95 thoughts on “The Gross 18th Century: Calling bullshit on hygiene myths

  1. Thank you for a wonderful and sensible article! To say I was flabbergasted by Terry’s claims is putting it mildly. And the idea that people shat and peed everywhere, like cows – really? No. Thank you so much for pursuing this – it IS important!

    1. It really is important! The information is so easy to collect, you almost have to look harder to find the misinformation, too. My personal pet peeve is always people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about putting themselves out there as experts. Face it, are any of those people who were praising her post going to read this one? Probably not. But that’s not going to stop me from trying to set the record straight!

      1. Ooh yes I loathe “people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about putting themselves out there as experts.” *cough*certainauthorwhoshallremainnamelesspg*cough*

        Too many people will often just take notice of these self appointed experts particularly if they are famous “authors” or closely linked to film/TV. The unthinking mindset of those listening is that if the speaker is “famous” or linked to “fame” then what they are saying is true.

        These same people will believe what is written in a book or shown in a film/TV story and will not think about checking the medium (is it educational at all?) or check the sources.

        Maybe this comes down to primary and secondary education – people aren’t being taught how to check for bias and truth in a source.

    2. Trystan and I were discussing this on the ride home today: There are people in the poorest nations on this planet who lack access to indoor plumbing as well as menstrual products, who still don’t pee or poo in the corner of their houses or bleed on themselves during that time of the month. In fact, there was recently report of a guy in India who has, for lack of a better description, a menstrual pad start up. He apparently was appalled that his wife was using rags for her period, because commercial sanitary napkins were too expensive, so he began manufacturing pads locally, employing local women to assemble them and promote them to other villages. You can read the whole fascinating story over on the BBC… But the point is, even in the poorest corners of our planet, women are not just bleeding into their clothing. Even without being able to afford a box of Kotex, women still use rags.

      1. I would appreciate if you actually cited the real sources of the news and not the racist documentary funded by India-obsessed-still-racist BBC who have habit of labeling every country poor who happen to be non-white( incidentally ex-colonized). India is not poor, it has every apparatus of development but unfortunately some communities resist and remain backward due to poor communication of education system.

        1. You seem to have missed the point, haven’t you? Also, your characterization of India as ‘resistant’ and ‘backward’ is more offensive than simply poor.

          Way to go, trying to get pissy at a 3 year old blog post!

      2. I’m several years late to this party, but I’ll share a tid bit from my childhood….my mother, who grew up very poor in the depression of the 1930s, used rags instead of a commercial product. In fact, that’s the first type I used when “Flo” came to visit when I was 13 in the 1970s. So it’s true, rags are cumbersome but they work!

  2. It’s well documented – here in Kentucky, at least – that in our section of Appalachia it’s not been all that long ago that people considered bathing in the closest creek normal. Women would go in in their shifts or in nothing at all depending on where they lived. Back then, it was common for entire families to live along one creek up a ‘holler’ (some still do, even), with the houses as close to the common creek as possible – for irrigation, nutrition, and bathing purposes. Men coming home from the lumber mills or mines would bathe and shave at basins on stands beside or on the back porch (sometimes the front porch, depending on the family, the house, and the location).

    I don’t know much about practices outside my own area, but it’s appalling that anyone with access to today’s technology would make such errors as Terry is … disturbing to say the least.

  3. Re: the lacing of stays time frame. In a theatre or film context, lacing a corset will take 20 mins (or more) for several reasons. Firstly, a costumier is dressing a person who generally does not know what is aimed for in fit. So an education is taking place as well for the wearer. And a modern women often needs time to relax into a different, and significantly tighter fit that is often foreign to her in her day to day life. Secondly, a corset, particularly when its new, or has been worn by someone else, needs time for the fabric and bones to warm up by body heat, and remould itself to the body in question. I find this takes anywhere from about 15 mins to half an hour. Once the corset has moulded, then subsequent fitting time is reduced. In 18th century real life, I can see a woman taking 20 mins to ‘fit’ and lace her corset, depending on her sense of fastidiousness, as much as I can see another taking 5 mins. And it also depends on whether she has help to lace her into a corset (I have a 1760s antique corset that requires help because it is only back-laced, and no front-opening). All good looks take time. My own grandmother, a fastidious dresser, would take more than 5 mins to lace herself in (although she was an edwardian/artdeco woman in her adult youth). On the issue of ablutions, I once designed a gig at the palace of Versailles, and asked about how they went about this. The curator told me that they often popped their butts out the windows! Staff below cleaned up! But apparently the royals and more senior people had the luxury of pots. How things have changed!

    1. All very good points re: fitting a corset on a modern body in the context of the theater/film production. What I took issue with was that this was presented as the way it was back then, not “It took this long because we were working with an inexperienced dresser and an actress who hadn’t really worn stays before.” I’ve had back-lacing corsets that I’ve laced myself into with the aid of a longer than average lacing cord– loosen the stays enough until they can be pulled over the head and then tighten the laces and you’re off. I prefer front lacing stays because they’re easier to lace on myself, and that’s probably the option most women would have taken in the 18th century as well, especially if they didn’t have the luxury of assistance in dressing.

      I’d love to hear more about your Versailles gig! What was this for? I’ve heard they are notoriously stoggy about letting people in who are dressed in costume, so it must have been pretty awesome!

      1. Yes, some women are more adept at dressing themselves…and some aren’t. I guess I’m saying that I didn;t really have much issue with Terry’s claim that it takes 20 mins to put on a corset, and understood where she may be coming from as a costumier.

        The Versailles gig was part of an international corporate festival I did back in the 90s, it was a masked ball for a few thousand people, all dressed in 18th century gowns etc down in the orangerie. Loads of fun…and a huge amount of work! I understand that some very ginger negotiations were had to hold the event at Versailles, apparently it was the first event of its type to be held at the palace since the revolution took place. The French had huge respect for the place, so I understood their concern. Fortunately, they were happy with the results! I’ve no idea whether or not they let this type of thing happen again. I personally had no problem with them, concerned as they were, they were very accommodating.

      2. I have read several books that actually described how badly cities like London smelled in the summer because the people would empty their chamber pots out their windows and into the street. Hence the tradition of the more wealthy taking summer haunts out in the country! Also read where poor women who would be working in the fields could and did lift their skirts and squat. But that was medieval society not the 1700s! Castles used rushes so people could alleviate themselves during very very long dinners without having to leave! They were later just swept out the door and new rushes put down. I’ll give the costume designer the benefit of the doubt that maybe she is mixing up her time periods! Body odor would still have been overwhelming even with an occasional sponge bath. I learned in an art history class in college where Napoleon wrote to Josephine he would be arriving in two weeks and not to bath! Most times the wealthy would drench themselves in perfume to cover the body odor! Also the wigs were made to stand up like they did using animal fat if I remember correctly so ewww! Rancid fat, body odor, and heavy perfumes! Nice. I have great book titles A Year In the Life of a Medieval Woman. Very interesting!!!!

