Did they or did they not?
The question that so often comes up for writers and readers of romance set in the 18th century is, ‘Did they all stink!’
I am of the belief if people are able to keep clean and fresh they will. Extremes of poverty, sickness, ignorance and lack of facilities can impact on levels of hygiene but generally people don’t enjoy being unclean.
There surely was an element among the poorest of society in the 18th century that lived in appalling conditions. They stank, they were often sick and they died young. It’s been estimated that the average age of death for a male living in the poorest part of Liverpool in this era was 25! Death at such an early age hardly allows the individual to gain adulthood and bring up children. This is no knock at the beautiful city of Liverpool, I would guess Manchester and Birmingham were nearly as bad and I am certain London was worse.
If you had the misfortune to live in the squalid rookeries, you lived a short and wretched existence.
However, if you belonged to the blossoming middle classes you had options, and if you belonged to the upper class there is no way you would live stinky!
I know from my visits to Soho House, home of Matthew Boulton, a colossus of the Industrial Revolution, opportunities for bathing were desired.
The fabulous Mr.Boulton had a bath house built, which was warmed and had hot water provided by a steam engine. He also had warm air central heating in his house and an ingenious water closet, a flushing lavatory! Mr. Boulton belonged to the group of industrialist who gained great wealth by their efforts and found new and marvellous ways to spend it. Should you ever get the chance to visit the small museum in what was once his home, do go. It’s a lovely place. I’ll be telling you more about Mr. Boulton and the Lunar society in one of my later blogs.
Private bathing at home in the 18th century was a total luxury. The activity required lots of work if you didn’t have the type of devices Mr. Boulton had to help you.
Heating water took a lot of effort, as did carrying it to the required place for use. No effective plumbing in most homes meant that the bath itself was not fixed in place but could be moved from room to room. Thank heavens for well muscled footmen. Once you had actually bathed, someone had to get rid of the used water too. Whew!
Despite these difficulties people did bathe. They bathed in warm water for healing purposes, as does my heroine in A Gentelman’s Folly, and they bathed for cleanliness. Cold bathing was advocated for health purposes too.
If a full bath could not be accommodated in a house then what we might call strip washes did take place. People used smaller shallow basins to stand in and jugs of water to wash. Not quite the luxury of a bath but not too bad.
The first shower was invented in 1767 by William Freethman.
Soap was used, not quite the type we are used to, but soap balls could be made to a range of recipes and not all included deadly chemicals. These had been in use since the Tudor period. Soap was made on a comerical basis as well, though we might think of it as more like a cottage industry.
Here I give you my final evidence to support the idea people bathed regularly. The English government instituted a new tax charge in 1711, of one penny per pound of soap produced by soap makers. If there hadn’t been money in the industry they wouldn’t have taxed it.
Pears is the company credited with the first commercial bathing soap and this was invented in 1789. This company still make soap today.
Along with bathing at home it was possible in London to visit a bath house, sometimes also known as a Bagnio. These were places where people could bathe, get a massage too and also procure a prostitute in some cases.
There is a considerable amount of evidence to show bathing wasn’t off the agenda in the mid 18th century. Check here to see some additional details of available bathing establishments in both Glasgow and London.
People in the 18th century may not have bathed daily but they did wash and they used soap. In addition they used perfumes ranging from homemade scented waters made in country houses to perfumes made for them as individuals by costly perfumiers. Linen would be clean each day if you were wealthy. To have plenty of linen was seen as a clear sign of wealth.
Thankfully then, with all this evidence to suggest he’d not be adverse to a quick splash in the tub, I can stop worrying about my hero’s personal hygiene. I can only hope he can convince Katherine to lay off the face paints too.
Day 6 will be all about hair, the grooming of it, styling it and shaving it. Do drop by.
*Duckie image from Microsoft.