Book about clean­li­ness stirs mem­o­ries of grimy boy­hood

The Compass - - OPINION - 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 gh­wal­

I’ve just fin­ished read­ing a book that made me itch. Truly. 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 unex- pected 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 aro- matic 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. Truly. 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.

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