        1. Why are people so, so VERY adamant that the past must have been filthy and that people in the past obviously had no sense of smell?

          Sure, early modern cities probably stank, at least in places, and were certainly far from what a modern person would consider hygienic. That doesn’t mean kings and queens in the 18th Century literally shat in corridors rather than using a privy, close-stool or chamber pot. I can conceive that at least the men might have peed in some less-than-ideal places (perhaps even indoors) at least occasionally (probably whilst drunk). I don’t, however, think it’s plausible that women did that and I don’t think it’s plausible that anyone noble pooed like that – for no other reason than the fact that it’s rather difficult to squat and poo wearing high-fashion and not get your clothes dirty.

          Yes, I don’t doubt that people in the past (as they do today – both in “third world countries” AND Western nations) commonly peed and at least occasionally pooed in the fields when out working a distance from home. It’s simply not convenient to walk (sometimes miles) back to the house to use a privy/toilet, especially if you only need to pee. Modern hikers today do a very similar thing. (Note: in all of these cases, you do generally walk a few yards out of the way (so people won’t later tread in your mess) and (depending on local cultural norms) try to find some modicum of privacy e.g. squat in a bush or turning your back on others in the area.) However, saying “people peed outdoors when in the fields working a distance from the house” is not the same as saying “when in the house (or even a PALACE) people just squatted and pooed where they stood”.

          “Castles used rushes so people could alleviate themselves during very very long dinners without having to leave! They were later just swept out the door and new rushes put down.” I just… I don’t know whether to be amused or appalled that a) someone wrote this as “fact” and b) the above commenter uncritically considered it truth. It’s just yet another historical urban myth (aka lie made to make modern people feel superior).

          I could go on…

    2. Firstly, PLEASE tell me you are not putting on actual antique 1760s stays! Those are such rare survivals as it is.

      About the Versailles thing, who was the curator you spoke with who told you they pooped out of windows and what department were they curator of? Anne Marie Quette, former curator there and at the Musées Nationaux de France and Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris has a lecture about bathrooms in Versailles (complete with photographs of the rooms). Apparently there were built in bathtubs and rudimentary toilets that were serviced from an extremely large tank. From the point of view of the user (bath-taker), it apparently worked very similarly to running water.

      1. Exactly. Unfortunately, the myth about all the urine and feces being flung everywhere at Versailles IS something I’ve heard people who have taken tours there quote the tour guides on. Perhaps there should be a retraining to correct this, because other than satirical accounts and reports designed to smear the image of Versailles, this isn’t borne out when you dig deeper.

      2. Hi Teresa, no – I don;t wear the stays. lol! Although, after 250 years, they are still probably strong enough to actually be worn, they are in such good nick. What I do is make a ‘pillow’ body (akin to a dress dummy), cut in the period shapes concern as far as human body measurements can be ascertained, and mount the corset onto that – to see what happens, particularly regarding pressure and stress points. From there, it helps me develop drafting formulas to convert and adapt the period’s drafting principles to a modern body (because bodies change through race, period, nutrition, genetic strain, etc etc). A pillow body allows me to see how the garment appears three-dimentially as though it was on a body, without the stress it would endure by being laced on a real body.

        For the record, the 1760s stays have a French Canadian provenance, although the possibility of the stays actually being made inside France cannot be ruled out. They are linen stays, missing its CF busk, which was probably made of timber. In fact, the opening, where the busk was taken out, looks as thought it may have been created purposefully – perhaps the corset was turned into an everyday ‘working’ corset or something of that ilk in later life? Who knows? The corset is extremely well made, impressively so.

        Can’t say I remember the curators name offhand, the gig was twenty years ago. But she was a curator, not a tour guide. Yes I did see the bathrooms as such but I cannot recall seeing the toilets, particularly Marie Antoinette’s one. Off the king and queens chambers are many ‘secret’ corridors and rooms not shown to the public at the time, perhaps they are located amongst there. I have to say my focus at the time was more on the space I was working with, as well as the textiles (mostly furnishings) that were scattered about the place.

        I suspect the type of facility available to a person for toileting, particularly at a palace, largely depended on one’s social status within the environment. Pit dunnies are a very old concept, I would think they would have existed in one format or another on the grounds in the 18th century. However, culture can also influence a person’s behaviour in any given period, even when a facility exists. So extant chatter can indicate alternative possibilities to ‘authoritative’ evidence, just as it does today. I like to keep an open mind :)

      3. From ‘Versailles: A History’ they had latrines.

        If they were urinating everywhere it would cause structural damage.

  4. The Museum of Menstruation does have some cool info, especially on the history of sanitary products and pictures of same. However, the guy that runs the website is a jerk who makes huuuuuge leaps of extrapolation and is nasty when you email him with corrections and factual citations. (For instance he posits that if women in one country were doing something in one era, they must ALL have been doing it. )

    Thanks for this though…although I will say it does take me a while to get into my 16th century kit, but I’m including doing my hair in that. Smiles.

    1. You’re welcome! I agree that it will take me a good 45 minutes to get completely dressed in my 18th clothes, but well over 3/4 of that time is spent doing hair and makeup, NOT actually putting on clothes. It’s longer for me than others because I can’t wear a wig and have to dress my own hair, as the weight of 18th century wigs causes me extreme head and neck pain.

      And thanks for the heads up about the MoM guy. I’ve known about his website since the late-90s, and the fact that it has barely changed in that time makes me lend less and less credibility to his cause. It’s great that he’s interested in menstruation and how women dealt with it in the past (and I believe this is a sincere interest, not some pervy preoccupation), but the fact that he’s quoted so often as a resource makes me cringe a little because of the deplorable state of his website.

      1. I think those who pay more attention than I have observed that the majority of 18th century stays are either back-lacing only or front-lacing AND back-lacing, but I wanted to repeat something pointed out by another historian: while front-lacing stays are very appealing to modern women, it was rare for colonial/British women to live without access to some dressing assistance.
        Gentrywomen would have lady’s maids, but even down the social ladder, one could expect help from a sibling, a child/stepchild/foster child, a spouse, or a mother. Even fairly poor families might still host an apprentice or parish dependent.
        And while it might take skill and finesse to achieve a high-fashion silhouette when dressing for a special occasion, one-handed lacing would probably be totally fine for average social acceptability, especially taking into account adjusting for pregnancy, breastfeeding, or old age.

  5. Garsault’s Art of the Linen Maid [Art de la lingere], an 18thC French text, discusses providing 6 dozen chauffoirs, or sanitary napkins, as part of a new bride’s trousseau, the assumption was she would need them for after childbirth and during her monthlies. Instructions are included for their construction in layers and a seeming belt to tie them next to the body.

