Dirty Bodies and Filthy Houses : A History

I’ve never claimed to have a clean house.  In fact, with two dogs and three young men living in my house, I’ve pretty given up on anything close to a pristine environment.

Aayla, our Lab mix, is in the midst of a shed, and clumps and tumbleweeds of her hair can be found everywhere.  Nose- and paw-prints mar the view of the backyard through my patio door. Dried baked beans always seem to be part of the decor on my stove top. Twisty-ties don’t make it back onto the bread bag or into the garbage.

And lest you think only the boys and the dogs are to blame, I must confess that my dusting still isn’t done.

So I was intrigued when I saw these books on the histories of personal and household cleanliness (or lack of it).

When they were younger, my boys complained about cleaning their rooms…just as I did when I was young. Why Do I Have to Make My Bed? : or, A History of Messy Rooms explores bed making and other cleaning duties that, throughout history, were on children’s chore charts. This picture book takes a humorous look at everyday tasks when the narrator’s grandmother was a child, and then keeps going back in time through life in colonial America, with the Vikings, and all the way back to cave times.

A picture book for intermediate grades, Big Wig : A Little History of Hair focuses on how hairstyles have changed throughout history, and I include it here because these fashions affected personal cleanliness. In ancient Egypt, people shaved their heads to get rid of bugs and wore wigs to protect bald heads from sunburn. Women in the court of Marie Antoinette weaved various items into their hair—even a birdcage with live birds. And cures for baldness included everything from roasted mice, horse teeth, and deer marrow, to goat pee and pigeon poop.  Krull includes additional facts (“Hair Extensions”) at the end of this outrageous and funny history.

I expected Poop Happened! : A History of the World from the Bottom Up to be just a gross book, perfect for reluctant readers. It IS gross, and it IS perfect for reluctant readers, but it is also very funny and wonderfully informative. Poop Happened isn’t a science book about the digestive system; rather, it is the history of human sanitation and how it affected the development of civilization, and it should be recommended to social studies teachers from fifth grade to high school. Albee’s discussion of all things poo include inventions, discoveries, diseases, and plagues; and side-bars highlight “Hygiene Heroes,” bathroom fashions, and occupations. (Once a knight was in his armor, he could take no bathroom breaks; when he finally got out, one of his squire’s duties was to clean it out.) This book is not just for kids—my oldest sister thought it was great.

In Bill Bryson’s newest book, At Home : A Short History of Private Life, he travels throughout his house, providing a history of the ordinary items found in each room. Though the chapter on the bathroom specifically discusses hygiene and human elimination habits (even in royal abodes, people “went” in corners, hallways, wherever), every chapter made me happy that I live in cleaner times. Bryson’s usual droll humor makes this an entertaining and fascinating read.  At Home is marketed as an adult book, but older teens with an interest in history and trivia should also enjoy it.

Hmmm… now that I’ve read these books, I think my house actually sparkles, in spite of the dust!


At Home : A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. 2010.

Big Wig : A Little History of Hair by Kathleen Krull. 2011.

Poop Happened! : A History of the World from the Bottom Up by Sarah Albee. 2010.

Why Do I Have to Make My Bed? : or, A History of Messy Rooms by Wade Bradford. 2011.

Blogger: Tracey L.