Book about cleanliness stirs memories of grimy boyhood

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I’ve just finished reading a book that made me itch.

Harold N. Walters


If you read it, Katherine Ashenburg’s "The Dirt On Clean" will have you clawing at your flesh and shopping for a fine-tooth comb — just in case — or considering a complete clipping of your topknot.

The book traces the history of human cleanliness pretty much from the days when Neanderthal man stood in thundershowers to sluice off the daily dust until today when North Americans wash themselves so frequently they are possibly initiating global drought.

As well as exploring the history of rub-a-dub-dubbing "The Dirt On Clean" answers two questions, neither of which — I don’t s’pose — has ever entered your mind:

What is a strigil?

How often did Queen Elizabeth I bathe?

Since many folks enjoy tidbits regarding royal dirt, I’ll tackle Queen Liz’s ablutions first. Apparently, Good Queen Bess scrubbed her bod from wig to buckled slippers with unexpected frequency for the times — Once a month!

Her penchant for such regular washing of monarchical flesh was instrumental in coining a remark that has become cliché: Queen Bess bathed once a month whether she needed to or not!

No, I didn’t make this up. It’s in the book.

Now to answer the first question.

A strigil — a metal instrument about the size and metal gauge of BBQ tongs with a bend at one end resembling Captain Hook’s hand; used in lieu of a luffa brush.

In Roman times, long before LifeBouy soap first floated, folks dodged off to the communal baths, strigil in hand. Strigil and a jug of aromatic oil. At the baths they proceeded to oil their bodies from Roman nose to Roman toes. Then they waded into the bathing pool up to their chin-chopper-chins and soaked for a spell. Emerging from the common tub, Romans laid hands to their strigils and scrope themselves clean, using the curved edges to shave the muck-like layers of gunk from their refreshed hides.

Truly. It’s in the book, eh b’ys?

“Harry, my lustrous love,” says Dearest Duck, the only person on the planet I’d allow to strigil my aged flesh, “you’re being disgusting again.”

“Nay, my Duck,” say I. “This book has awakened long-dormant memories of my rural roots.”

“You’re going to say things to turn my stomach,” says Dearest Duck.

“Nay,” say I again. “I’ll mention times p’raps best-forgotten.”

“I’m not listening. I’m going to the Mall.”

“I’ll press on nevertheless,” I call towards her back.

Queen Bess would appreciate my often grimy boyhood. Believe this: I didn’t have a bathtub bath until I was 13 years old.

Of course I washed. Mammy saw to that.

My bay-boy home lacked indoor plumbing, so water was lugged from a distant well in buckets sometimes steadied by a hoop. Or, if rain was plentiful, washing water was dipped from a barrel placed beneath an eave’s trough.

Saturday was scrub the youngsters night. I was a youngster, therefore oblivious to any adult ablutions that took place anywhere except by the kitchen stove.

Rainy Saturdays the water barrel, a bucketful at a time, was emptied into Mammy’s galvanized scrubbing tub. The tub was topped up, its contents made tepid with boiled water from the kettle.

We scrubbed by size: brother, sister, firstborn Harry.

When I was on the cusp of puberty, for modesty’s sake, a bed sheet pinned to a line of string provided a smidgen of privacy. Because I was a Big Boy and my skin less delicate than my younger siblings, Mammy handed me a bar of Sunlight soap and said, “Scrub.”

Despite my youthful grime, I had no strigil. Yet sometimes, when even the astringent powers of Sunlight failed, I used my pocketknife’s blade, or p’raps a sharp-edged split from the woodbox, to scrape away a stubborn scab of turpentine caked on an elbow or a knuckle.

Partly by custom, I s’pose, boys wore pyjamas only when sick in bed. So, immediately after the Saturday scrubbing I pulled on my other pair of underwear, be they summer briefs or long winter woollies.


The final chapters of Ms. Ashenburg’s itch-inducing book implanted fear. There may come a time when Muskrat Falls runs dry that we’ll be forced to return to Saturday scrubbing, or sometime similar.

God forbid, eh b’ys?

Thank you for reading.

— Harold Walters lives Happily Ever After in Dunville, in the only Canadian province with its own time zone. How cool is that? Reach him at

Organizations: Captain Hook

Geographic location: Dunville

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