Sunday, September 14, 2014

Keeping clean in the 18th century

The Bath by Sigmond Freudeberg, 1774
One question that crops up again and again when I talk about 18th century cosmetics and hygiene is “Is it true that they never bathed?”  There is a widespread assumption that people who lived then lived their lives in the most appalling filth, costly silks and perfumes covering a body that never touched water. That is not really the truth which is a lot more diverse. A simple yes and no to the bathing question is not possible.

Let’s ask another question, one that is much easier to answer: “Didn’t people in the 18th century want to be clean?”

Yes, of course they did. Cleanliness has always been an important aspect of every culture in history. In fact, cleanliness is an important aspect for every animal on earth, an animal that doesn’t keep itself clean is either sick or dying and that goes for humans as well. It was as important for those who lived in the 18th century to feel and appear clean as it is for people today. However, their view on what were cleanly habits was not the same as is the norm today. The standard of  personal hygiene means, for a lot of people now,  a shower every day, clean clothes every day, aided by washing machines, deodorant, soap, shampoo and tooth brushes. This is normal, this is what we are raised to believe is the minimum of cleanliness. If we would suddenly be planted in the 18th century we would find a world that smelled very differently from our modern world and it would smell more. But those who lived then would not have thought so. Even persons who washed themselves regularly would probably have smelled more than a modern person would think comme il faut, but that none of their contemporaries would ever notice. To understand hygiene in the 18th century we must understand that their view was different from ours, even if their aim, being clean, was the same.

Fashion plate, 1775

Baths, meaning immersion of the body in a tub full of warm water, was not something that everyone did on regular basis and there are a number of reasons for that. To begin with, we have to have clean and warm water. Today we use this all through the day without much thought, we just have to open a faucet in our bathrooms and kitchens, but in the 18th century this was a luxury item. In most large cities clean water was hard to find and to take a bath, a person must first have the means to acquire the water, which mean that someone would have to carry it from the source to the tub and then carry it all away, as most bathrooms didn’t have a plumbing system. If there even was a bathroom, a tub could be placed in a bedroom or a kitchen. If one didn’t do it oneself, then one must afford a servant to do it. There must also be the economical resources to heat the water to the right temperature. So something as simple as a bath wasn’t so simple to have two or three hundred years ago.

There was also a cultural resistance to warm baths, which was still around in the early 18h century,  a widespread notion that bathing in warm water was harmful. Pores were seen as openings in the skin and many doctors believed that bathing made it possible for diseases to enter the body. This idea got more and more unfashionable as the century progressed, though. It is also important to remember that the view on bathing differed from country to country.  In France and Britain public baths were largely closed which made it harder for the general populace to bathe, but in Germany they remained popular. In Russia as well as Sweden and Finland (then one kingdom) people used the sauna.
Toilette Intime by François Boucher

So, what did people do to keep clean?

Well, they bathed. Perhaps not everyone and perhaps not as often as we would like to, but baths were had throughout the century. Soaps of various qualities were easily obtained and most recipe books contained recipes for making wash balls, soap mixed with various substances, mainly herbs and spices, to make the soap goes further and often adding an exfoliating function.

Vaux de Vicomte bathroom with bathtub, toilet, and bidet.

People also took baths for other reasons than cleanliness. The medical profession saw no problems with contradicting themselves and to condemn baths for health reason while prescribing them for getting healthy. Jean Paul Marat is probably the most well-known example of bathing for medical reason. To alleviate a skin condition he spent a large amount of his time in a mineral bath and bathing was what he was doing when Charlotte Corday killed him. Going to spas were very popular as well, were you took to the baths to improve your health and, perhaps foremost, to socialize.

People also bathed outside, in lakes and river, when the weather permitted it. Cool water was never seen as dangerous as warm water and was more and more seen as something strengthening the body and keeping it healthy. When bathing regularly started to become the norm, at least for the upper classes, by the end of the 18th century, cool baths were seen as vastly better than warm.

Costumes de Différents Pays, 'Bains Publics à l'Usage des Femmes Turquea', France c. 1797
Even people who didn’t bath, or who did it rarely, had means to keep clean. In letters and diaries there are mentions of people who were considered dirty and smelly which point that even in a time where people smelled more than they do today, neglected hygiene was remarked upon. People did wash themselves, even if they did not take hot baths. 

