Monday, June 24, 2013

To bathe or not to bathe, that WAS the question!



 As a fan and an author of historical fiction, I often get asked how clean people actually were in the past?  Of course in my novels, my hero always has clean white teeth and smells of musk and spice, or perhaps if he’s a captain of a ship, he smells of salt and fresh wind.Equally, the heroine smells of roses or lavender or fresh sunshine!  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  But in truth, people rarely bathed in the past. For one thing they didn’t have the convenience of running water, so to put a bath together meant lots of heavy hauling of water from the well or creek, then heating kettle after kettle over the fire and then carrying it all to the bath tub.Yikes!!  Can you imagine doing that each night?

Though bathing and bath houses were quite popular before the 16th century, bathing lost its popularity in the next two centuries. Attitudes toward bathing changed dramatically, most likely due to the immorality and decadence that took place in most bath houses.  Bathing tended to be looked upon as sinful and being dirty and grubby reflected one’s inner purity. In other words, the dirtier and smellier you were, the better a Christian you were!  Bathing was considered egotistical and focusing on oneself instead of on Godly matters.  (Note: I'm so glad that isn't the case today or I don't think the whole church experience would be that pleasant!) 

Dirt was also believed to be a protection against germs and body odor was considered normal and alluring.  From the late Middle Ages through to the end of the 18th century, medical manuals advised people to only wash the parts of the body that were visible to the public; the ears, hands, feet, and face and neck. If it became overwhelming, powders perfumes ad layers of clothing could hide the grime and smell. Or you could carry around a bit of snuff or for a lady, a vinaigrette around your neck to clear the smell from your nostrils if needed.

In fact, the quality and condition of one’s attire became vastly more important than the cleanliness of the individual. Clean crisp clothing reflected one’s social status as well as the condition of one’s soul. The wealthier the person, the more changes of clean clothing they possessed and the better standing they had in society. Weird, huh?

Oh, can’t you just get a whiff of your handsome hero now?

However things began to change during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A weekly bath became commonplace. Factories and other places of employment would give employees a half day off on Saturday to allow them time to prepare for the Sabbath on Sunday.  The half day off allowed time for the hard labor and time required to draw, carry, and heat water, then fill the bath and then afterward empty it. Bath water was shared by all family members, starting with the parents and moving down in rank through the children to finally the youngest who would have to bathe in cold, filthy water.   This is where the phrase came from: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water!



33 comments:

  1. I was born in 1935 and I remember us taking baths in one of mother's wash tubs from water pulled from the well and heated on Mother's wood stove. The tub was in the kitchen by the stove to stay warm. And, it is true that several used the same water. But with a large family, I do believe the water was changed at least once. We could always wash off with a rag in between times tho. And, I remember we always had to wash our feet before we could crawl into bed. We got our lesson's by oil lamps. I was about 11 years before we moved into a house with a pull chain electric light. Our first inside toilet too. I thought it was a mansion. LOL I enjoyed reading this MaryLu. Thanks MAXIE mac262(at)me(dot)com.

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    1. My Mom was born in 33 and she remembers the same thing.. Isn't it amazing how times have changed? I don't know what I'd do without my nightly bubble bath! LOL

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  2. Great post, MaryLu. Of course we can't write this reality in our books. Can't you just imagine?

    Lady Maude embraced her beloved Lord James and breathed in the alluring smell of stables, old cabbage, and many days of sweat.

    Or something like that. LOL!

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    1. LOL Louise.. I don't think we'd sell many books!!

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    2. I'm afraid you'd lose me! lol

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  3. Oh my goodness, MaryLu !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I would have "NEVER" made it, living in those yester-years of days gone by !!! Filth and body odour "alluring" ??? Uh ... that would be a one-million per-cent, emphatic "NO" !!!
    Unfortunately ... I 'think' there are people "still today" ... who are living in those past theories of not abiding with cleanliness and good smells.
    Most interesting ... but I can hardly imagine it, nor, do I want to.
    Funny ... but along with the cleanliness issues, I have wondered (when reading your pirate and/or historic novels) ... I suppose the women did not (and could not) shave ... yes/no ??? Would they have been as hairy as the men ?
    Trust me ... I was most definitely created to be living in this current century !!!
    Thanks for sharing this intriguing information. The stories, the characters' cleanliness (or lack of it) ... will take on an entirely new meaning now ... when I read future stories !
    Take care, and, God Bless, In Him, Brenda

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    1. LOL Brenda.. yes, I've met a few people today who seem to be practicing bathing customs from 100 years ago. :-( I'm with you.. how did women survive back then? I have no idea about shaving.. I should look that up. I imagine they didn't shave at all. Yuk.

