Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, July 14, 2008

History of Hygiene: Bathing, Teeth Cleaning, Toileting, & Deodorizing

In present times we are obsessed with bathing. How many shampoo brands are there? Soaps, razors, perfumes? Hundreds, thousands! People make a stink, literally, if they smell the dreaded B.O…. Nobody wants to be downwind of someone who hasn’t bathed in awhile…

How did they wipe after going number two? We’ll discuss that next week who cleaned the toilets out…

So how did they deal with this in history? As usual we will only be discussing a part of history’s time line, Medieval through Regency times. In addition to the different time periods, we also have to remember that hygiene practices would have been different between peasants, nobles and royalty… Who would you rather be?


As in a lot of things medieval bathing was by some seen as a form of sexual debauchery and by others seen as letting the devil into you. It was also widely believed that being naked and letting the water touch you would make you severely ill.

At any rate, those that were able to in medieval times bathed more than we thought they did, by most historians standards. It particularly became more popular during the outbreak of the Black Plague. People were looking for reasons why it was spreading and how to decrease the effects, they found that frequent hand-washing in warm water, warm wine and also in vinegar helped. They also found that keeping the surroundings more clean helped too.

I’m also sure that looking, feeling and smelling clean was a bonus not only to yourself but to those around you.

Medieval kings and lords and their household bathed more than most. Some had special rooms set aside for bathing and others bathed in huge tubs brought into their rooms. The tubs tooth forever to fill as the water had to be gather, heated and then carried in buckets to their rooms, where it was poured in and mixed sometimes with perfumes, scented oils and flower petals. Their ladies were just as lucky.

Because gathering water was so difficult several people may enjoy the bath before the water was thrown out. Especially within the poor. The eldest went first down to the youngest, hence the saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water…”

Peasants submerged themselves in water rarely for a bath and were more likely to wash quickly with plain water and a rag and if they were lucky some soap. During warm months they may have slipped away to the river for a dip.

Hand-washing before entering the great hall for a meal was standard. During the crusades, knights brought soap from the East. Prior to that people used water only and the oils from flowers.

In chambers, people had basins of water for washing the face and hands, and maybe a more intimate part of themselves…

Rivers, lakes, ponds, etc… were used to taking dips and rinsing the filth from one’s body.

As a writer of historical fiction, and a lover of history in general, I try to do a lot of things the way they were done way back when. I dry my clothes in the sun sometimes, (not on a clothesline, but just a drying rack I set on my deck), I have a tapestry on my wall and an antique painting of a Highlander, I drink wine from goblets, I sit outside with the only light coming from torches and lanterns, I buy food from fresh markets and farms, I attend a Renaissance festival yearly, Huzzah! And I use homemade soaps from a local farmer. I really like them a lot. She makes them almost close to the way they were made in medieval times, and they smell fantastic.

Soft soaps were made of mutton fat, wood ash, and natural soda. Often they had flowers and herb oils added for a sweet smell, but this was very expensive. Hard soaps were made of olive oil, soda, lime, herbs and flowers.

In some cities they had public bath houses, where people could bathe all day. (Check out my previous blog, on the city of Bath England http://historyundressed.blogspot.com/2008/04/taking-waters-in-bath-england.html)

Elizabeth I, is said to have had a bath once a month. She herself also restored the bath houses in Bath, England.

During Regency times bath houses and sea bathing became popular. In the homes of the wealthy they bathed in copper tubs lined with linen. The poorer if they had a wooden barrel would bathe in them.

Earlier in the nineteenth century the hands, feet and face were regularly washed as in previous centuries, and the rest of your body every few weeks or longer. However the tides quickly changed.

It is said that Beau Brummel bathed every day, and made this more popular among the aristocrats. He believed men should smell clean, without the use of perfumes.

In some journals you read that children of the wealthy and their parents bathed daily. Some in the summer even bathed twice a day.

For the poor a weekly bath that all the family shared was more common.

It wasn’t until piping became regular sometime in the 19th century for homes to have water brought to them, rather than servants gathering the water themselves.

Brushing Teeth…

The first toothbrush was not patented until 1857, so how did they get their teeth clean? Obviously from accounts in history of even the wealthiest and most royal of people having brown teeth, that most people didn’t get them all too clean…

Those that tried used the following methods:


* Rinsing mouth with water to remove gunk from mouth.
* Rubbing teeth with a clean cloth to wipe tartar buildup and left over food particles from the teeth.
* Chewing herbs to freshen breath, mint, cloves, cinnamon, sage
* Using “toothpicks” to clean out the teeth.
* Mint and vinegar mixture, used to rinse out the mouth.
* Bay leaves soaked in orange flower water and mixed with musk.
* “Barbers” would also be used as dentists and would extract teeth that were rotting or bothering a person profusely. They sometimes were able to muck out the junk in teeth and create a filling of sorts.


