Keeping it Clean – Georgian and Regency Bathing Customs

Joanna here, talking about Georgian and Regency bathtubs and the joys of getting clean.  The_bath-stevens C19
There is a general view that historical people were rather dirty, there being a dearth of historical folks getting up at six and grabbing a bar of soap and popping in to warble un bel dì vedremo in the shower.  I'm afraid we all feel rather smug about our acres of colored tile with the running hot and cold.

How clean were they?  The townsfolks as they merrily hung aristos from the lamposts, Ninon de l'Enclos, Voltaire, (Did you know Ninon left money in her will for the 9-year-old Voltaire to buy books?) Napoleon, Jane Austen, the kitchenmaid grinding coffee in the morning? How clean were they?

Degas woman washing her left leg 1883 to 6 the met This is a case where the written historical record tends to desert us, somewhat, as folks do not record in their diary, "I got up and Mary-the-perky-maid brought me six liters of water and I washed my face, hands, underarms and, last off, various parts south of the waistband." any more than we text to our BFFs to say we've had a morning shower.

So we end up making some 'best guesses' about this whole business.

You had your everyday getting clean.  You had your gDegas-edgar-the-tub-bathing-woman-1886etting wet for recreational purposes. And you had your washing the body to treat diseases.

This last one gets written about a lot in a 'I went to the baths to see if I could get rid of this nasty skin condition' or 'the physician prescribed a course of cold baths with sulfur powder in them and I feel much better now that I have stopped' sorta way.  Marat, you will recall, was in exactly such a medicinal bath when Charlotte Corday brought it, and him, to an abrupt end with a knife.

Rowlandson comforts of bath the bath Medicinal Baths and Thermal Spas.  The mineral baths at Bath and other spa towns provided an immersion intended to improve the health, not so much wash the body, though it did that too.  Some places there were separate baths for men and women.  Some places, everybody bathed together.
They went into the water dressed. Wearing their periwigs and bonnets.  I should think the fumes did neither periwigs nor bonnets much good, frankly.

Up at four o’clock, being by appointment called up to the Cross Bath . . .  very fine ladies; and the manner pretty enough, only methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water. Good conversation among them that are acquainted here, and stay together. Strange to see how hot the water is; and in some places, though this is the most temperate bath, the springs so hot as the feet not able to endure. . . . Carried away, wrapped in a sheet, and in a chair, home; and there one after another thus carried, I staying above two hours in the water, home to bed, sweating for an hour.
         Pepys' Diary

Let us leave the whole subject of medicinal baths very quickly, as it is generally unpleasant, even if you're not getting stabbed.

Though I should point out that folks still do this medicinal bath bit, in the way of putting baking soda in a bath for some poor sufferer from poison ivy, and modern herb baths hold anything from lavender to chamomile and thyme.  The 'it's good for you' bath is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Beaumont 3rd quat c19 Out in the Fresh Air.  The opposite of taking a bath because it was good for you was getting wet just for the fun of it.  Any warm day would probably see the local youths sporting in the local river.  There are a good many references to folks doing exactly this — including a Paris ordinance forbidding nude bathing in the Seine, but only near the bridges — to avoid the scandalizing the public.

Pepys, in his diary, notes the sad death of a young boy bathing in the Thames.
and at Somerset-stairs do understand that a boy is newly drowned, washing himself there, and they cannot find his body.

Or this Englishman travelling in America.
Early the next morning, my kind, attentive host entered into my bedroom and inquired if I should like to take a bath. I replied in the affirmative, and immediately rising, was conducted to one in an adjoining field which is filled by a small brook and is therefore always fresh.
          A summary view of America, Isaac Candler  1824

Period pictures are not an entirely reliable guide to actual practice.  Showing folks bathing in pools and rivers is a great excuse to paint nekkid people, after all.  But from an extensive personal survey,it looks like bathing — where folks actually got wet all over as opposed to wading in the water — tended to be young people and they were segregated into women and men.  

Bathing in the sea, for fun and medical benefit, became fashionable in the Eighteenth Century, with 'bathing machines' on offer from mid century. 

