the modern vernacular, but understand that all bodily washing previous to the past several decades was conducted in a bath tub or other container.
Why is this? Well, my young and spoiled audience, until recently having water pumped into a house at all was a luxury, not something that one would squander in a running shower that goes right down the drain. Further, the fuel to heat the water was likewise scarce. For nearly two thousand years since Biblical times until pretty much the 1950’s, water and the fuel to heat it required often backbreaking work to prepare and was expensive for the average impoverished or marginally poor family. Now here’s the rub: just because for two thousand years people did not shower that does not mean they were “dirty,” “unclean” or “smelled bad.” That is one of the great delusions of this post-intellectual society where people have skewed and distorted notions regarding just about everything. So I’m going to tell you “what it was like” as recently as the 1950’s, when I was growing up.
There is an old expression “the Saturday night bath.” This came about from the reality that the average poor family did indeed have a bath only once a week. The water was pumped from outside the house and carried by many trips with the bucket into the central location (usually the kitchen), where a large tub was filled with the water, cold water. However, if this was to be a warm bath, each bucket of water was heated, using precious coal or cut firewood, before being added to the tub. Then each person in the family took turns in the tub, using the same water.
One of the housekeeper’s main chores was to keep the family with a good supply of soap, which was made by hand by each family. What is soap? Soap is a substance that facilitates cleaning. It is not an antiseptic, as so many crazy people think today, though it had a slight element of it. Here is how soap “works.” Soap is made up of a combination of three substances that do the following: one dissolves dirt, one is abrasive to scrub the dirt away, and one is slightly reactive in an astringent way, kind of a slight antiseptic but also to make the dirt bubble up somewhat as it is scraped away. Thus soap is made up of a fat (from either an animal or plant oil), an abrasive such as ashes or sand, and a reactive material such as lye. The fat dissolves the dirt and outer layer of skin, the abrasive sloughs it away, and the reactive material makes it easy to remove and is somewhat antiseptic. Now people did not know about germs and so forth but being farmers and animal hide tanners they knew about rot. That is how people over the years realized to use substances such as lye in soap, without realizing they were also destroying some germs.
So having a bath was a huge amount of work, with hauling the water, heating it up, and using preciously made soap, for most people who were until modern times poor and of the lower classes. Even when most homes had hot water bathrooms and bath tubs in the 1950s onward, poor people still maintained a high standard of cleanliness in between infrequent baths. Whoa, wait! Did you read that right or did I make a typo? Did I really mean to say these poor slobs maintained a “high” standard of cleanliness? Didn’t I mean that they were dirty bums? Nope, I meant what I said. How did people “stay clean” when they only had weekly baths? They were EXPECTED TO STAY CLEAN ON A ROUTINE DAILY BASIS. Even men who worked in the coal mines and so forth, or in the field, in dirty jobs, were expected to stay as clean as possible on a daily basis. How did they do that? It’s a wonderful invention called a washcloth and a bar of soap. For several thousand years humans kept themselves clean by using the hand water pump located outdoors or in modern times, brought inside via a sink through modern plumbing, to “wash up” using a bar of soap and a washcloth. Imagine that!
That is exactly how things worked in my household growing up, and that is how I maintain my body, for the most part, to this day. We had a bathtub and a warm water plumbing but my dad being born in 1903 and my mother being a war refugee kept themselves clean on a daily basis, and taught me to do the same, until one had the weekly, or if for reason more frequently, full bath. That’s one reason I have lots of wonderful washcloths, and not because I have psychic solidarity with former POW Senator John McCain who as a POW realized one’s one washcloth was one’s only and most treasured possession. People who were thrifty with resources (water and fuel) either to be thrifty, from necessity, or because to procure them meant back breaking work, learned how to maximize cleanliness while causing a small “footprint” on earth resources over a period of hundreds of years. I have persistently favored a bar of a good soap, washcloths, and a once or twice a week bath, PERIOD.
The exception to what I outlined above was that small children received daily baths (and think about it that usually was in the kitchen sink or in a basin.) I still remember very well the small white galvanized basin that as a baby I was put into and washed: not filling up the tub until I was older. The basin had a red rim and two holes, which fascinated me as a baby (the holes were for hanging the basin if needed). So babies were washed daily, even by the poor, since they were seated in a small basin that was easy to fill with warm water. They didn’t drown too many babies back then while “bathing them” either. Being thrifty is also being safe, in many cases. The other exception in the 1950’s was when more and more kids, even in poor neighborhoods, had sports activities and access to school showers. People today do not realize what a change that was in how things were. So my brother was expected to shower at school, if he could, when he was in sports. Our cheap mother would otherwise argue and begrudge him using the shower or the tub in the house. See, I can share this with you because as I’ve pointed out in previous blog postings, I’m old enough to have personally experienced and can witness to you how the older generations lived, how they thrived, and how they coped and made do.