* Rubbing teeth with the ashes of burnt rosemary.
* Powdered sage rub used to whiten teeth.
* Vinegar, wine and alum mouthwash
* After dinner comfits were eaten to freshen breath


* The same practices for cleaning were in use, but the “barbers” aka dentists had begun to learn more about dentistry.
* The first dentures, gold crowns, and porcelain teeth, were constructed in the 1700’s.
* 1790 brought about the dental foot engine, similar to the foot pedal of a spinning wheel, it rotated a drill for cleaning out cavaties.
* The first dental chair was made in the late 1700’s.

* They again used the same methods.
* A letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son urges the use of a sponge and warm water to scrub the teeth each morning.
* The recommendation of using one’s own urine in France was widely flouted by Fouchard, the French dentist.
* Gunpowder and alum were also recommended.


A bathroom or toilet back in the day was referred to as a garderobe or privy. In castles and monasteries/convents they had large arrangements of these for the people.

I had the fortune of grandparents residing in France while I grew up, and so I visited several times. On one particular occasion we visited a small village in the south of France, I can’t remember the name now. At any rate, I had to go potty. I followed the signs in the village to the public restroom and was floored, literally… There was just a hole in the floor.

As I was a young adolescent at the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to maneuver it. I’d been camping before so hence I’d had the pleasant (joking!) experience of peeing on the ground, but a hole? How would I am? I’m female, not trained in the arts of target practice while urinating… Needless to say I was able to handle it, but I couldn’t help but imagine at the time how medieval it was J

Garderobes were a room in a castles or monastery that had a bench with a hole in it. Not unlike how we use a toilet today. The person would sit down, do their business wipe with straw, moss, leaves, wool or linen rags, and then walk away. The waste would fall down a shoot into a pit or a moat. If into a cesspit it was then cleaned and mucked out by gong farmers. Garderobes were sometimes blocked off by a screen or door and sometimes out in the open.

When I visited Ireland they showed us a garderobe with chunks of moss for writing. It was pretty interesting.

At some point an enemy took it upon himself to use the garderobe as means of access to gain entry to a castle…yuck! So they were then built with iron bars so no one could climb up them.

Chamber pots were used in bedrooms in a castle that didn’t have a garderobe. Some of the larger castles actually had a latrine tower, which was filled with them. Some city walls also had privies so the guards could use them while on duty.

Imagine sitting on that cold stone in winter with the wind whipping up and hitting you square in your most sensitive spot… No thanks!

For peasants, a toilet was a bucket in the corner of the room that was tossed into the river, or a bucket behind the house, or a tree in the forest. No privies for these folks. Unfortunately water for cooking and bathing came from the same river…shudder…Perhaps this is why they thought bathing could make you ill?

Chamber pots were used widely up to the 18th century and then began to taper off as more and more households began using toilets. Some chamber pots were hidden in boxes. Growing up one of the coolest pieces of furniture we had was a chamber pot box. My mom, humorously, used it as a side table. If you took her accoutrements off and lifted the lid, there was the hole where the pot would have sat. Quite funny.

Chamber-pots would be emptied into sewers or cesspits.

Even during Regency times sewage and waste could bring about illness. Some London homes had toilets, not like the standard toilets that we have today, but they did include piping, however these pipes frequently backed up causing fumes to carry throughout the house. Some people had “earth closets” that would periodically drop dirt into the pipes to flush out the waste. The poor had privies in the backyard that were emptied into a cesspool. “Night soil men” would come by and empty the muck. All the pipes from homes and the wagons full of muck were dumped into the Thames River. This led to plenty of epidemics until emptying waste at certain times and away from the water supply was developed.

Manor homes had cesspits, that frequently became overflowed. They were often in the cellars of these homes and were emptied by the “night soil men.”

Although a flushable toilet was invented in the 1500’s there was no way to use it since they didn’t have running water. However they were able to develop systems of valves to keep the smells from coming up from the toilets, and periodic flushing was done.


Obviously there wasn’t any Secret, Degree, Old Spice or Gillette, so what did they do to keep the big bad B.O. away?