  6. A rebuttal to your grossly over-reactive piece:
    1. No underwear – Terry Dresbach was referring to panties, which is what those of us from the West Coast of the US call underwear. You already said she was correct about this, so why it is the #1 item in your list is baffling.
    2. Terry Dresbach said “bathing,” not “washing.” Yes, people washed. Most, however, did not bathe – take immersion baths – with any frequency unless affluent, etc. Again, nothing wrong with what she said.
    3. Menstruation – while it is undocumented by 18thC sources, it is reasonable to expect that women in the Scottish Highlands in the 18th century did what others did and have done in similar times, climes, and circumstances: bleed and wipe occasionally at the privy; or use rags; or be “indisposed” if flow was significant. What Terry said is consistent with that, meaning merely: they did not have Feminine Hygiene Products like Tampons or panty shields (no panties, see #1). While sea sponges were available as imported items in larger seaports, it is unlikely most women in the Scottish Highlands would have had ready access to them.
    4. Menstrual blood smell – bodies smelled very differently then, as did menstrual blood, for the simple reason of point #2, plus no antibiotics to kill off the beneficial bacteria: the human micro-biome was radically different. Unbathed, menstruating women would likely have smelled much better given their native bacteria of that time than any of us would today (who’ve been using soap and antibiotics to the point western-culture women no longer have that beneficial flora). Female scents throughout cultures and histories have often been considered erotic, and menstrual blood smells were probably not unpleasant.
    5. People in the Scottish Highlands when out in the woods and wild did do their business whenever and wherever (as do I while hiking and camping here in the 21st C). When in buildings, there were chamberpots and privies enabling the same. You leap to a city-sewage model only, when Terry Dresbach was obviously talking about Scottish Highlands, men in kilts and women in long skirts with no “panties” (since that seems to be the word you require for “underwear”). They had an enviable freedom to urinate and defecate at their convenience (since chamber pots, privies, brush and bushes were in abundance), as opposed to requiring a commode/toilet (a modern limitation that causes many of us a fair amount of bladder discomfort from time to time today).
    Before you over-react in future, take a deep breath, and check in with your knee-jerk-negatively-judging mind to see if it might perhaps be Missing Something.

    1. As you can see, I’m not alone in the interpretation of Terry’s blog post. Terry herself resorted to using “research” about non-Scottish highland people in her rebuttals to people who pointed out that she was misinformed, so I’m pretty sure there was no distinction being made on her end, either.

    2. Have you been to Scotland? Have you studied the history? Bec. I’ve been to this lovely country several times & have been reenacting Scottish nobility off & on since 1991. Scotland, including the Highlands, is sparsely wooded & has vast moorlands covered in heather, making your statement of “People in the Scottish Highlands when out in the woods and wild did do their business whenever and wherever” specious, at best. Maybe the very poor did, or soldiers on campaign or people traveling. But people with homes, whether crofters or the wealthy with their castles like Dunrobin and Scone, had specific places to collect bodily waste, just as Sarah noted.

      Also, it seems that your points 2, 3 ,& 4 are essentially saying the same thing that Sarah did, only with less factual support. Fine, nice that you agree, but you neednt take such a knee-jerk-negatively-judging tone about it ;-)

      1. You both miss the points, sadly. And yes, I have been to the Scotland, Highlands, Lowlands, and cities. We’ve hiked them and cycled the wild and rural areas, and done what hikers and cyclists everywhere do when needed – it’s not just an 18th C thing, folks.

        1. Maybe it’s you who is missing the point — people who build a home & live in a place do things VERY differently than people camping or biking, in any era. Try not to extrapolate one totally different modern experience to a specific historical experience, kthx.

      2. While I agree with you, just one wee point. Scotland was far more densely wooded pre clearances. The landscape changed considerably with sheep farming in the 19th century.

  7. I wish I had kept the source, as I remember it every time this idea of undergarments arises. There was discovered in a storage house, experts dated back to the 1400’s a log of both the master’s personal effects and the lady’s personal effects, down to…undergarments. They looked much like a tie on bikini bottom. Hour glass-ish shape with long strips of fabric at each corner, I’m assuming tied at the side, but I suppose could have tied front or back side as well.

    Regardless, in this article it was thought that the main reason ladies undergarments were so hard to find, was that the servants in charge of logging personal effects never felt comfortable or that it was taboo to handle the lady of the house’s unmentionables.

    This little “panty”, for lack of a better word, would certainly hold rags during menses. I shake my head to think historians find women so inept that they could not invent something to contain their bodily fluids. We wrapped infants in swaddling to hold their excrement, but we can’t figure out how to swaddle our blood flow? Women may not have been given rights to read or hold land anywhere, but they certainly were not stupid.

    1. Mostly for the sake of anyone coming back to this later and reading it. The above comment is a garbled memory of the Lengberg finds. Key points:
      – yes, it was 15th C but some of the finds may be late 14th C (as far as the sometimes fairly wide radiocarbon dating windows can tell us)
      – the finds are actually from a void between the ceiling of one room and the floor of the room above
      – we do not know who the garments belong to (certainly not down to “this was the master’s / this was the lady’s”) but there do appear to be men’s and women’s garments, as well as children’s
      – the “undergarments” the original poster described, which “looked much like a tie on bikini bottom” are a real thing; however, (despite some misguided news articles’ opinions c. 2014 when this all got spread around mainstream news) they are MEN’S undergarments – this is clearly seen by cross-referencing the find to art (e.g. Albrect Durer’s “The Bath House” aka “The Men’s Bath” vs. his “The Women’s Bath).

      For more information, look up Beatriz Nutz, the archaeologist who has investigated most of the Lengberg finds and has published articles about them. The University of Innsbruk (where Ms. Nutz studies and the finds are being analysed) also has stuff on their website about these finds.


    I saw Terry’s original post and I had to walk away before I broke something.

    I’m more used to 19th c. reenacting myself, so I’m definitely more fond of the later pull-the-bunny-ear-laces-and-you’re-off corsets, but even then it couldn’t take me more than five minutes to put on my stays when I do 18th century.

    Her “thesis” that she posted would’ve been hilarious if it hadn’t been such a horrific example of egregious historiography (if indeed there was any scholarship involved, which I very much doubt). “Marie Antoinette had lice and body odor!” Whaaaa?

    One of the lovely ladies at the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg is currently setting out on a project to treat her hair with purely period methods for the year, I believe, and she has found that it keeps her hair very healthy indeed (and not at all foul-smelling haha). I can’t remember the original research post, but they did an interview with TNHG here:

    Agh. Anyways. You’re wonderful for taking on the task of taking down the inaccuracies of the world for the rest of us who are too livid to move when we read it. ;)

  9. I recently participated in a historical fashion parade. Due to traffic nightmares I had to do a quick change. Took me 12 minutes to change in to an early 1790s ensemble, including all layers & lacing my stays up &putting on my hedgehog wig.

  10. Love this post! I hope you don’t mind that I follow through and write one about 18th Century hygiene as well- I figure there can’t be too much information about it!

