People in the past just smelled, it’s true. But they smelled worse during certain centuries. So, let’s talk about bathing. I’ll be going backwards through time, breaking this discussion up over three posts: eighteenth century (here), sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in another post, and then the Middle Ages. And maybe I’ll talk about the Romans in yet another post—they did some weird stuff with olive oil.
So, today: mid-eighteenth century through the Regency: the era, par excellence, of The Romance. Because of historical periodization, the eighteenth-century sort of gets a bad rap. I had a professor tell me once that Early Modern people (1500-1800) smelled worse than Medieval people. And for the most part, she was right—the whole one bath a year thing happened in the Early Modern period, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But by the time we reach the mid-eighteenth century, people who had the means were bathing more regularly. And this is important to know, because a lot of historical fiction—especially the romances I just mentioned—is set in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. People who had access to water—the upper classes, with servants to haul water up the stairs to tubs, the very people we tend to write about, bathed a great deal more than they had been during the previous two centuries.
In her book, Dirt on Clean, Katherine Ashenburg details this period as a transition from clean linens back to water as a means of cleaning one’s self. I’ll talk more about the clean linen thing in my next post. For now, suffice it to say that people of means during those centuries basically felt that changing one’s linens equated a bath—and baths were specifically to be avoided. More on that later.
But from about the middle of the eighteenth century, baths became more frequent—Marie Antoinette began her day in a slipper bath. There were two types of slipper baths, one similar to the bathtubs we use today, and the other an enclosed slipper back—pictured in this post in the death painting of Marat. The tub was shaped like a slipper, closed over the legs like a capsule, and ideal for writing letters and the like. Both types were portable, and would be wheeled into the room. Bidets were also in use during this period (pictured above) and were especially popular at the French court among mistresses for obvious reasons. In 1751, Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Loui XV, was gifted a bidet, and a later mistress of his, Madame du Barry also had a bidet.
The English were not so into bidets. Bidets were thought to lead to immoral behavior, including (gasp) oral sex. If you’re writing a rogue, like I do, give him a bidet. The English instead preferred the hip bath, where one sat in a specially-designed tub of water with legs and torso out of the water. For reference, I’ve got one pictured here in this post.
Also, the English preferred cold baths, good for the constitution, and the water was generally not clear. The method was to “dissolve powdered almond paste, bran, flour or resin in spirits of wine, then casting them into the bath.” (Ashenburg 149) Also, women generally wore a bathing chemise or dress of flannel. In the movie Valmont, Annette Bening’s character the Marquise de Merteuil takes a bath in a chemise. And when Marie Antoinette stepped out of her bath, a sheet was held before her to preserve her modestly in front of her attendants. Full nakedness was something to be avoided, at least with women.
Now I know what you’re thinking: how often did people bathe? That is a difficult question to answer. More than in previous centuries, that is to say, more than once a year. As it does now, it naturally depended upon personal preference. But in the later eighteenth century, we’re seeing more commentary in letters and diaries about people deemed too dirty.
And this era is not without its contradictions. At the very time when people were bathing their bodies more frequently, their hair was filthier than ever. Bathing did not necessarily always mean hair washing. Ridiculous towering hairstyles held in place with lard and pomade were nests of vermin. Lice was rife among both children and adults. So were fleas and bedbugs in beds. The cleanliness of beds and bedlinens is a whole another post. Still, thanks to Rousseau, a more natural approach to the body was being adopted, expressed in more cleanliness and floral perfumes (opposed to the animal scents favored during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).
And so, what does this mean for historical world building? You’re dealing with three different types of tubs: slipper bath, enclosed slipper bath, and hip baths. And if you’re doing a time travel novel, your protagonist is going to have a difficult time with the smells. Even with more regular bathing, people still had poor oral hygiene (a swish with red wine was thought to be sufficient my many) and there were no antiperspirants. Personal linens were laundered more frequently, yes, but the smell of human was still very strong. People ofthe eighteenth century were still dirty by today’s standards. And certain people, such as Lady Mary Wortly Montagu, were notoriously dirty.
But people of the eighteenth century just responded to smells differently. Nevertheless, think carefully about just how true to the times you want to make your characters’ cleanliness in your work. If you’re writing straight historicals, yes—you can be more accurate. But if you’re writing romance, it’s best, I think, to keep your characters’ bodies clean. I have two baths in my book, and a hair washing. But my villain is more along the lines of Lady Mary.