Using perfumes was widely popular even in the middle ages. Oils from flowers, mixed with herbs and spices created all sorts of pleasant smells that both males and females indulged in.

When they did bathe, nobles and royals or even rich merchants bathed with scented soaps, so that their skin would take on the fragrance as it may not be a few days or longer until they could bathe again.

Nose-gays (literally kept the nose happy, or gay!) became popular when walking in the court or through crowds. A nosegay was something to keep the smells at bay, held in the hand, on the writs on a lapel. They could be a small bouquet of flowers, a sachet of dried flowers and herbs, an orange studded with cloves, or a sprig of herbs. People would often hold it up to their noses when walking in a large crowd.

Flowers and fresh herbs often adorned table tops in homes to keep the house smelling fresh…but we’ll discuss housecleaning in a couple of weeks.

I have invariably left some things out, so if you know more, please share!

In the meantime what do you think? Could you go to the bathroom in a bucket or in a garderobe? Wiped with straw or moss? Chewed herbs for fresh breath? Bathed in a river? Carried a nose-gay?


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Loved the post. I remember in 1965I was in France and stopped at a restaurant. Their bathroom, situated inside the restaurant building, was a hole in the floor with a shoe print painted on the floor on each side of the hole. When you got done with business, you pulled a chain and water fell from the ceiling into the hole. I bet you can imagine my reaction and how much fun I had explaining to my family just what I had found.

When I was doing research I had a tour of a hotel built in 1853 in gold rush country. They had chairs with lids to cover a hole cut in the seat. When you lifted the cover you found a porcelain pot to use as your toilet. Ingenious way to hide the pot.

Pat McDermott said...

Very descriptive post, Eliza. Thanks for yet another reminder that it's good to be here in 2008!

W. A. Mozart said...

Wonderfully informative! I followed the link from a bulletin you posted in MySpace.

You might be interested to know that here in 1791 Vienna, some of us indeed have flushing toilets. We can thank the Romans for their expertise where plumbing was concerned. My house, for example, has a water closet in which sits a fashionable, wicker arm chair, the seat of which has a lid. Beneath is a pipe that takes the waste out. All we need do is turn a lever that empties water into the pipe. Fortunately, the WC has a window, which helps with odors.

I first encountered a flushing toilet when I was a child and performing in Paris. The family with whom we lodged had a toilet with one lever that aimed the water down and another that aimed the water up! My parents had a devil of a time keeping me out of the water closet because I liked playing with those levers.

Vienna also has public baths that I believe have been around since Roman times. Although I have a tub in my home, I do enjoy soaking with a couple of friends once a week in the public baths in order to discuss music and local gossip.

I will be putting a link to your excellent website immediately; you can count on regular visits from me as well.

Ihr Freund,
W.A. Mozart

W. A. Mozart said...

What a dough head I am. I forgot to leave you my address:


Eliza Knight said...

Hi Marlene, with a surprise like that I'm surprised you didn't come out soaking wet :)

Thanks for sharing!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Oh, don't get me started on getting soaked in bathrooms. It is always fun to see what situations you can get into in bathrooms in Europe - at least for me. Adventures seem to find me quite often. But, that particular time, I was smart enough to step back. :)

Joanna Waugh said...

My folks are in their 80's and talk about bathing once a week, usually on Saturday (so they'd be clean for church the next day.) As you pointed out, Eliza, the eldest got the tub first and then each kid by turn took a bath. After eight kids, it got to be pretty scummy! Yuk. The rest of the week they washed at a sink. My mom refers to it as a whore bath. Just the face, underarms and butt area. Even today, my folks follow this regime and I can vouch for the fact they never smell.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Pat!

Eliza Knight said...

**Pant** Waving fan furiously in front of face...

Mozart! A man after my own heart...I must confess I am listening to your music right now, and am a huge fan of yours! Before becoming a writer I went through 12 years of piano lessons...

Thank you so much for sharing your history with me and for sharing my page with your friends :) I will be adding you in seconds to my blog list.

Okay, now I will go faint...

Eliza Knight said...

Lol, Marlene! I'd love to hear some of your adventures!

Eliza Knight said...

Joanna that is amazing how it stays with us! I am also laughing hysterically bc, a few of my "mom" friends and I joke around about the whores wash. With young kids it was sometimes hard to get into the shower... I will have you know now, that I do manage to jump in every day, even if for only 5 miniutes lol!

Thanks for sharing!!!

Gerri said...