The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes-
A sentiment open to doubt.
          Lewis CarrollMermaids at brighton 1825

Bathing machines were high-wheeled wagons, with a canvas or wood structure on top, towed from the shore into the sea. 

Image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each  end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the Benjamin west last quarter C18 the bathing place at Ramsgatecarriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he  moves and fixes the horse to the other end – The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up.
                                   Tobias Smollett  1771

Men plunged into the waves starkers.  Small children, of course, went into the water naked, as they do in European countries today.  Women wore a long flannel shift, sometimes with lead weights sewn into the hem to keep the skirts from floating up.

In all this bathing, women took to one end of the beach and men the other, so modesty was maintained, in any case.  Hefty and agile attendants supervised so folks didn't drown, a real possibility when wrapped in several yards of soaking flannel, I should imagine.  

But how did people wash? I hear you asking.  How did they keep clean?

Public Baths.  In France, the custom of public bath houses, cheap, respectable and widely available, Le bain economic des incroyables de la rue dela tannerie a quinze centimes never died out.  This was an amazement and joy to travelling Englishmen and women who have left us detailed records of the process since this was something they did not have at home. 

Paris baths had private rooms with hot and cold running water, big tubs, fireplaces, nicely heated robes and towels, waitresses offering coffee and drinks, and a selection of bath oils and bath herbs.  There were also bathin g pools for both men and women and, in one bath on the Seine, swimming lessons for both.
I'm surprised English folks every went home again.

Meanwhile . . . at home. In England, in this period, folks did their actual getting clean by sponging off with a pitcher of water and a little basin on their dresser, or by immersing themselves in a tub not too different from a modern bath tub, or by standing in a smallish tub on the floor and washing with a pitcher of water.

The habit of washing the body and the introduction of wash basins and portable bath tubs began to spread among wealthy households in the late 18th century.
     The Family, Sex & Marriage in England 1500-1800 
Laurence Stone

You had yer bath tubs.

I think and feel that, after a day's bard riding, there is no luxury comparable with a 'warm bath—it is so grateful and refreshing, and disputes the title of "tired nature's sweet restorer" with sleep
The Inspector, literary magazine and review, Volume 2

These were not necessarily in a 'bathroom'. 

The idea of having a room devoted to washing in a tub goes right back to the Seventeenth Century.  Pepys mentions such a bath in a private home.

Thence with Mr. Povy home to dinner; where extraordinary cheer. And after dinner up and down to see his house. . . .  his grotto and vault, with his bottles of wine, and a well therein to keep them cool; his furniture of all sorts; his bath at the top of his house, good pictures, and his manner of eating and drinking; do surpass all that ever I did see of one man in all my life.

But this would have been rare.  Rooms devoted to bathing were for palaces and the grandest mansions.

Jonghe late c19 apres_le_bain Moveable tub baths were more common.
What folks of middling means did when they wanted to take a bath was fire up the hearth in their bedroom, pull a screen round to close off the drafts, and send for a tub. 

And water.  They had 'running water' of a sort.  They sent a footman to run and get it.  It came up in biggish cans, generally one hot and one cold.  A housemaid might linger nearby and keep a kettle on the fire and add more hot water from time to time as the bath cooled.
This process was what you might call, labor intensive.  Water and bath hauling was done by footmen.

Warning:  Author anecdote time.  My father grew up in a house with exactly this kind of 'running water'.  His job was to go to the well and carry in all the water used for cooking, cleaning, bathing and washing for a household of ten people.  It will come as no surprise that he ran away to sea.

How common were these tub baths? Adam 1842 crop

Every house of every nobleman or gentleman, in every nation under the sun, excepting Britain, possesses one of these genial friends to cleanliness and comfort (bath tubs).
           The Mirror of Graces (1811) 

So the British may have been well behind their continental counterparts in the matter of home bath tubs, just as they were in matter of public baths.

And when there was a tub in the house, it's worth noting that its use involved a whole production.  Boiling water, carting it upstairs, and then carting it down again after use.  I wonder how many of the ordinary gentry folk would have seen this as a daily necessity when you could get just as clean with . . .

