Poland's Museum of Soap and History of Filth offers journey to the past

26th of October 2012
Poland's Museum of Soap and History of Filth offers journey to the past

Polish reporter for ECJ Marek Kowalski brings news of a new museum opening.

In September the town of Bydgoszcz witnessed the opening of the first Museum of Soap and the History of Filth in Europe. In the first three weeks it had over 1,000 visitors while its web page scored 5,000 visits. The museum has been set up over two years. Its founders started by making soap samples for children and teenagers. Their soap production hobby soon turned into collecting artefacts on the history of soap production and other items to do with personal hygiene.

The place presents the history of the bar of soap from antiquity up till now. History can not only be learned from artefacts alone or information boards but also through taking part in soap production. Visitors can also learn about hygiene over the course of human history based on Katherine Ashenburg’s publication The Dirt on Clean and Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages by Georges Vigarello. You can learn that the Romans used to stay in the bath for hours, St Agnes never washed while Louis XIV of France only changed shirts instead of washing. The history of cleanliness is also, or perhaps predominantly, the history of human attitudes towards their own bodies.

Since the end of the 19th century standards of cleanliness for the whole world have been set by America. It is where the first deodorants, tampons, personal hygiene liquids and mouthwashes appeared. Also in America the custom of getting rid of hair from armpits and legs (in case of women) as well as groin sprang up.

As the Europeans were only cautiously enthusiastic towards these rituals, we were regarded as stinkpots. Unfortunately, such an opinion on the citizens of Europe has been repeated for centuries while those who did care for their hygiene were the Muslims, Jews, Japanese, Hindus and Chinese.

The basis for such a different approach to hygiene in the Europeans compared to citizens of other parts of the world was mainly our Christianity. The Christians ignored the body, focusing on the eternal life. The criticism of hygiene started in third century together with ascetic hermits. St Hieronymus claimed that those who were baptised once did not have to wash anymore. Even St Francis was proud of being dirty, St Agnes actually never washed, while St Olympia washed only in illness.

On the other hand, ordinary citizens of Europe did wash at baths which still functioned in Europe until the fifth century. The idea returned to Europe only several centuries later with the crusaders. When wallowing in dirt expired around the ninth century, washrooms reappeared in monasteries and in some west European towns public baths sprang up again, being clean became part of good manners.

Another decline in washing came with the plague that wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. When in 1538 Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote with regret that the "plague taught us how to go without washing", it started the dirtiest period in Europe.


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