So let’s look at this wonderfully “clean” generation. We have droughts everywhere and the cost of water is going up, but people think they are filthy and damned if they don’t have a lavish shower, where the water runs down the drain, every day. Do they use regular biodegradable bars of soap? Nope. They use “bath products,” which are filled with chemicals that damage the environment and also the skin. So rather than “keep it clean in between” on a daily basis as my generation did (except for the rich ones of course who always had what they wanted, LOL), these same young people who worry about one’s “carbon footprint” sneer at someone like me who “keeps it clean in between” and who does not take a daily shower.
The same is true of washing one’s hair. NO ONE washed their hair on a daily basis anywhere in the world, EVER, until the last fifty years or so. People understood that washing the hair strips it of its vital oils and makes the scalp unhealthy, rather than “clean.” This is the origin of the old saying “one hundred strokes” came from: women used to brush or comb their hair with one hundred strokes every night to stimulate the scalp and distribute the hair’s natural oil. (That, by the way, is what a bird does when it “preens” its feathers. The bird is grasping each feather in its beak or bill, squeezing until the oil glands exude oil, and then spreads the oil in an even coating over each feather. That is not just beauty treatment; that is survival necessity as birds must be waterproofed using their natural oil in order to survive). Women would wash their hair on the weekly ‘bath day’ and to keep it clean in between they would comb or brush their hair and scalp with one hundred strokes.
The downfall of soap came about through two causes. One is the desire to have beautiful fragrance at a cheap price, so instead of using genuinely natural scented flowers and herbs, modern “bath products” are packed with artificial chemicals and colors that look and smell “like” “natural” substances, but are not. Indeed people are just scratching the surface at realizing how packed with cancer and pollution causing chemical such “cleanliness” products are. The other is the obsession with germs and doing a “thorough” cleaning, which means packing cleansers with nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other chemical compounds, rather than the good old formula of oil/lye and abrasive. All of this crap, along with the wasted water of daily showers and the heating energy uses, is squandered each and every day by millions of people who think they are somehow better people for it than their grandparents who kept themselves clean as needed, and not according to one’s overheated imagination.
I spoke up about this through my local Audubon society at a city council hearing when I was in high school (1969-1970 as I recall) when modern laundry detergents, packed with nitrogen and phosphorus, were causing the lakes to be destroyed via algae blooms. For forty years I have been warning that the “cleanliness” craze was helping to destroy the planet (while, ironically, no one wants to build latrines for the over one billion people in the world who still crap in the fields and the streets). People would read and drool over science fiction like “Dune,” while then having their daily shower packed with artificial chemicals that harm both the environment and the body’s health, rather than enhance it. People don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom or handling raw food, but boy, they brag about their daily showers and their hair gels. They pay to go to fitness centers but they sneer at me for using a washcloth at the sink, as needed, and scrubbing, rather than standing like a rich moron under a shower and letting the water run down the drain.
For quite a while I have given up. I buy the lotions and bath potions in the dollar store because I like how the pretty bottles look, and artificial fragrance is all that the average person can get these days. I rub the hand creams packed with chemicals into my hands because frankly, my dears, I don’t give a rat’s ass anymore, since no one acts upon my warnings (except to make things worse, apparently) anyway. But that is one reason why I still buy and use Vaseline. No, not because like so many people I dream about anal sex. Vaseline is a natural product (from the petroleum process) that is great for skin care. My stepfather, bless his soul, used it for his aching muscles when he would work as a car mechanic, finding it helped far more than the chemical laden modern products. So people giggle at my washcloth as needed, my bars of soap, my Vaseline, my preference for a bath than a shower, while at the same time they are destroying the planet and making carbon and water “footprints” bigger than the clown shoes of Bozo the Clown.
So that takes us back to Biblical times. Jesus did not shower. Moses did not shower. Mary did not shower. Peter not only did not shower but he worked as a fisherman, and the gutting and cleaning of fish is one smelly job. The Prophet (PBUH) did not shower. Further, in the Qur’an you can read with great clarity what the spiritual philosophy behind the Bible scriptures is but that most moderns seem to miss. Washing was done in Biblical times primarily for 1) honoring God and 2) as hospitality. People washed to maintain their cleanliness before God, not because God was allocating bodily shower times. Thus the Bible contains instructions for the Israelites for RITUAL washing. Further, as everyone walked the “must wash” “bits” were the feet, and as hospitality, a host would provide such water and a basin and towels. This is why Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles, not because you were getting a glimpse of Biblical water hygiene. So here is where the Qur’an makes this clear for Bible readers who somehow miss that point. The Qur’an explains that worshippers are to wash their feet, their arms up to the elbows, and the face before worshipping God. The Qur’an then says that because God is not trying to make it difficult for people that if water cannot be found then sand can be used for the ritual cleaning. Again, it is impossible for the observant reader to miss that when the scriptures allude to washing it is only for ritual (worship of God) and hospitality reasons. The scriptures are not designed to remind a person to “keep it clean in between” since that’s just part of life and common sense is it not?