    Carolyn: Thank you fo rthe information about sanitary pads!

  11. Thanks for this article. Terry is keen to quote secondary sources like websites and a thesis (which can be disproven just as easily). It is the same repetition of cliché’s, alas. It’s always an uphill struggle to try and set these straight.

  12. It seems that you are making an important confusion here, mixing up the practices of rural populations and the general habits of west-european nobility.
    Sources are plentiful that show how medical theories in the XVIIth and XVIIIth century advised AGAINST taking baths at all costs (humors’ theory was the hype, then). The typical way of cleaning one’s body at the time, if you were rich and following the trends, was to get a strong friction in the morning with a white towel, rarely imbued with water.
    And in most large european cities, the “clean” water supplies were so scarce that using them for bath would have been a nonsense. Realize, for instance, that there were period of times during the reign of Louis XV when the average quantity of available water per capita in Paris was a half-liter (including water used for cooking).

    So the relatively “clean” and “healthy” situation you describe is actually representative, ironically, only of uneducated rural populations (which, luckily for them, used good sense instead of fancy medical theories to tend to their own bodies).

    Now, I have not heard about the movie you refer to, and wether it addresses the life of nobility or of commoners. But if we are talking rich and educated people, then you seem to be the one who is off here.

    You can check the important work of Georges Vigarello for instance, who has focused for decades on the history of body representations in Europe from the Middle-Ages and on.

    1. Let’s re-read what I wrote, re: bathing:

      “Full emersion bathing, like what we modern people think of as “taking a bath” was rare inside the home in the 18th century, mostly due to the sheer amount of labor involved in collecting and heating enough water to sustain a soak. This does not include public baths for men and women being used, however. What was done on a frequent basis within the home (possibly even daily, but for sure weekly) was something akin to a sponge bath. The same sort of bathing still regularly done in hospitals and care facilities on people with limited mobility– Obviously, if it’s hygienic enough for modern medicine, it’s going get the job done for 300 years ago. You can refer to this excerpt of the book Women in Early America by Dorothy A. Mays for more info on 18th century commoner bathing practices (since the argument was raised that upper classes would have bathed while lower classes wouldn’t have).”

      Because I said exactly that- that full emersion bathing was NOT done on a regular basis. That sponge baths, using a towel and a small amount of water -if any- were far more common for pretty much all of Western history prior to widespread indoor plumbing.

      I have read Vigarello’S “Concepts of Cleanliness” as part of my master’s research on daily life of the 18th c. French elite, and as such, I don’t think I’m far off the mark here in what I wrote. I urge you to read the post that prompted this one, though, and compare the inaccuracies in it with what I’ve presented here.

  13. Thank you for your clear explanations Sarah. As a costumer who is looking forward eagerly to seeing what they have done with Diana Gabaldon’s books, I see that I will have to grit my teeth at times. Since I concentrate more on 19th cent., I know less about the 18th, so will take what I see with a grain of salt!

    1. I think it’s important to point out: I don’t actually dislike the costumes! From what I’ve seen in the stills, they are quite good. I think the trouble we all seem to be having is the “research” that’s allegedly taking place behind the scenes is based on blog posts and Listverse articles. That’s really disappointing, because of the wealth of info out there that’s easily found on the internet.

  14. “In short, it’s not like we’re any better with the whole problem of public sanitation thing than they were 300 years ago.” While I agree with the basic thrust of this article, that people were capable of keeping clean in the 18th century, this final sentence is flat out absurd. Municipal water supplies, water and sewage treatment, the understanding of disease vectors, germ theory, refrigeration, sterilization, etc., have immensely changed the nature of sanitation public and private, and considerable extended life expectancy, especially for the very young. We, at least in industrialized countries, are MUCH better with “the whole problem of public sanitation thing” than our ancestors were 300 years ago. And we should not forget times and places. I know people who saw men and women squatting to defecate in the gutter of a public street as a matter of course in Japan in 1945, and there is plenty of evidence that the streets of London were at times pretty foul in the 18th century. Archaeology here in Virginia show that farmhouse were often surrounded by accumulations of garbage. In 18th century Virginia the “outhouse” could be well-built and elaborate, but most people seem not to have gone to the trouble to build one: only the more well-to-do. Every account I have read by a World War I veteran records his observation of the huge and treasured manure pile that stood in front of every farmhouse door. People knew the benefits of cleanliness three centuries ago, and strove for it as best they could, but by our standards, things were often quite unsanitary, and sometimes appallingly so.

    1. “People knew the benefits of cleanliness three centuries ago, and strove for it as best they could, but by our standards, things were often quite unsanitary, and sometimes appallingly so.” Yes, this. If we could like comments on here I’d like yours.

  15. Oh, for the love…
    She didn’t say they never bathed, but rather that people didn’t “bathe” regularly. There were basins that people used on a daily basis, but it wasn’t a regular thing to immerse one’s body in water. This is well documented.
    She also never said it took 20 minutes to lace a corset in the 18th century, just that it did in the scene as it was filmed, causing the full scene to be over 30 minutes in length.
    Bathroom habits…She said people did their business when and where they needed to, but never said they didn’t use chamber pots. Again, it is well known that in large public areas and palaces etc, people pissed in corners. Especially when drink was involved, which it often was as water was considered unhealthy… Because people tended to dump sewage into water.
    Instead of posting a blog ripping someone for posting generalizations without specifics, perhaps, ask a question or two of the author. Common courtesy goes a long way.

    1. Except she did say those things when people spoke up in the comments contradicting her assertions with factual evidence that disproved her claims. She was dismissive and snarky to the people who questioned her sources and she dug in and refused to present one credible shred of evidence to support her “opinions.” When pressed, she tried to pass off a random post on an Internet forum as a “thesis” as though calling it that was going to shut the critics down. When that didn’t work, she claimed people were being mean to her. Going back and reading the so called “negative” comments on that post reveals nothing actually rude was written– the harshest tone was a hell of a lot nicer that what you’ve just written here.

      Point being, this post wouldn’t exist had she not gotten herself in over her head in and then flounced when people actually questioned her rather than accepted everything she said because she was Terry Dresbach.

  16. I love your article! To the average (non-history buff) reader, who comes across Terry’s article, they will read it as “accurate”, easily understood material. Which, in my opinion, is not what it should be. Let’s just think of this logically. Women, in the past, would have had to have something to contain their menstrual discharges. They would not have soiled, possibly their only change of clothes, so disgustingly. It’s not like they would have wanted to advertise their monthly predicament. It seems to me that they would have wanted to remain clean and comfortable just as we do today. Regarding the smell, I don’t think there is enough historically accurate information out there to say one way or the other if men were driven to sexual desires because of the way a woman smelled during her menses.
    If Terry was really wanting to educate the average reader, she should have mentioned that the general method of “bathing” was done with a pitcher and basin, not a full submersion. Without the entire information how is the average reader able to gain the full perspective.
    And yes, to the statement of relieving oneself. They would have gone in the woods just as we would do now if that was all that was available. Terry seems to have left that information out of her researched historical article too. Once again, is the “average” reader going to envision this relief taking place in the back country woods or in a growing civilization? The “average” reader I’m referring to would be the general person that would perhaps be educated enough to read a newspaper. Newspapers are generally written on a 6th grade (American) reading level.
    When I read scholarly, researched articles I prefer to get complete, accurate information that I can turn to for reference. Terry has obviously greatly failed to supply this type of fully accurate historical information. To that means, thank you so much Sarah Lorraine for your clarification on several misleading and slightly distorted inaccuracies.