Another winner, Eliza! I could do all that, just consider it civilized camping. It's amazing what people have invented through the years, and all so similar.

Kimberly Killion said...

My goodness, woman. You are a wealth of knowledge. I love that you sit and drink wine by torchlight. I love the pics you posted with the blog, too.
I need more...write faster. :c)

Shannon Robinson said...

Eliza, another fantastic post of yours! I love reading your blog - there's so much to learn from you! And I have to say - love the sitting by torchlight with a goblet of wine - one of my own personal favorite pasttimes.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us! One paragraph from this post just inspired a scene in my current medieval WIP!

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for your comments Gerri!

Honestly I think it would be alot of fun for awhile, provided I lived in a castle... I might want to come home to a hot shower every once in awhile, and some deodorant.

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks Kimberly! I do, it's so fun. My days are Tuesdays and Fridays...I'm a huge one for schedules, lol. So if you're ever in the area on a Tues. or Fri. come on by and have a glass of pinot surrounded by torchlight :)

I'll try to write more for ya:)

Eliza Knight said...

Shannon, thank you so much for your comments. I'm so glad that I was able to help, I want to read what you're writing! Isn't it nice and relaxing to drink from a goblet under the stars? All that I'm missing is my crown, although my neighbors have dubbed me the Queen of Tender Court (where I live) I love it!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Eliza. I've had to use an outhouse once while camping. That was not fun. I've also used bathrooms in England where you've had to pull the chain but I've never yet had the misfortune of the bathroom with the footpads!

Thanks for the great information about teeth brushing and deodorant.

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for your comments Elizabeth!

Nicole McCaffrey said...

This was a great blog, very informative (and not for the faint of heart! *G*)

My dad is in his 80s so I grew up on his tales of outhouses, how bad they smelled in the summer and how cold they were in the winter. I guess back in those days no one lingered with a book the way my hubby does now, LOL.

I especially loved the part on dentistry and tooth care.

Excellent blog, I'll stop by again soon!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Nicole for sharing your story and leaving a comment!

Yeah, I can't imagine being in the outhouse with a book...shudder... Whenever I have to use a port-o-potty I'm in and out in seconds, touching as little as possible, and then vigorously rubbing the hand santizer all over my body, lol

Delilah Marvelle said...

I love how you broke down everything through the ages. It shows how we have slowly changed as a civilization throughout the centuries and why we have become the way we have. Knowledge is power but I also believe knowledge bring about good hygiene!!! Great post! As always!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Delilah, I agree!

Chicks of Characterization said...

Great post, Eliza! My mom told me a similar story about France and the hole in the ground! ha ha...I can only imagine! But of course when its the norm, its the norm. We are so spoiled today, aren't we? Oh and I I think I need to come by too and sit with you under the torch light! How cool is that!! Thanks for sharing.

Andrea :O)

Chicks of Characterization said...

Oh, and the French dentist and the urine?? Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

Eliza Knight said...

Hey Chicks!

Yea the urine is just gross! No thanks!

You are most welcome to come drink wine under the torchlights!!! I'll have to have a party!

Emma said...

Great posting (as always)! I started reading Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see how all this wonderful information can be incorporated in a story that is a pleasure to read. The author is Laurie Viera Rigler. It gives a wonderful insight into what life would have been like in the Regency---including the chamber pots, baths and everything else.

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for the book suggestion Molly, I will have to check it out!

Bearded Lady said...

Another great post! Bathing especially seems to have gone in and out of popularity through history.

(I could be wrong) but I am pretty sure bathing was very unpopular during the plague of 1347 in Europe. It was generally believed that water opened up the pores of the skin allowing disease to enter the body. A good, thick layer of grime and dirt could protect you!

Oh and another useless piece of info that I like to tell kids. The first toothbrushes that resemble modern day toothbrushes were used by the Chinese in 1498 and later spread to Europe. The big difference – the bristles used hair from a Siberian’s hog’s neck. The Europeans later used toothbrushes made from horse hair and badger hair. Can you just imagine the bacteria and germs people were putting in their mouths? Animal hair is a breeding ground for germs...not to mention it must have been especially yucky to get hog hair stuck in your teeth.

Anonymous said...

I was in Italy a few years ago and encountered a business which still had the "hole in the floor" style toilet. I guess they figured if it wasn't broken, why fix it, eh?

Love the blog! It was mentioned in a Jane Austen feed I read. I've now subscribed and look forward to your future posts.

cheripye said...

Thank you so much for this!

