Portrait of the Artist as a Man
March 2, 2015


Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”

Benjamin Franklin was probably a pretty stinky, grimy man. If you’ve ever worked with a printing press, they are very physical and tactile machines. You load the paper a sheaf at a time. You spread the ink on the plates and probably yourself. You crank the wheels to run the machine. Repeat, all day, until you’ve printed your quota. A little laborious, though keeping the machine moving helps.

The primary means of hygiene was a basin of water and damp cloth. Though bath houses existed in European. they were not as popular in the colonies as Puritans believed bathing in public houses lead to sinful behavior and, thus, only sinful people bathed regularly (1). Franklin was more a fan of less orthodoxy methods for cleanliness,

You know the cold bath has long been in vogue here as a tonic; but the shock of the cold water has always appeared to me, generally speaking, as too violent: and I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution, to bathe in another element, I mean cold air. With this view I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber, without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing.” - Franklin in a letter to Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg in 1768 (2).

Otherwise, it was believed that changing one’s shirt would keep your body clean. Most people in Europe and America (3) had a series of thin undergarments, similar to today’s undershirts, that were worn as a wicking materials for perspiration and dirt. At the time, people believed that these shirts would remove all the unclean things and simply swapping then out regularly would keep you clean (4).

Germ theory ultimate wins out in the ever evolving standards of hygiene. And I don’t think I’ll be embracing Franklin’s cold air baths for this week though I am intending to be more aware of my general cleanliness. I have a tendency not to shave as regularly as my beard needs to avoid bushiness. I also, especially when sleeping poorly, occasionally forget to brush my teeth in the morning.

And, when rushed, can forgo a shower now and again.

Perish the thought.

For this week, and on going: 1. Wash every morning. 2. Tend to facial hair, including your ridiculously Irish eyebrows.

And though we typically align cleanliness of with hygiene, Franklin included cleanliness of his home to this virtue and I shall do the same (5). I am a generally tidy person but will leave dishes in the sink for way too many nights. I can be better about generally tidying up each day. 3. Take time each day to tidy up the house.

This will be things like putting books away. Sweeping or mopping or what have you.

1. From the book Water, Christianity, and the Rise of Capitalism”. Partly, this belief stemmed from the belief that hot water allowed evil things in which in turn caused sickness which started in the late 17th century because people bathing in dirty water sometimes got the Plague.↩︎

2. He called it a tonic bath.” Read the letter here.↩︎

3. Who could afford fine linen.↩︎

4. This was also the rise of laundries and laundry jobs for women. It was considered low work, not because cleanliness was undesirable, but because you were leaning intimate garments. These are not the sorts of things one should share but the efficiency gained by cleaning in batches won out over the decency concerns.↩︎

5. I included this as part of Order a few weeks back but I believe, now, it fits better here. Order is more about keeping affairs together - keeping dates, business arrangements, schedules.↩︎

Wrestling with Franklin

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