    1. “To the average (non-history buff) reader, who comes across Terry’s article, they will read it as “accurate”, easily understood material.”

      That’s probably what irritates me the most! She was regurgitating old myths & glossing over facts, & that gives the mainstream movie/TV viewer the idea that the past was a totally alien place. A lot of the comments she received were of the “thank goodness it’s so much better today!” variety, & that makes me sad. Yes, some things are “better” (hi, I just went thru cancer, so I’m a big fan of modern medicine!), but we do a huge disservice to our fore-bearers to write them off as horrible, filthy savages.

  17. Hi – great post, but can I offer a small corrective to the sewers point, at least in London, which I know a bit about. Most decent homes in 18C had simple privies – little more than an outhouse with a seat over a hole in the ground. But that hole drained into a cesspool, periodically emptied by night-soil men. Flush toilets gradually came in during the 18C (probably only in the grandest homes, until Joseph Bramah’s 1770s model) but *even these were initially connected to cesspools*. The connection to sewers didn’t really happen until the early 19C and was a major factor in the Victorians’ sanitary problems, as this new method of sanitation poisoned the Thames and hence the water supply for much of the capital. Your point that people didn’t just ‘go’ anywhere, of course, still stands – except, perhaps, in the worst slums where there was no alternative.

    Regarding menstrual rags, I’ve also found a couple of references to emptied cesspools being full of old rags. No way of proving it, but a reasonable chance these were used during menstruation.


    Lee Jackson
    (author of ‘Dirty Old London’ – a forthcoming book that includes far too much detail on cesspools!)

    1. Hi Lee, thanks for the info! Your book sounds like something I’d be interested in reading (yes! Seriously!). Side note: When I was in London in the fall of 2012, I accompanied my fiancé on a study session at the Museum of London storage facility. He was there to study the shoes and I just tagged along because when you have a chance to visit the MoL storage, YOU GO. The one thing I vividly remember being amazed by was the rows of giant hollowed out tree trunks that were labeled sewage pipes (I think dating from the 17th c.– I wasn’t allowed to take pictures so my memory is hazy). I was so fascinated by the technology available at the time.

      Anyway, I can’t wait to see your book when it comes out! Do you have a publication date yet?

      1. Cheers – well, if you’re in the UK, October 9th; in the US, I think November 27th – published by Yale University Press. Very much about the lives of the poor, and some overlooked aspects of daily life.

        best wishes,


  18. Just to give a 20th century spin on the discussion – my mother was born in 1921 and was living in Los Angeles when she began to menstruate. Her older sister helped gather the rags she would need for her period and for several years she (as did her sisters) used rags rather than the very newly introduced Kotex. It was the Depression and even though the family was solid working class (despite the economic crisis my grandfather did not lose his job) buying sanitary pads was beyond their budget. So the girls each washed their rags each month and hung them on the enclosed back porch to dry. Only in her senior year of high school (1938/39) did my mom have a job that allowed her to finally buy commercial sanitary napkins.

  19. After reading this (WONDERFUL!) posting I attempted to see Terry’s commentary in the link you posted- apparently they realized their mistake because you now are sent to a 404 error. (: Thought some of us would applaud this.

  20. May I take this opportunity as to CONGRATULATE/THANK you for this oh-so-beautifully-put post which, to me, was sweeter than honey to my tongue! Finally I have found a person who looks upon this perspective in the EXACT same way as I do! So KUDOS to this post, and thanks for sounding our opinion, all of us of the same views, who look at movies as they SHOULD be, and not just a storyline some filmmaker of inexperienced historical background puts onto silver screen. My sole aim that I might get into this business some day is just that…accuracy in costume, style, story & features!!!

  21. What people forget about menstruation in cultures with no birth control, is that women spent most of their adult life pregnant or breastfeeding a baby (which stops menses in most women). They had what we see as astronomical numbers of children many of whom died young. Additionally, women who are poor and starving get so underweight they don’t bleed. Women then simply did not have years of monthly’s to attend to that modern women do. A few rags and some moss on those very rare occasions probably did the trick.

    1. And yet dealing with period blood is still a commonplace, frequent, and very real issue for modern women in developing countries with no birth control…

  22. Ahhh, so the person who runs the Museum of Menstruation is a man? Obviously, he’s never experienced a “feminine emergency”. Who would enjoy having blood (sometimes clots) run down their legs on a monthly basis – or less, if the woman was nursing. The thought of drying blood (getting cold as the air breezes through it) congealing and saturating the clothes– whatta mess. Museum guy has never woken up to a flood in his bed. Who would just bleed into clothing, mattresses (yeah, try cleaning those), furniture, rugs…? Have any stained dresses shown up in portraits, paintings, or illustrations? We have artistic documentation of bloodletting, trepanning, but not women bleeding into dresses? If it was so natural and commonplace, why is there no visual representation of it?

    I’m a genealogist, and I recall my grandmother (an RN, born 1912) talking about homemade napkins. One thing to point out: way back when, women sewed. They sewed a lot. They tatted, they knitted, they crocheted, embroidered, quilted had sewing circles with their lady pals. They made samplers to showcase their stitching prowess. Schools were devoted to young girls sewing. Women were clever (and still are!!), and it’s not much of a stretch to envision a mother showing her daughters how to make a nice, absorbent quilted, reusable napkin for her monthlies– this could be with linen; this could be knitted. How easy to just crochet chain a belt, add loops to a cloth, attach the two, and voila. Knitting was easy, quick, and portable. My grandmother used to hand-sew new elastic into her nylon briefs when the elastic was worn out to make them last longer.

    As someone else pointed out, clothing was expensive. Not only was it expensive, it was time-consuming to make. Folks (especially children) wore hand-me-downs, or repurposed their clothing… my grandmother had a rag basket, from old scraps of cloth for cleaning and odd jobs. Nothing was thrown away back then– she also had a sewing basket of scraps -the smallest fabric remnant could be used in a crazy quilt. What was a big-seller in the mid-late 1800s when it debuted? A Singer sewing machine. How many of our grandmothers had one? Having one meant you could customize clothes and make all kinds of neat things.

