Monday, April 22, 2013

Bathing beauties, 18th century style

There is a widespread view that people in the 18th century didn’t bathe and that is, perhaps, not completely untrue. There was a widespread belief that it was dangerous to the health to immerse the body in warm water. A warm bath was also a matter of economics, clean water was a luxury in most large cities and to that the added cost of getting, heating and disposing it. But during the century, bathing for health became more and more popular, preferable cooler bath and getting clean wasn’t the big issue, more a bi-effect. Not bathing, however, isn’t the same thing as not trying to be clean. Though the standard for cleanliness was certainly laxer than today, people did wash themselves. A small amount of warm water and a piece of cloth work quite well. There was also a reason for washing that we modern people perhaps don’t think about- vermin. There are a number of recipes, often water based tinctures with various herbs, that body and hair should be washed in regularly to keep lice and other creepy crawlies at bay.

Bathing and washing were quite a popular theme in art, often disguised as an ancient goddess, but here are a few pieces of artwork that seems to be a bit more anchored in reality. Please obeserve that nudity is afoot.
This robust beauty climbing out of her bath, could in all probability be a realistic depiction of a wealthy lady bathing. Her maids are ready with towels, one is getting something from the vanity and the bed is prepared for its mistress so she can rest after her ordeal. There is even a girl keeping watch so no one can peek at the naked lady.
Bather by Jean-Baptiste Pater, circa 1730
Bathing in the open did occur in the late 17th century, Louis XIV, for example, was a keen swimmer and both ladies and gentlemen of his court swam as well. And though I have yet to find anything about this habit occuring in the 18th century, it is plausible. And these ladies, bathing in their shifts do seem more grounded in reality than all the supposed godesses of the 18th century that usually bathe in the buff.

Summer by Nicholas Lancret

The Bathers by Jean-Baptiste Pater, first half of the 18th century

A little porcelaine lady preparing to wash from a basin.

Bathing nude by Hoechst
Perhaps the aim is clean feet, like Boucher's beauty below. This painting had a pendant, now lost. I wonder what it depicted.
A Young Woman Taking A Footbath by François Boucher, 1766
The bidet was very popular with aristocrats in France and Marie Antoinette is supposed to have owned several.

La Toilette intime ou la Rose effeuillee by Louis-Léopold Boilly

 An 18th century bathing shift in blue and white linen, owned by Martha Washington.

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Mud baths were defintly taken for health reasons.

Late 18th century engraving
The most famous bather of the 18th century is probably Jean-Paul Marat who was famously killed by Charlotte Corday in his bathtub in 1793. He suffered from a skin disease and spent much of his time in a medicinal bath.

Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793


  1. Lovely post! I hadn't seen many of those pictures before.

    1. I understand that these people took bathes now, I still don't understand how did they do it? Could you break down their routine for me?


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