With basins and water

Dry baths and sponge baths are a rather effective was of saving water while still getting clean.  With the help of a basin of water, soap and a sponge or towel it is relatively easy to wash the whole body in a minimum of water. In fact, you may even get cleaner than if you take an ordinary bath. While bathing everything loose on the skin gets to the surface, dead skin cells, hair, dust and dirt, mingled with soap. When you emerge from a bath that will cling to your skin and you will need to rinse the body to get rid of it. A bath can be nice and relaxing, but to get clean, you do have to shower or otherwise rinse your body before drying. Louis XV solved that problem with having two tubs, one for the bath and one for the rinse, but then he was a king. Both he and Madame de Pompadour were very fond of bathing and so was Marie Antoinette who bathed in the mornings. In France the bidet were popular, making more intimate hygiene easy, though a basin on a chair could easily be used as well.
Attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck

Another reason for washing was something we modern people rarely think about- the creepy crawlies. Lice and fleas were a problem shared by all and there are plenty of recipes for how to get rid of them. Some gives the advice of washing hair and body with herbal infusions, which perhaps wouldn’t’ work well as pesticides, but would help keeping you clean by default. To be truthful, some other recipes are more hair-raising, like washing the hair with an arsenic solution or anointing the body with a mix of mercury and butter. They might work on the lice, true, but perhaps a bit too well on the human as well.

Woman Searching For A Flea
White linen

An extremely important way to show the world how clean a person was was to have clean linen. It was an aspiration for all social classes to own as many shifts or shirts that it was economically possible.  For example, a budding admiral in the Swedish navy in the 1740’s writes that he owns several dozen linen shirts, while his man servant makes do with eight. Märta Helena Reenstierna, a Swedish upper class lady born in 1753 wrote in her diary in 1820 that she now owned 60 shifts and felt that she didn’t have to get more for the rest of her life. Those who could afford it had linen of different qualities, very fine fabric for the finest occasions and rougher fabric for hunting, sleeping or, actually, bathing. Martha Washington’s bathing shift of blue and white linen is preserved and there are both written sources and pictures of women bathing in their shift. In a time before bathing suits, a linen shift was used for modesty at public baths.

Dental care

Martha Washington's bathing shift
There is absolutely no question that dental care was much less effective than it is today. There were no dentists and if you needed to have a rotten tooth removed you went to a doctor or barber who could removed it with pliers and no anesthesia. They might also get the idea to fill up the empty cavity with some nice poisonous lead. Yikes. But there were a definite interest in caring for the teeth and every collection of cosmetic recipes devote quite a lot of space for various mouth washes and the precursor of tooth paste, tooth powder. Some of these recipes contain things that are too abrasive like pumice stone or sugary things like honey, but there are plenty of recipes that do a rather good job of cleaning the teeth. Tooth brushes came along in the 17th century, but were a luxury item, instead the cleaning were done with a piece of linen fabric, sponges, twigs or roots that was prepared in various ways to work as cleaning tools.


An important aspect of hygiene for every woman is how to deal with menstruations and other forms of vaginal bleedings. Comparatively little is known on how women dealt with it in the 18th century which often makes people assume that they just let it all flow, I think that is wrong and even if there are few mentions of sanitary pads, there are some. Rags made of old and worn out linen had various tasks in a household, as wiping rags, bandages, instead of the non-existing toilet paper and would work as sanitary napkins as well. Even if descriptions of the actual pad are rare, there are mentioned in François-Alexandre-Pierrede Garsault’s L'art de la lingerie from 1771. Called chauffoirs they were made of layers of linen, attached with the help of a belt around the waist. (Thank you Carolyn for drawing my attention to this in a comment at Frock Flicks.)

Ladies Bathing by Claude Simpol, 1717
There is also more roundabout evidence for some kind of protection, like descriptions of a man finding a rag that a menstruating woman had lost while dancing and not knowing what it was. Another roundabout way of getting a glimpse of menstruation habits comes, a bit surprisingly, from crime records. In Swedish court report during the 17th and 18th century it is mentioned that mothers could notice their unmarried daughter’s pregnancies due to the fact that there were no rags to wash after their period anymore.

To my mind there is one thing that no one really seems to think about when it comes to bleeding on your clothes and which really speaks for the use of sanitary pads are the fact that clothes in the 18th century were expensive. You remade and reused clothes until they were worn out and clothes were often sold second hand, given away in wills or as part as a salary. To wilfully spoil your clothes with blood seems totally counterproductive to all this. Blood starts to rot long before fabric do and bloodstained fabric will rot with the blood. True, most of the blood would stain the shift, which was boiled when cleaned, but a heavy period would go through the shift quickly and wool or silk can not be cleaned in the same way. I can’t imagine that women would go around with accumulating blood stains on their gowns and skirts destroying the fabric fibers, not to mention how it would look. And I rather think we would have some written records of women in bloody skirts if that was the norm.

Read more

American Duchess: Georgian Beauty Myths Busted, guest post by me.