Basin and Pitcher.  This was the standard wash equipment all through the period.  

Basin and pit 1795 sevres metWashing with a pitcher of water would be part of the morning routine, or undertaken again after a long day of work or play.  This was what you'd expect to find waiting for you in a decent inn.  This was the normal way folks got clean. 

Pitchers held about the largest amount of water one person could easily manage to pour.  Call it one to two gallons.  (Four to eight liters.)  You wet a towel or flannel and washed yourself, using the basin to catch the used water. Or you might pour the water in and splash it on yourself.  Basin stand mid c18 VandA

The towels, by the way, weren't the fluffy terry cloth we think of today when we say towel.  That's mid-nineteenth century fabric.  Our Georgian and Regency folks used woven linen to dry off.  Cassat woman bathing

The soap would most likely have been spherical, about the size to fit in the palm of the hand, because that's how it would have been form — piece by piece between the palms of the hand.  Your character might have called this a 'wash Silver soap ball attrib British museum ball'.  

It would be kept in a soap ball holder on the washstand. After the 1790's the soap might have been 'Pear's Soap', which was transparent and flower scented. And . . . There might be sponges. 

Your basin and pitcher might sit on a sideboard or Toulouse lautrec 1896 washing a dresser, or you might have a fancy, purpose-built washstand in the corner.  It was typically a maid who brought the pitcher of hot water up to you. The amount of water was limited by the amount you could lift and pour yourself.  That meant a maid could easily carry it. 

How clean did you get, washing this way? 

I don't see any reason to believe you couldn't keep yourself just as clean as bathing in a tub.  Even today, this is 'how it's done' for most of the world's population. 

Whether our Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folks felt the need to wash as often as we do today or righteously refrained from washing on the grounds that it 'opened the pores' and let sickness in . . . I don't think anybody will really know.

It's not a British reference, but:

Having completed it, [my work]  I went to the stream to wash myself thoroughly, and then to the sailor's chest to change my coat, that I might make a decent appearance at breakfast, and give my sons an example of that cleanliness which their mother was at all times eager to inculcate.
                   Swiss Family Robinson 1812

And Beau Brummel advocated frequent washing. 
On the other hand, he felt he had to advocate frequent washing.

Rub a dub dub.  A couple final questions remain in my mind.

Bad-mit-schokolade c17 Why the devil did women sometimes wear their shifts in the bathtub?  And what is with putting a sheet along the bottom of the tub?

I have cogitated upon this from time to time when I am not concerned with other great issues of the day like, 'Why does the car always break down when I have to be somewhere in twenty minutes?' and 'Why are taxes so complicated?' and 'Why would anyone name his kid Cedric? Isn't it obvious he's going to be a supporting character and come to a sticky end in a graveyard?'

I won't call this the final word on sheets in bathtubs . . . But this is what I think:
There is cloth on the bottom of the tub because these tubs were either (a) wood and full of splinters or (b) metal and cold.

  So why are women wearing a shift in the water?

I think bathing in a tub was seen not so much as washing to get clean, as it was an enjoyable interlude. 

Think of modern habit of spending an hour reading in the bathtub.  If it took a couple man-hours to prepare and clear out that tub, it seems to me you wouldn't put your household to that much trouble and then not take full advantage of it. 

Washing with a basin and pitcher was solitary, but tub bathing, by its Romanet2 1774 le bain nature, was a group effort.  It seems to have been something of a social occasion for some folks.

Marie Antoinette wrote:  I dictate from my bath, into which I have just thrown myself, to support, at least, my physical strength. I can say nothing of the state of my mind;"

If Marat had not been of the opinion that receiving visitors in the bathtub was an unexceptional practice he might have lived a while longer.

So maybe — a shift was worn for modesty when the bedroom was apt to be crisscrossed by servants running errands and you planned to be in the tub a while? 

washstand from the Victoria and Albert. Ewer and basin, soap ball, and the Degas statue of Woman Washing Her Leg are from the Metropolitan Museum. 


What do you think?  Were they clean and sweet in Regency times, or deplorably . . . uncleanly. 
(Not Mr. Darcy.  Say it ain't so.)