As an aspiring Historical writer, working on my first Manuscript for potential publish I wanted to make sure I had as much information as possible and came across your blog while attempting to make use of the Web...

The information is easy to understand and very thorough 80)

Now lets see, I do chew fresh herbs or good smelling things to keep the breath fresh. Although Gum can be infinately easier 80) But I couldnt live without my toothbrush. 80)

With a weak stomach I dont believe I could have survived the smells of history... Nor used a stinking box. 80)

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Cheripye!

Yes gum is easier, lol and I couldn't live without my toothbrush either!

Good luck with your first manuscript!!!

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Anonymous said...

What a cool history of personal hygiene. I've done a similar post about George Washington's dental history. I know it's been about seven or eight months since someone has posted here, but I think it's still very interesting.

free dental caredental said...

History was be quite fascinating, sexy, intriguing and all together delicious. Let's peel away the layers

Slanderous said...

this is so wrong, the european world were filthy in the middle ages and throughout histories, in islam and in india, it was part of religious ritual to wash every day and after sex and going to the toilet. the british during their empire, cottoned on to the fact that this may be a good idea, instead of using perfume and defacating and urinating in pots under their beds. hygeine came from the east and was adopted by the west contrary to popular belief, see anything written by respected historian Will Durrant. It was not in the culture of Europeans to wash daily, infact the first 'baths' were found in Mahejandro, North India, 2000 years before the Romans even existed as a people.

Anonymous said...
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Buddy From Philly said...

I attended a lecture on the history of bathing and personal hygiene in America at the University of Pennsylvania given by a professor there who had published a book on the subject.The practice of taking a weekly bath only became commonplace after the Civil War. Before that, you were considered clean if you washed your hands, face, and changed your shirt ("linen") for a clean one.

Bert said...

Great post!

Tigerlily3574 said...

Very informative! I always wondered about the shaving of the legs and arm pits myself. I think I read it didn't start til the 1920's or sometime thereabouts. It certainly takes away from the romance to picture the heroine of the romance novel you are reading with big hairy tarantulas under her armpits and forests on her legs. I don't care that much about the other area being overgrown because I don't hold with grown women looking like 10 year old girls ( I'll never understand that, sure you should groom yourself but must you go to Brazil? its disturbing that men find this sexy. But I digress.) Does anyone know if it started earlier?

Anonymous said...

in the late 1970's in southern ohio we lived in an old farm house. we had a 2-seater outhouse that ran an electric line with a switch in the house to turn on the electric heater...we had magazines ... i however mostly read the signs for spiders approaching. wild times

Anonymous said...

Sorry to arrive to the discussion so late. My first ancestor arrived in N. America in 1648 and for several generations thereafter his descendants participated in the fur trade. Many of my French ancestors had as country wives (committed but not legalized marriages, à la façon du pays) first nations women. These women accompanied the fur traders. Without these women the fur trade would not have been able to function as an enterprise as well as it did. The country wives besides acting as translators and intermediaries, mended canoes & snow shoes, made hide sails, made clothing & footwear, prepared hides, gathered firewood, made camp & cooked. An additional small but significant job was the gathering of lichen moss by the bale. Lichen moss was used as toilet paper by indigenous peoples, it was also put in papoose bundles to act as diaper, and it was used in place of rags to absorb menstrual flow. It was disposable, biodegradable and readily available.
This is what some of my ancestors did.

Anonymous said...

It was very fascinating to read your article, Eliza! I have always wondered how people lived 200 years ago and after reading what you wrote, it makes me very grateful what we have today! Great article!

Anonymous said...

Just because something wasn't patented until 1857 doesn't mean they weren't being made. Toothbrushes were being mass-produced in Britain in the late 1700s See http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/tooth.html

Stephanie Carroll said...

I love, love this blog. I write historical fiction and this has been so helpful to perfecting those little details that make the story real.

Sincerely Stephanie Carroll www.stephaniecarroll.net

Eliza Knight said...

I'm so pleased! Thank you! We are always looking for guests if you want to join us!

Luz said...

While this is very informative it should be called the history of hygiene in Europe. This Eurocentric theme in history as a whole is very upsetting. As Slanderous mentioned, other parts of the world had much better hygiene than Europeans for centuries if not millenia. Many Native American tribes bathed daily even in winter. They used yuca root for shampoo, among many other methods It would be interesting for you to include other civilizations' histories as well. Funny how most people view the West as civilized, while everyone else has "culture," yet they were filthy!