    We have a family homestead on Cape Cod that’s been in the family since 1859, although the house itself is much older. The bathroom was a former “birthing room”. Many of the old houses had birthing rooms that were later remodeled into other rooms. They wanted to keep the birth by-products away from the rest of the house, so I think they also would not want to have menstrual blood just a-flowin’ hither and yon. Also in the family homestead was a clothes boiler, which was built into the side of a chimney. It was quite high-tech for the late 1800s. The lid opened to a metal tub, which was about 1/2 the size of a full-size top-loading washing machine. The bottom compartment was for the wood to burn to boil the water. It was a PIA to wash clothes (not to mention dangerous, with boiling water, and sometimes lye), and to wash bulky petticoats vs a small menstrual cloth? Most families didn’t have all sorts of servants and wait staff to do their chores for them – at least not here on the Cape. What would you choose to wash, petticoats, or a small cloth? You might also have diapers to launder… oh and put up dried fruits, can or stockpile vegetables (half the year was spent prepping for the winter), air out mattresses, quilts, chase after children, plan meals without benefit of refrigeration, maintain the fire for the beehive oven, milk the cow, gather the eggs, bring in firewood, maybe chop firewood, fill the oil lamps, sweep the floors, etc., etc. All that happened in my family homestead, and in so many others. Every. Single. Day. Having a cleanish method of collecting your menstrual flow would have just made all the other things in their busy lives so much easier. Would you want to think about having to mop up your blood everywhere, when you had a ton of other stuff to do?

    Sorry to run on… just a few thoughts. :)

  23. Probably pointless to reply to an old post, but this seems to be the place for this. Whatever personal sanitary measures the French nobility might take, the fact remains that there was only ONE privy closet in Versailles, and that was reserved for the King. Many courtiers would have brought their ‘close stools’, which were padded chairs with a pot underneath. But many others, according to several sources, relieved themselves behind the curtains, on the stairways, and just about any other place, in at least one instance over a balcony rail, much to the detriment of those below. Potted palms and other plants didn’t do well there, either. Palace staff must have all been nose-blind. Maybe the guests were, too.

  24. My mom and grandmother, who both grew up in a rural farm area, both said they used old cut up linen or cotton rags (from old sheets or towels) during their periods, which they would pin into their undergarments and wash for re-use. This was still being done in the 1920’s and 1940’s so I can’t imagine it being different at earlier times. In fact, I believe the Amish still do this if they cannot afford modern sanitary pads.

  25. It wasn’t so long ago that rural people still lived like 17th century people. We had an outdoor john until I was 10 years old, had a well for water, raised our own food-both animal and vegetable-and took Saturday baths, changing the bathwater as it got too dirty for the next bather. Our house had no insulation, and getting up to wash and brush our teeth out at the basin by the well in the Winter taught us to get ready for school very quickly. I didn’t know anyone who wore stays/corsets, but the older women in my family had worn them, and said it was a two-person job getting dressed to go out. The dresses they wore at home were shapeless dresses with yokes and puff sleeves to the elbow, given shape by a belt or by the aprons they wore over them. I remember clean, embroidered aprons were worn to church by the older ladies. My great-great aunt didn’t wear underwear because, she said, they didn’t wear them when she was young, and she could never get used to them. To the delight of all us kids, she could pee standing out in the cornfield and never wet her dress. Mom tried it once, and had to go back to the house to clean up. Menstrual rags were tied in place, sometimes padded with clean handsful of neps, the pilled and unspinnable clumps of spinning fibers, Baths were once a week, except for some of the old people who believed that bathing in Winter would cause pneumonia. In between baths, they washed in a basin of cold water, rinsing off with another basin of cold water. They said, one day they washed down as far as possible; the next day they washed up as far as possible, then the third day, they washed possible. My great-great-grandfather shaved in the Spring. My great-great-grandmother quit washing her hair after getting pneumonia one Winter after washing her hair. After that, she used a homemade dry shampoo made of very fine sawdust, mixed with dried herbs and flowers. My grandmother said her hair was never oily, and always smelled like Spring. We had a lot of wool clothing, but archeologists will be disappointed that there were none of the wool fabrics left for them to find and theorize over; worn out wool garments were cut down to fit the children, used for patches, then the shredded scraps finally were burned for gnat smokes in the evenings. So, 300 or 400 years from now, archeologists will probably not believe my mother had a nice brown wool coat, or that I had some very itchy socks.

  26. An earlier period I know (& do forgive if already mentioned in posts) but do see ‘The Medieval Vagina: An Historical & Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal in the Middle Ages’ by Karen L Harris & Lori Caskey-Sigety
    Very interesting – especially on menstruation – & available for Kindle, too, at just £2:59

  27. As an Oxford graduate in post-mediaeval history, plus author of 17th-18th- early19th century novels, I did write a fun piece for my blog “No Knickers – Going Commando! With in depth research via private journals and letters from the above periods respectively, I discovered some very enlightening facts, which made perfect sense. Too many historians (of the past) were of the male gender and provided a very narrow perspective on female needs and their general sense and sensibility all things fashion and bare necessities. But since women stepped up to the podium in the mid 19th century with base facts, knowledge of the past has changed somewhat. It’s true to say, the streets of London in the 16th-17th century was damnably grim, hence the phrase “Gardyloo” yelled from overhead windows along narrow streets when slop and pee/poo pots were tipped willy nilly. As for personal hygiene, no doubt children were told to scrub behind their ears as they are told today, and while baths for the poor amounted to jumping in the wash tub on washing day, the wealthy had servants to haul buckets of hot water aloft to bedchamber closets (screened off) where wooden/copper/tin,baths of all shapes and sizes were utilised by men and ladies alike. Yes, ’tis true pomanders were useful when out and about in city streets. In rural areas the poor bathed in streams, rivers and again wash tubs, even animal troughs. Of course street urchins, and the dire poor are another story entirely, Besides, in Outlander some of the female costumes are all wrong re class and rank, inclusive the “Kilts”. http://tgunwriter.blogspot.co.uk/p/no-knickers-going-commando.html ,

  28. XX TV series Outlander, based on the novel of the same name by Diana Gabaldon. XX

    Ahh HER!

    “Miss “I am an expert on Scotland but do not know what a stovie is” Gabaldon, you mean?

    How can you expect any accuracy in a film related to her, when her research can not even turn up the most basic of Scottish recipes?

    For those that have forced themselves to read these books, her “Stovies” will be well known.

    Her description of thm being “Crumbly” and “crisp,” and “Stovie crumbs” sound great…. right?

    Except a stovie is a STEW, and you could try and get that crisp, and crumbly for ten and a half centuries, and not achieve that result. I know. I worked 12 years in hotels from Edinburgh to Thurso, Inverness to Ayr, and all in between, and made stovies at them all.

    NONE were crispy OR crumbly.