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  4. Great post, MaryLu. I love writing about times past, but for the bath aspect, I wouldn't have liked living back then. I enjoy my daily shower too much! My day never feels complete without a shower.

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    1. I'm with you, Jennifer.. must have my daily bubble bath or I don't feel good. :-)

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  5. I recall my grandmother telling of the weekly bath, and of course, sponge bathing in between. I love your sense of humor! :D Nicely done.

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    1. Weekly bath! Yes. My grandmother said the same thing. I can't imagine. Thanks Kathleen!

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  6. Hello MaryLu, what a post today, yes indeed they didn't bathe often and many did in creeks and rivers too I think..
    I came from a large poor family and the house we lived in for many years had not bathroom, we had outhouse and bathes in a tub filled with heated water...I am 72 now and remember well my early beginnings.
    I love to sit in the tub and soak in bubbles now...it is a treat and most would not consider a bath to be a treat..
    Paula O

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    1. That's amazing, Paula. I know other people who grew up with an outhouse.. I can't even imagine that. I've been so spoiled my entire life with indoor plumbing.

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  7. That is just disgusting! I wouldn't care what society told me what was right! If my hubby smells, I (lovingly) tell him to go take a shower and don't come near me 'til he did! Eek. For me, it is such a good feeling to be clean - inside by God, outside by soap! :-)

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    1. Amen, Cherie.. inside by God and outside by soap! I love it. And I agree about the smells.. but they seemed to think it was appealing?? weird.

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  8. LOL! Yes, my hero and heroine always smell WONDERFUL. Isn't that the beauty of fiction. ;o) I can just see us writing, "And she breathed the the odor of the man she loved. The sent of perspiration and cow manure filled her senses." heehee. GReat post, Marylu!

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    1. LOL. And they always have white, sparkling teeth! I do love fiction!!

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    2. Yes, we can only take so much realism in our fiction, and that's a bit we can do without! lol

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  9. Thanks for this post Marylu!

    I ponder this often along with the chamber pot thing when reading my historical romance lol!
    Just imagine what a crowded ballroom smelled like? ewwww! Maybe one would just get used to it after a while?!
    I actually feel relieved and refreshed a when a heroine finally takes a bath in "steaming water" ahhh!

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    1. I know.. the chamber pot! Uggg.. can you imagine the smell in the bedchambers?? Wow, this is making my historical romances, not so romantic, after all. LOL

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  10. Yikes...so glad this has changed and we figured out showers too - I love my hot showers!! thanks for the reminder.

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    1. Yes.. there's nothing like a hot shower. I wonder when showers were invented.. I will have to look that up. :-)

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  11. Thanks for the post, I also often wondered what it smelled like a crowded ballroom and their breaths after eating dinner.

    Another reminder to be thankful we are for running water!

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    1. Amen! I'm so thankful for running water!!

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  12. I'm so glad you posted on this topic, as I think of it often, when I'm reading historical fiction or watching historical movies. I'm definitely a product of our clean culture.

    I remember about 30 years ago, I needed to take a trip in an RV, which was going to require an overnight without access to running water. It was during the heat of the summer with no AC,generator or hook-ups. I really had to pray and psych myself up to be able to do it. I knew I would be hot and sweaty. How was I going to actually sleep under those conditions? The Lord helped me through this "ghastly" experience--LOL! I was actually able to sleep and not feel totally grimy. Whew!

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    1. I'm like you, Kay.. I can't sleep if I'm all sweaty and dirty.. I must have my nightly bath. How spoiled we are!! Yet, these people back then didn't know any different.

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  13. Thanks for the post, MaryLu. I don't think I could've breathed back then! Apparently nosegays were created for women to sniff when their dance partners got too ripe! I imagine I would have kept one in my face at all times!

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    1. Yes.. I would have one of those nosegays taped beneath my nose. LOL

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    1. Thank you, Helen! Nice to see you here. :-)

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  15. Another thing people take for granted. I am 60 and when I was growing up lived in an old farmhouse. We did not have an indoor toilet and bathtub till I was 6. My oldest brother was 14. When we did get a tub, I think we still only took one bath a week. In the summer, getting sprayed with the hose substituted for a bath.
    I am told that people in the US bathe more frequently than anywhere else in the world. We waste a lot of water. If you are used to what the custom is in your country, it wouldn't bother you as much.

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  16. Ack, just thinking of that dirty water makes me cringe!! I'm not above loving to play in the mud - but let me at least wash myself after with clean water. ;) Great post and so interesting that bathing was equated to sinful things!
    Susan P

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  17. I'm well past the "baby stage" with our kids. They are in their 30's now. I sure remember bathing them in the kitchen sink. They loved their baths, for sure it was a highlite of their day. Sharon, CA

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