A common question poised to those of us who reenact the 18th Century — “Is it true that they never bathed?” It’s unfair to assume that just because hygiene standards were different in the 18th Century, people didn’t care about cleanliness. People DID bathe in the 18th Century.
There is a widespread assumption that before we had reliable indoor plumbing and showers, people who lived then lived their lives in the most appalling filth and used perfumes to cover up body odors. There are also myths that insist that many people immersed themselves in water for fear of catching horrible diseases. That is not really the truth.
Of course, people bathed and attempted to keep themselves clean. Cleanliness has always been an important aspect of every culture in history. In fact, cleanliness is an important aspect for every animal on earth, an animal that doesn’t keep itself clean is either sick or dying and that goes for humans as well. It was as important for those who lived in the 18th century to feel and appear clean as it is for people today. The technology to keep clean, however, was vastly different to it appears that the habits was not the same. After all, if you do not have hot running water, how do you shower every day, clean your clothes every day, and such. Our attitudes are driven largely by our experience and when it’s so easy to be clean, we make assumptions.
In the 18th century, the perceived effects on the body of the cold and warm bath were debated regularly in medical literature. Similarly, the social motives for bathing were evolving. One might bathe for pleasure, as a restorative of good health, for hot weather refreshment, as a luxurious display, or for actual, bodily cleanliness? Baths were sometimes hot, as an indulgence or luxury, or chilled to promote vigorous physical rejuvenation and strength. A bath in which the entire body was submerged, or showered with water, was generally taken for reasons of pleasure or preventative health maintenance, and in some cases, as a type of remedy for a particular affliction but rarely concerned with actually getting clean.
So, what did people do to keep clean? Well, they bathed. People bathed outside, in lakes and river, when the weather permitted it. When they could not bathe outdoors, they would wash themselves, with what we would call a sponge bath. Sponge baths are effective and unlike an immersion bath do not require copious amounts of water. With the help of a basin of water, soap and a sponge or towel it is relatively easy to wash the whole body in a minimum of water.
More important than bathing, however, were the cleanliness of the linen “small clothes” worn closest to the body. It was extremely important way to show the world how clean a person was to have clean linen. Those who could afford it had linen of different qualities, very fine fabric for the finest occasions and rougher fabric for hunting, sleeping or, actually, bathing.
So, next time you feel your kit is a little too clean by 18th Century standards, remember that Washington issued this order during the Siege of Boston in 1775:
“The General does not mean to discourage the practice of bathing, whilst the weather is warm enough to continue it; but he expressly forbids, any persons doing it, at or near the Bridge in Cambridge, where it has been observed and complained of, that many Men, lost to all sense of decency and common modesty, are running about naked upon the Bridge, whilst Passengers, and even Ladies of the first fashion in the neighbourhood, are passing over it, as if they meant to glory in their shame: The Guards and Centries at the Bridge, are to put a stop to this practice for the future.”
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