|The Bath by Sigmond Freudeberg, 1774|
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|
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|
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.
|Martha Washington's bathing shift|
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|
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.
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.
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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
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