Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Annals of Bathing: Episode 2

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Susan reports:

I think Loretta pretty well established yesterday that historical cleanliness was often more a matter of class, convenience, and personal preference than any wide-spread cultural mandate. 

While very few people had the fantastical luxury of this 18th c. French lady, left, with her large tub and half-dozen attendants, most people of every rank made some effort to wash at least their hands and face on a regular basis. By 1790, theologian John Wesley (1703-1791) was sternly preaching that "Slovenliness is no part of religion. Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness", and most Englishmen would have agreed.

It's the total-immersion part of bathing that wasn't universal. Even among the wealthy who could afford to have servants heat and carry water to fill a tub,  it was often considered a suspect practice, even unhealthy. Early science maintained that the pores "opened" when the body was relaxed (such as when lolling in a warm tub), admitting all kinds of dangerous poisons. Far safer to wash piecemeal with a damp cloth.  And despite all those recipes for lovely scented soaps, it seems that soap, being made from lye and animal fat, often irritated the skin more than it helped clean it, and most people went for water alone. (This from one of the NHG's absolute fav books, Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Filth, Noise, & Stench in England.)

There was another dreaded danger, too, as described by diarist James Boswell (1740-1795) in 1763: "A warm bath is, I confess, a most agreeable kind of luxury, but luxury is very dangerous....Above all things a young man should guard against [its] effeminacy. I would advise him to avoid warm baths and accustom himself rather to the cold bath, which will give him vigour and liveliness." Cautiously Boswell restricted his own warm-water bathing to his feet, which he admitted gave him "a kind of tranquility."

But there was no doubt that outward cleanliness was perceived as a sign of gentility. In his oft-quote letters to his son, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) stressed the importance of clean hands for gentlemen, for "nothing looks more ordinary, vulgar, and illiberal than dirty hands, and ugly, uneven, and ragged nails."  Or, as one popular proverb went: "Wash your hands often, your feet seldom, and your head never."

More to come. . . .

Above left: The Bath, by Jean-Baptiste Pater, 1730

7 comments:

Christine Trent said...

So, do you think that bathing was restricted to special occasions? In other words, would the average person have at least bathed for his own wedding? My 21st century mind is trying to wrap itself around the idea of standing at the altar with someone who has flies buzzing around his head and fleas jumping onto my dress. Blech.

Ingrid said...

You don't imagine the flies and the lice as being mutual, Christine?

What horrifies me most is the thought of tooth decay and the accompanying bad breath, which must have been prevalent before modern dentistry.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Christine, I'm sorry about the fleas and lice! *g* But just because not everyone took full baths doesn't mean they weren't clean; they just might not have been clean by 21st c. super-clean standards. Most people of the middling sort and above were just as horrified by lice and fleas as we are now.

After all, while most teenaged girls today will wash their hair at least once a day, and sometimes twice, many of their grandmothers' generation still are going to the beauty shop for a wash and set only once a week. It's all relative....:)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ingrid, I can't imagine the dental disasters, either. Not only was a trip to the tooth-drawer the only lasting answer to toothache, but because of limited diets and a lot of alcohol (for nearly everyone, even children, drank at least small beer as a safer alternative to water), there probably weren't too many people with a full set of teeth in their mouths. By the 18th c., there were toothbrushes and those recipe books include mouth washes to preserve the teeth, but it's still pretty rudimentary. Though good teeth, too, are a fairly recent idea. My grandmothers' generation all assumed they'd end up wearing dentures, while my kids have no cavities. That's progress! *g*

Christine Trent said...

Ingrid, in my 16th-18th century fantasy, no, I do not have fleas and lice...only my potentially horrid husband does. I am, of course, 21st-century pristine. :)

The dental thing hadn't even occurred to me. Ugh

Do you think we'll get progressively cleaner? Will we live in antispetic personal bubbles one day? *g*

Liz said...

Thank you so much for answering my question, TNHG. This week is fascinating!

Loretta Chase said...

Byron was particular about his tooth powder, and had it sent from London to Venice. IIRC, on his 30th birthday, assessing his state, he reported having most of his teeth. I certainly know of members of the WWII generation who had false teeth by the time they were in their 30s, so I guess he was doing all right.

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