Right now, all of us either are or should be very vigilant about washing our hands, but for much of human history, that wasn’t the case. Hand-washing as a social responsibility is a fairly new concept.
To learn about how that concept developed and when and why it emerged, I called up Peter Ward, a professor of history at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Clean Body: A Modern History. Over the phone, we discussed the history of hygiene, when people started washing their hands, and why we usually wash our hands—and it has a lot less to do with medicine, and a lot more to do with social acceptance, than you might think. Highlights from our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follow.
To start off, tell me a little bit about your book, The Clean Body. What’s the central argument?
The book is a history of personal hygiene in the West from the 17th century to the recent past. It’s about how people have thought about their bodies and treated their bodies.
In the 17th century, people didn’t have baths regularly. They thought that to be clean, it was enough to change their underwear and wash their underwear frequently.
The first person I mention in the book is Louis XIV of France, who had two baths in his adult lifetime. They were both for medicinal reasons. He had headaches and his doctors recommended baths. It didn’t work to cure the headaches, so he lived another half century and never bathed again.