Saturday, June 30, 2012


by Wanda Luce
According to Francis Bacon in 1605, “Cleanliness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.”  The religious reformer, John Wesley, furthered this belief by coining the phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Hmmm.  Well, although I could not think it the first in a lineup of ways to show reverence to deity—for certainly the state of one’s heart and substance of one’s deeds merit the upper numbers in that distinct list—it does bear consideration as an essential component of man’s reverence for himself and others. After all, anyone who has been subjected to the dreaded stench of b.o. will quickly assert that cleanliness is at least a great service to mankind.
We are extremely fortunate to have running water, but a great many generations have had to maintain a semblance of good personal hygiene without such conveniences.  But did they? Well, let’s take a quick look at what our ancestors did to get ready for that special someone.

I’ll wager you have all had those dreadful moments when your nose has been accosted by the smell of someone who has not thought a shower or bath worth his while.  We are most of us too kind to make a stink about “the stink,” but it never escapes us, and most of us head in the other direction if at all possible.  But what did they do a couple centuries ago before Mitchum or Degree arrived on the scene to spare us such unpleasantries?  Well, hang with me for a few more paragraphs, and I’ll give you a few tidbits.

The Medieval set had some interesting notions.  Some in that time thought bathing was a form of sexual debauchery.  Others thought a person who bathed allowed the devil to come into him.  Still others believed that allowing water to touch them when naked could make them very ill. In spite of those who held to such silly ideas, a great many did subscribe to the benefits of washing themselves, especially during outbreaks of the Black Plague.  They found that frequently washing their hands and surroundings with warm water, wine, or vinegar helped reduce the Plague’s spread.
Medieval kings and lords and their ladies had special rooms set aside just for bathing or had large tubs brought into their rooms.  Imagine the work it took to put together such a bath.  First, servants had to draw the water, then heat it, and lastly cart it to the bather’s room.  Perfumes, scented oils, and flower petals were often added.  If peasants looked with envy on the lifestyles of the Medieval rich and famous like they do today (and I am sure they did), then they must have been jealous of their ability to regularly enjoy such luxury.

The less fortunate usually drew one bath for the whole family, and they all used the same water.  The eldest bathed first then the next oldest and so on.  From this came the saying “don’t throw the baby out with the water.”

Peasants rarely submerged themselves in water rather they cleaned themselves with water and a rag.  Occasionally they savored the indulgence of some soap out of animal fat and wood ashes.

You might be surprised to know that it was standard practice to wash one’s hands before entering the great hall for a meal.  Knights brought home soap from the east during the crusades.  Before that, water and the oils of flowers were used.

And of course, rivers, lakes, and ponds were used for washing in the warmer months.  If you are familiar with the expression “you will catch your death of cold,” then you understand why washing by the poor was often reserved only for warm weather.

I write Regency-era romances and have done some study on bathing practices during that time period.  In the early 18th century it was customary to wash one’s hands and face daily, but full body bathing was only done once every few weeks or months!  Egads that’s scary!  By the end of the century, however, cleanliness had begun to come into vogue, especially as a result of Beau Brummel’s example and advocacy.  Free-standing showers powered by a hand pump began to be used by those who could afford them

Well, if you want to have a little fun, follow the link below and make yourself a batch of homemade soap using lye.  If you are really adventurous, make the lye yourself.  Don’t forget to mix in some great scent then hop in the tub with it and get a taste of the bathing experience in past centuries.

Wanda Luce, Regency Romance Author


  1. Whenever I explain that my eighteenth century ancestor only bathed every two months - and considered it such a note-worthy occasion that he entered it in his diary - I am met by a barrage of complaints that I have got it all wrong and that many people washed regularly.I am sure that they did, but....not everyone, and certainly not my ancestor! Even washing his feet was considered worth diarising - and that was rare indeed! If a bath was taken in less than two months, my 4xGreat grandfather referred to it as "resuming my bath" as if it was one continuous process.

  2. don't forget there are plants that produce a natural type of soap - saponins - eg "soapwort". It didn't always have to be animal fat and wood ash!

  3. What an interesting post. Let's hear it for Beau Brummel. Hear, hear!

  4. We made soap as a high-school chemistry class project (this was ages ago -- nowadays they might say it was unsafe because of the lye, I suppose). We used food coloring to make it a pretty pink. I don't remember whether we added scent to it. If the teacher could make the soap lather, we got a good grade.

  5. What a very interesting post! Of course, being a historical author, I heard a lot of this as well. It really baffles the mind to think they didn't realize they didn't have a regular bath every day. I'd heard from somewhere that this is one of the reasons people married in June - because that was when they had their baths. UGH! lol

    Good post, Wanda!