Further, what does God command when he wants a good odor in front of him? Not to squander the world’s water with prideful daily showers when they are not needed. No, God asks for sacrifice of incense at the incense altar when he wants a “good odor.” God has never sent a worshipper away for not bathing often enough or not smelling good. Sheesh!
I mention this because of the “cleanliness is next to godliness” old adage that has absolutely no Biblical or scriptural basis whatsoever. I mean, the scriptures do not tell people how often to go pee and poop since that is an “as needed” basis that has nothing to do with sanctity, does it not? But speaking of which, here is more scriptural history for you. During Biblical times people peed and pooped wherever it was convenient. It was often done in the fields since fertilizer came from both human and animal waste. People would “go” whenever and wherever they had to go. They did not have community locations or latrines, as logical as that may seem today, for the reason I just mentioned, that the fields were viewed as benefiting from whatever human or animal soil is placed there. But archeologists recently found evidence that one sect, centered in one village actually had a location outside of the village where people trekked to do their business. That was a great rarity and actually gave modern scientists realization that what seems like advancement in “cleanliness” actually caused a problem. Analysis of the soil along the path to the common latrine reveals that there was a higher evidence of harmful bacteria around that village on that path, rather than less. Why? Because people tracked the bacteria on their feet in the same places over a long period of time, allowing concentrations of bad stuff to build up rather than disperse naturally. Sanitation illness may have been HIGHER among the village that had the shared location to void outside of the village than the other Biblical villages where people just went, mostly in the fields, where it was convenient, and did not beat a path of bad germs.
This is another example of how modern people are too quick at thinking they are superior to “the old ways” and so much “cleaner.” I’m all for latrines and toilets (and again, why are over a billion people in the world not having their sewage concentrated and treated, if moderns are so interested in cleanliness). But think about that example, where without understanding the transmission of germs, that one sect’s village might have thought they had a great idea, which is everyone walk one path to a common place to poop, but instead made a germ highway that could not biodegrade, while the more primitive majority system of “going” in the fields when one needed to meant that nature could handle the biodegradation more thoroughly and without spreading and packing down germ pathways.
Before they were conquered by the whites the American Indians of the plains, the Lakota in particular, often had individuals who lived to their nineties in age and even their hundreds. Yet they did so without having daily showers and chemical laden cleansers. How did they do it? There are two keys. One is that the buffalo meat was incredibly healthy for them, along with the other natural foods that they ate. The other was that they remained active. People don’t “live longer” or are “cleaner” by having daily showers with huge carbon footprints laden with artificially scented and colored chemicals that then rush out the drain to pollute the environment, resist biodegrading and possibly cause cancers.
If I ever attend a Steelers game (which I have a lot of trouble imagining) I won’t mind at all waving my “terrible towel” except that, being mostly modest and authentic, it will be one of my “terrible washcloths.” Perhaps I could attach a hard milled bar of soap with a chain to the end of a stick and wave it as a medieval flail as my environmental and cleanliness message. Course a bar of soap, even as a flail, never hurt anyone, but a chemical filled plastic (pollutes and large footprint) pump containing a chemically filled “liquid soap” would probably do much more harm, as it most certainly does in reality. A bar of soap (for those of you who have forgotten what they look like) dissolves after use, is highly biodegradable, and comes in a waxed paper wrapper, which is also mostly harmless and biodegradable. But hey, why go with that when you can mock while using your daily high footprint plastic container and chemical biodegradable resistant goop that is flushed down the drain in order to strain the water purity even further than it already is? Who really “smells bad” in THAT case?
I hope that you have found this “helpful.”
Here's the reading from the Qur'an:
Surah 4:43 O you who believe! do not go near prayer when you are intoxicated until you know (well) what you say
[This is saying to not go to prayer while drunk but wait until one is sober. Alcohol is of course forbidden in general in Islam, but God here is specifically prohibiting approaching him in prayer while 'impaired.']
nor when you are under obligation to perform a bath
[This means that you must first perform any ritual washing]
-unless (you are) traveling on the road
[In which case one can pray as needed along the way and take the measures listed below]
-until you have washed yourselves; and if you are sick, or on a journey, or one of you come from the privy or you have touched the women, and you cannot find water,
betake yourselves to pure earth, then wipe your faces and your hands; surely Allah is Pardoning; Forgiving.
So this is not a list of times, places and methods to wash the body as one would take a modern shower, but rather it indicates the circumstances under which one must ritually wash before approaching God. So if you have ritually washed, but then before you arrive at the prayer place one of the above circumstances occur (such as going to the bathroom) and you are no longer near the water place, you can use pure earth (sand) to wash one's face and hands.