    SO, expect NOTHING of her books to be accurate. As to the film…

  29. Thanks for your article. I know Versailles and many old castles : there are toilettes inside, and lots of bathroom in Versailles ! even during middle age-espacially during middle age : people and aristocraty were all clean ! and they loved good smell and perfums …

  30. Whenever someone brings up an historical urban legend, or whatever we want to term this nonsense, I always ask them how it makes them feel. These urban legends always have a point to make, not about the past, but about the present. The point of this nonsense is that we have thing so much better than our ancestors did. We’re smarter, more hygienic, and just less gross than the past. So obviously we’re superior.

    Thank you for kicking the snot out of that stupid post.

  31. oh my gosh, I think about these things ALL the time when I watch or read period pieces. (I also marvel at their “medicine” being a medical professional, but that’s another story). Thank god there is someone out there doing the research. Thank you for easing my mind! I actually did find this entry because I just jumped on the Outlander wagon – I was telling a skeptical friend about the fact that the book causes tingles in the lady bits when you read it, and she said, “Ugh, did you know they bathed only once a year back then? That would make all the sex pretty gross…” And I thought, alright, I mean, maybe no hot showers, but people WERE having sex back then, and they did get close, and I am sure sensibilities were not that different back then, and don’t I recall that the perfume business was booming in 18th century France? So, thank you for making it easy for me to convince my friend to read the books! :)

    I can also tell you that I grew up in Russia, where, in many ways, life stood still until Communism fell in the 1990s, especially in the rural areas. One might say it was like a window into days past. So I will share this: 1) in regards to hygiene, there, the Banya (an outside sauna/bathhouse) was used routinely both by the affluent in cities, in a public paid format, and by the peasants in the country, where such a bathhouse would be built on the lands of the village, for centuries. This included hot coals, boiling water, steam, scrubbing, and therapeutic beating with a broom of vines, which is really like a phenomenal deep tissue massage and skin exfoliation. This was done on a weekly basis. On a daily basis, there was a basin in every hut where one would wash ones undercarriage and feet nightly. I highly recommend it the banya. I have heard nowadays it is very en vogue, and called “hydrospa.” What is old is new again. 2) there were no tampons or pads when I was growing up. women made their own out of cheesecloth and cotton balls, and used and reused them. So, the bleeding all over the place is false. And I find it fascinating that in many ways women were so much freer before the 19th century where everyone got buttoned up and stayed that way until well after the second world war…

  32. oh, I have more!! In 1703, tsar Peter the Great returned to Russia from education abroad in Western Europe, namely Germany, and built himself a city and within it, a palace. (St Petersburg, and the Winter Palace). As a girl, I used to tour this with my parents. I specifically recall that the palace had installed toilets with pulldown tank serviced by a larger tank (of the type still used up until the 1950s?), and pipes, as well as bathtubs made of wood with overhead showers, that worked by pulling on a cord or chain. So there’s that. He must have learned that somewhere – in Western Europe, I presume.

  33. Ah, lord.
    Many years ago, on the h-costume list (http://ieee.uwaterloo.ca/~fashion/) – like back in the 1990s – I shared photographs that I took of a menstrual garment – a sort of diaper that had slits to be stuffed with rags – that was found in the walls of a house built in the 1830s in Mecklenburg County, NC (near Charlotte). It was made of linen and had tufts of quilting stitched between the two layers.
    When I showed it to my then-85 year old grandmother, she recognized it immediately. The bloodstains helped. I will go get them and scan them and upload them again if anyone doubts this. Several historians examined and confirmed the garment’s authenticity. The guy at MOM wanted to purchase it but the owner declined to sell.

    Women used rags. They’ve always used rags. There is plenty of documentation for this if you know where to look.

    The reason the garment was between the walls is unknown. Maybe it was a talisman to assist a woman in getting pregnant. Maybe it fell behind the lathing – doubtful – during construction. It was placed in a manner such that it would have to have been put there during construction. But why? Anyone’s guess.

    –Susannah Eanes

    1. This blog post is truly evergreen — I read it years ago and came back yesterday after an argument with a friend…
      Anyway. In the time since I first read it, I’ve done a lot of research on American menstrual practices for the living history museum where I work (1836). I would LOVE to see photos of this garment!!! If you would happen to see this comment and be able to email me some images, I would be eternally grateful. sherrill(at)connerprairie(dot)org

  34. Really, I can NOT imagine women actually bleeding in “their clothes” – I mean, what would this mean in daily life? Having to change clothes as least once a day, or likely even more. How could a poor woman even afford that? She’d be lucky to possess two “nice” dresses and some larger number of work clothes and underwear, so after a day of bleeding she’d be out of clothes. The first thing you think of when something is leaking somewhere from your body…. is to put a rag to it! Voila, I think that from the beginning of times women really had this basic instinct and were bright enough to devise of a means to keep the rag in place, like: take a piece of string, tie around the hips… put the rag between your legs and tie the ends to the string at the front and at the back.

    Great article by the way – and yes, I too think that lacing a corset did not take more than a few minutes, most women wore corsets, they had lots of routine.

  35. An interesting fact- when I was doing research on 17th-century Dutch settlers in New York, I ran into an inventory that mentioned “santees”, which was translated in the footnotes as sanitary napkins of some kind.

    Living historian Ruth Goodman wrote in one of her books (I think it was How to be a Victorian, but it might have been How to Be a Tudor- they’re both lots of fun) about a form of
    “bathing” that involved scrubbing your body vigorously with a dry, rough towel. She tried this and found that it let her wear the same shift for several days without any odor problems. It helped explain why I was seeing so many inventories that only listed a small number of shirts for middle-class men.

    1. I was going to mention Ruth Goodman, too. Interestingly, she said she found that the dry scrub worked most effectively, whereas if she changed her linen but didn’t wash she found herself uncomfortably smelly quite quickly.

  36. When I was in school in London, the shirt body was changed every few days, but the collar was changed daily. It was the mid-Fifties, and I bathed frequently, but only washed up every day. This was the common practice.

    1. Hell, I live in a granny flat in 2019 and have to walk outside my house and up a hill to have a proper shower in the main house. I have a nice proper shower every 2-3 days and a sponge bath every day, including my face and neck (sometimes twice a day in the summer). Dry shampoo also helps. I’m just as clean as other people–the only things I don’t wash as frequently are my torso, arms, and legs, which, let’s face it, aren’t likely candidates for dirt.

  37. as for pissing everywhere and anywhere. this is STILL true in parts of the world. I was in Egypt two weeks before the spring uprising (May 2010) and found men pissing against the monuments, in empty rooms in the tombs and temples and anywhere they wouldn’t be found. My friend and I walked around the corner at Sakkara and came across a man pissing onto a small pyramid. what jolly times!! so yeah, I can believe people pissed in corners at Whitehall and Versailles.

  38. I grew up in a house with indoor plumbing. This was in the 1960s in a large US city. As a kid growing up my siblings and I bathed weekly and after any particularly “dirty ” activities. Each day we washed our underarms, intimate areas and faces at the bathroom sink. We. brushed our teeth multiple times daily. We wore clean underwear daily. Outer garments such as shirts, dresses and pants would be worm several times before washing them. Neither we nor our clothes smelled offensive. Daily bathing is popular but not necessary and is not the last word on being clean. A sponge wipe down all over is just as effective as a bath or shower. I think Americans in particular have gone overboard with taking such frequent immersion baths and showers.

