The Disappointment of Regency Towels

Wench washing basin gilroy 1810
Joanna here, talking about one of my historical disappointments.

As you're climbing out of the bathtub or stepping out of a shower, how often have you asked yourself – "What did my Regency heroine used to dry her lithe and adventurous body at a similar moment?"

It was not a length of fluffy cotton like I have here. No. Nothing like this here in my hand.

The English and French gentry did a reasonably good job of major bathing, considering they were probably plunging into lukewarm water that had been carted up from the stove in the basement kitchen to their second-floor bedroom. But no Countess or Ladyship dried off with a towel one tenth as lovely and soft as mine.

The mundane washing of hands and face in a basin was practiced all up and down the social scale first thing in the morning and before and after a meal. But that didn’t call forth the soft and fuzzy either.

Even the masters of the bath in that era the Turks didn’t fare as well as I do.

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

There's a bath towel ready over the edge of the tub

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

Here she is tucked up in her hammam towel

The Turks knew bathing luxury. Not for them the English noble’s portable tub in the bedroom or the common man’s rapid splash in front of the kitchen fire. For them the hammam, a communal bath house of gleaming tile and heated pools. And for them the pleasure of rising from the water to be enfolded in the latest technology of towels.

The children's bath 1495

The Children's Bath 1495, with towel and very patient woman

The Turkish bath towel of the period was huge three by five feet big enough to surround the whole body in such bath towel luxury as was available. It would have been made of linen or cotton. In the Eighteenth Century in both the Ottoman Empire and across Europe, cotton was displacing linen as the affordable luxury fabric of choice, so if we want, we can grant our characters towels of the softest, silkiest cotton.

But the towels were flat woven. Smooth cloth. No loops sucking up the excess water. No fluffiness. Even the best of Turkish bath towels of 1810 would be the texture of the tea towels you may have hanging in the kitchen

No soft, thick terrycloth for my Regency heroine.
Quel disappointment.

The towels were maybe plain white in the English bedroom. Time out of mind the Turks had decorated their bath towels with splendid embroidered designs. 

1792 drying hands

Wiping his hands on a white towel

The British, on the other hand, seem to have kept embroidery for bed linens and chair cushions. British hand towels were sometimes embroidered, but the larger bath towels seem to have been plain.

You’re asking yourself, "Why didn’t the English have lovely fluffy towels? What were they thinking?"
It’s the terrycloth technology problem.

Baigneuse aux roseax  1770 france

Bath towels before terrycloth
Degas woman with a towel 1894

Bath towels after terrycloth











Terrycloth has loops that stand up from the surface of the weave. This requires special loom techniques. (They're called Dobby looms, which strikes me as appropriate somehow.) The word terrycloth may be derived from French terre, meaning high, from the elevation of the loop above the warp and weft.

The Turks started making this looped terrycloth on hand looms sometime in the Eighteenth Century. Henry Christy observed this on a visit there in 1833 and brought the technology back to Europe. Terrycloth of silk was made in France in 1841 and the first cotton terrycloth in England soon followed. It went into mass production in 1850 and soon became cheap enough to revolutionize the comfort of washing.

Queen Victoria approved. As do I.

What do you like best about the bath? Is it towels, like me? (Mine are primary RED.) Or those bath salts that foam up? Or just very hot water.

Or are you more of a shower person?

A book of your choice from me goes to some lucky commenter.