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!