Why Are the Dutch So Clean?

5 April 2010 at 1:42 pm 4 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Folk wisdom holds that people stopped bathing after the fall of the Roman Empire. Thus, it is commonly held that all of Europe was, until recently, quite smelly indeed. Some hold the view that this is still the case.

There were serious exceptions, of course. I cannot resist mentioning a particularly well taken example, reported by the prior of St. Fridswides, John of Wallingford, “who complained bitterly that the Danes bathed once a week, combed their hair regularly, and changed their clothes regularly. The result was that English women were easily seduced by the nice-smelling Danes” (here).

A perhaps better-known example of European cleanliness is that of the Dutch. It is also the most seriously researched example. In the 17th and 18th century, visitors to Holland wondered about Dutch cleanliness, indeed, obsession with hygiene. Some have argued that this, somehow, reflected Dutch Calvinism. No, argue Bas van Bavel and Oscar Gelderblom in “The Economic Origins of Cleanliness in the Dutch Golden Age,” the reason is . . . butter! And here is the explanation (Abstract):

This paper explores why early modern Holland, and particularly its women, had an international reputation for cleanliness. We argue that economic factors were crucially important in shaping this habit. Between 1500 and 1800 numerous travellers reported on the habit housewives and maids had of meticulously cleaning the interior and exterior of their houses. We argue that it was the commercialization of dairy farming that led to improvements in household hygiene. In the fourteenth century peasants as well as urban dwellers began to produce large quantities of butter and cheese for the market. In their small production units women, and their daughters, worked to secure a clean environment for proper curdling and churning. We estimate that, at the turn of the sixteenth century, half of all rural households and up to one third of urban households in Holland produced butter and cheese. These numbers declined in the sixteenth century as peasants sold their land and larger farms were set up. Initially the migration of entire peasant families to towns, the hiring of farmers’ daughters as housemaids, and the exceptionally high consumption of dairy products continued to encourage the habit of regular cleaning in urban households. However, by the mid-seventeenth century the direct link between dairy farming and cleanliness was, for the most part, lost.

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Institutions, Myths and Realities, Papers.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lawrence H. White  |  5 April 2010 at 3:22 pm

    A couple of years ago I complained about workmen in my house leaving a mess behind and got the reply that “we are not scrubby Dutch maids”. Thanks for the explaining the origins of the phrase!

  • 2. Randy  |  5 April 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Fascinating economic history!

    Is this a technology spillover?

  • 3. Bronwyn Hall  |  7 April 2010 at 12:10 pm

    I remember my wonder when I first moved to Maastricht, living among the shops, and saw the shop ladies scrubbing the stone steps in front of their doors in the morning before opening (on their knees, often).

    But isn’t another cause the seafaring tradition – cleanliness on a wooden sailing boat that was at sea for 6 months or more was very important.

  • 4. Shari Kinninger  |  14 June 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I use to scrub my front porch steps with cleanser and a scrub brush, than rinse it down with a hose, that is what Scrubby Dutch is, very clean

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