  6. Being a soap maker I can tell you that you can't get to soap without lye...

  7. I'm somewhat obsessed with the bathhouses of London. There were quite a few of them, & from what I've read, many even had a day reserved for women once a week. I love the scandalous cartoons about Lady Worsley being spied upon in one.

  8. My grandmother was born in 1909 and lived much of her earlier years in a rural area of Maine, as did her ancestors. I remember her telling me many stories, and I don't think they were "stories" -- about how she remembered when deodorant was invented, and how her sister was so happy because she had trouble with body odor... about how her neighbor, Mrs. Jipson, had a bottle that she kept that was called "Mrs. Jipson's Bluepot" -- one would pee in the bottle, it would get collected and eventually ferment, or do whatever urine does when it's been stored in a bottle for a while, and then Mrs. Jipson would use it as part of the laundering process on clothes (my grandmother used to snicker and say, "you can imagine what THAT smelled like on a hot day under the arm pits of a dress, when someone was perspiring!"). I can't imagine that e.g., hygiene in rural Maine at the turn of the 19th century was a whole lot different than how many people lived in the previous century, be it England or NEW England. Makes me wonder if everyone stank to high heavens and therefore body odor wasn't noteworthy, or people just accepted it as part of life. Besides the (by our standards) abyssmal bathing habits, add in the fact that people didn't have the sheer number of clothes that we have today -- maybe one good set of clothes for church on Sunday -- and the ones they did have didn't have the benefit of Tide and then a round of nice-smelling fabric softener. The people stank, their hair stank, their clothes stank. I don't think I'd want to go back and live then!

  9. Can I just point out that there is a world of difference between bathing fully immersed in water and washing one's entire body on a very frequent basis with just a small bowl of hot water, a clean cloth (not a rag!) and soap?

    The former takes great effort, as you have briefly alluded to. The latter takes less effort, saves on water and still ensures one is very clean.

    The idea that a person didn't bathe for four weeks is missing the point - they didn't IMMERSE themselves in water entirely in those four weeks.

    I have been on caravan holidays in a 1933 caravan which had no bath facilities. Those holidays consisted of travelling to steam fairs to have the old 1933 caravan on display to visitors to the fair. Those sites did not have any shower facilities. Moreover, the sites were usually windy, and dusty being in various farmer's fields.

    It is NOT pleasant going that length of time without washing ones hair or one's self. The bowl of hot water, soap and flannel method worked very well indeed. The water was a kettle-full with a little cold added. A new bowl full was made for the hair to be washed and then it repeated for the next bather (there were 4 of us).

    In the past, it was expected that people would change their linen in a daily basis - as it was made of LINEN - the BO smell is non-existent. That is an important factor - natural fibres breathe and don't "smell" so bad unlike man made fibres that are often, plastic based, and therefore hold any smell that is generated.

    As one commentator said above, some people wouldn't have been particularly fastidious - but there are many now that aren't - but is that a reason to state that ALL people weren't clean??

  10. Firstly, if you eat a healthy diet with fruit and vegetables with as little meat as possible, you don't get B.O. under your armpits when you sweat. Deodorant has only been available since the 1970's, and when I asked my mother if everyone smelt terrible beforehand, she said no. Bath's were only taken once a week too. Our need to wash our whole bodies daily is not actually good for our skin, it leaches the natural oils and makes it necessary for us to smother ourselves in sweet smelling chemicals to get it back to its original condition. If you don't wash your hair, your hair will begin cleaning itself, shampoo and conditioner are terrible for hair and will make it necessary to use more to get your hair back to its 'healthy' condition.

  11. I would think the people would have been inventive and used what they could.

    B.O. comes from bacteria (we have lymph glands under our arms). Whether one eats meat or not, if the immune system is weak and the body has a lot of living bacteria, body odor is more likely.

    One way to take care of odor is to wash with a tad of borax in the water- maybe a tablespoon to a gallon. Borax kills bacteria off and it works very well and is not toxic used that way. I use borax water on my kitchen sponges, too. That way I don't have to throw them out till they actually look bad.

  12. To the person who said deodorant has only been available since the 1970s, I can tell you they had it in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia, the first commercial deodorant was patented in the late 19th century.

  13. Deodorant was available in the early to mid 60s in the UK, I'm old enough to remember it. Mum Rollette. We bathed once a week because heating water was expensive. My grandfather never bathed as such, he was born in the late 19th century. He maintained that bathing weakened you.

    I understand that servants in big houses were expected to keep themselves clean and free of BO but had to do so in cold water.

  14. Even now, many people in Europe don't take a full bath or shower each day. They believe it's bad for the skin. They do wash their faces and underarms, etc. When I was stationed in Germany in the mid-70's deodorant wasn't used much, but it didn't take too long to get used to the scents. I remember my mother using deodorant in the '50's.

  15. There was soap of a basic kind which was soft in England before the Crusades. I researched this for my novel the Handfasted Wife set in 1066-1068.


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