Dressed in Time: Fancy a Swim? Going For a Dip 18th Century Style

Frock Flicks: The Gross 18th Century: Calling bullshit on hygiene myths

Historical Honey: Glorious Georgian Bathing

Madame Isis' Toilette: Bathing beauties, 18th century style

Two Nerdy History Girls: The Truth about the Big Hair of the 1770s: Part II: How They Did It


Anonymous The Complete Vermin-Killer, The Fourth Edition. With Considerable Additions, Fielding & Walker, 1777

Ashenburg, Katherine Clean: an unsanitised history of washing, London: Profile, 2009.

Buc'hoz, Pierre-Joseph The Toilet of Flora, London: printed for J. Murray, and W. Nicoll, 1775.

Chesterfield, the Earl of Letters to His Son, 1750

Corson, Richard Fashions in makeup: from ancient to modern times, London: Owen, 1972

Coxe, William Travels Into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark: Interspersed with Historical Relations and Political Inquiries, T. Cadell, 1785

Hammar, Britta  Rasmussen, Pernilla Underkläder, en kulturhistoria, Bokförlaget Signum i Lund, 2008

Read, Sara L., “Thy righteousness is but a menstrual clout: sanitary practices and prejudice in early modern England”, Early Modern Women, An Interdiciplinary Journal, 2008:3

Roche, Daniel The Culture of Clothing, Dress and fashion in the ‘ancien régime’, Cambridge University Press, 1996


  1. Bravissima! At last, some common sense (and sources) on this subject. Thanks for this article, there was a crying need for someone to cover the different aspects of hygene in an informed manner.

    1. I'm very glad that you enjoyed it. I started this blog with the purpose of Writing things with proper sources, just because of all the myths floating around the net.

  2. Another EXCELLENT post on a subject I've been going on about for a long time. In fact, last time I posted about this, I was missing your article about lead makeup!

    Thank you for providing a great summation and your sources! You've covered a useful breadth here, and this kind of knowledge is a must for any student of history. Thank you so much once again.

    1. Thank you! I took down the lead article because I learned some more and it needs to be revised. It will return eventually, I Think. :)

  3. Hooray, Isis, for an informed, considered article, with all the citation trimmings. Excellent!
    Very best,

  4. Thank you for a great article! I came this way via Two Nerdy History Girls' Sunday Morning Breakfast Links. I thought I'd mention that sponge baths survived well into the middle of the 20th century via people like my father, born in 1909. Though I was a teenager in the 60's and showered, he wasn't one to stand under 'running water' or sit in a tub. He did a sponge bath every morning and was probably cleaner than most. He'd learned it as a young man in the U.P. in Michigan when getting your water meant drawing it from the well in the center of town and carrying it home. One made sure they used every drop and didn't waste any of it. A shower was a wasteful thing...

  5. Excellent article. My father always told me that whilst in was in the Army, in Borneo, the soldiers were only allowed a mug of water for washing and cleaning teeth, and they managed it quite well. Consequently, when I was a teenager at home, he used to get rather cross when I was running all the hot water away in the shower!

  6. Well done - good article, nice summary of the topic!

    You may also be interested in the work done by Kathleen M. Brown and published in her book "Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America" (Yale University Press, 2011) ( She also discusses how 18th century western Europeans perceived linen's role in cleanliness. And for fun I thought you might enjoy this quote from the magazine La Belle Assemblée, Feb 1806, p. 15: "The Ladies Toilette, or Encyclopedia of Beauty" the last sentence of which, I believe, could also refer to blood stains from menstruation:

    "Of cleanliness--…A careful attention to the person, frequent ablutions, linen always white, which never betrays the inevitable effect of perspiration and of dust; a skin always smooth and brilliant, garments not soiled by any stain, and which might be taken for the garments of a nymph; a shoe which seems never to have touched the ground; this it is that constitutes cleanliness. To this might likewise be added a scrupulous care to avoid every thing that can indicate functions which undeceive the imagination."


  7. I enjoyed how you showed what is an early bidet. When I lived in France, I loved my bidet and only wish we had them as a usual fixture here in the U.S.

  8. I am so glad to have found this article.
    I am writing an historical romance, putting in as much 18th century information for my readers to enjoy - I like reading interesting facts within a story, I can't be the only one!
    My heroine is preparing herself for her wedding night.
    She is a Lady. Her husband is wealthy. I presume on such an occasion she would wash, and so would he.
    To have a bath or not to have a bath?
    I still haven't made up my mind.
    Your article has helped me enormously.
    Thank you.

  9. Thank you for a great article! I do like this!

    Hygiene Services

  10. Fascinating and a topic not often discussed. I appreciate your sources. Very helpful.


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