  39. Poor costumer. You idiot. Historians are scum pretty much. During those years everyone bathed next to none. Ever since the Middle Ages royalty has been recorded over and over as refusing to bath. Russians and others were barbarians for bathing.

    The fact is ninety percent of what you said unfortunately truthfully is you acting like you can call someone a liar over things that are uncertain or you know nothing certain about. I will stake my claim on most of what the costumer said because you backpetaled and agreed with her by mistake. Unable to refute you admit we don’t know enough about some things and others you deny even though it is evidenced everywhere else that filth was typical to the time.

    Why all this? Oh because it is fiction. No one needs a history lesson. Not from uncertain stumbling liars who don’t want us to get it right in the writing and then create a good fictional made up story in the time period anyway.

  40. Actual history professor here. Even a specialist in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is always a fascinating topic, but one about which it’s really hard to find consistent, accurate information. This is possibly because, in the 18th century, bathing wasn’t yet a giant, profitable industry; it was just something people did, as best they could, with a wide range of local practices, habits, etc.

    My mother grew up in rural England in the 1940s, under rather impoverished conditions, and I grew up in the suburbs in the U.S., although I’ve lived in the woods without running water or electricity, here, too, so I can comment on a few matters here, apart from what I know from historical research. My mother bathed maybe once a week, and she had a rather strong body odor, but she was also eating an American diet (albeit not the massive quantities of processed food people eat today) – but certainly more meat and cheese than she would have eaten when younger during the era of rationing. Diet makes a huge difference when it comes to body odor, as does the frequency with which clothes are laundered and aired. I have been on buses in India, full of poor people who bathe with buckets only, in tremendous heat and humidity, and here’s the thing: there’s almost no body odor at all. Put this down to diet, yogurt, and the different ways in which different groups of people sweat. And the fact that you don’t need a 20 minute hot shower or a full-immersion bath to stay clean enough to mash up against everyone else in a hot bus. The same hot bus, in the U.S., with everyone on a dairy-rich, high-protein diet, would be unimaginably horrible.

    Taking a full body bath requires a lot of work when you don’t have a bathroom / bathtub. When we lived in a log cabin in the Sierra Nevadas, one year, she decided to take a proper bath. This required hours of hauling and boiling water (from a nearby stream) to fill an old war surplus portable canvas tub, after which we boys were kicked out of the one-room cabin for a while. Back in the 18th century, a full-immersion bath would have required “all hands on deck,” as far as the servants were concerned, and a lot of hard work for them.

    A proper bath in the 18th century usually meant getting out a shallow basin (often made of tin), but one large enough to sit in, where you could take a bucket-bath, and in which you could even sit down. There weren’t a lot of houses with dedicated indoor washrooms, though, so often this was simply screened off from the rest of the room – as much to block out cold air as to give the bather some privacy. People also often bathed with shirts or chemise on, if they could not be assured of privacy – especially if they had a servant dumping the bucket on them instead of doing it themselves. More frequent washing was done at washstands, using sponges, etc., but the real difficulty was washing the hair. Here, Britain’s 18th century connection with India came in handy, with the importation of “shampoo,” and even a few Indians who knew how to make and use it (one of whom, “Deen Mahommed,” opened a shop inside Brighton Pavilion, and was hair-dresser to the Prince Regent). There was, in fact, a social stir in the late 18th century called the “Cult of Hygieia,” which advocated more frequent bathing and cleanliness in general. Captain James Cook, of Pacific exploration fame, also helped promulgate these ideas by keeping most of his men alive, on long, arduous missions, by making them all bathe every day, and setting the example himself, alongside the naturalist Joseph Banks. Likewise, many Britons who served in India came home with an acquired habit of frequent bathing.

    The matter of toilets is even harder to fathom than the matter of men’s undergarments. The idea of 18th century cities being cesspits is probably an exaggeration, but not entirely. London didn’t require houses to have flush toilets until the 1860s. If you’ve ever ducked into a loo in an old London house and wondered why you seemed to be in some spare closet, it’s because you probably are; toilets were added “after the fact,” in a hurry. Some low-lying areas that were thickly-populated and poor would have been as awful as slums in the developing world. Most alleyways would have hardly been bearable. Other areas would have been kept clean. However, in British architecture of the period, there was a disregard for toilets that is hard to understand. I am writing a historical novel set in India, much of it in Fort Saint George, Madras, which was rebuilt and redeveloped in the 1780s. Wondering about the fort’s toilet facilities, I happened to find a report, from a sanitary commission, writing in the 1860s, that went into the topic (and its history) in incredible detail, including maps. Basically, there were a few privies, but not nearly enough, and they were not always conveniently located. The nearest one might be a few streets away from the office in which you were working. The British barracks (which included soldiers’ families) had only a few facilities, some of which were outside the fort’s walls, draining into the moat, or a nearby branch of the Coum River. Installing proper bathrooms in the fort turned out to be a big job, and since there wasn’t any piped water or sewerage available, these turned out t be the 19th century equivalent of modern compost toilets. It was a huge improvement, however, on what people would have experienced in the 18th century. I suspect there were more toilets available in private homes inside the fort, but this didn’t do all the people who worked in the fort any good. This utter lack of public toilets was still a problem in India in the 1990s when I was doing my dissertation research there, but (like so many other things) that has changed for the better.

    Some of our sources are a bit exaggerated, and these tend to be cherry-picked: there’s a whole school of thought out there that the past was some kind of hideous freak-show covered with dirt and dripping with pus. I would tend to argue, “No,” based on my own research and experience. Most people tried to keep clean, especially if they had some money, and were educated, but it took a lot more work. Perhaps most importantly it took the armies of servants that have disappeared from the Western world, but which still exist in developing countries.

    1. It’s interesting you bring food up, because yes, indeed it is food that makes one reek. Also interesting you talk about India. Truth is that in India, people must wash as often as they can. Because they eat curry. Curry DOES make one stink a lot. The food category that makes one stink the strongest is spices, not milk/diary or meat. Curry is made of spices. Probably you have been to a part of India where the locals don’t eat that much curry, who knows? I mean, India is, after all, a huge place with a lot of populations, cultures, so maybe in some parts of India, locals rarely eat curry if at all.

      The reason why you say diary and meat making one stink is because the said dairy or meat is un-organic. Read my comment on the bottom of the page of my bathing habits. Believe me, I used to do this in the past, but also nowadays, I wash myself only once a week, and that means also washing my co-called “stinky parts” like armpits. I do not wear deodorant and certainly not perfumes and I also change my clothes other than undies like at least every other day if not after 3-4 days. I wear clothes until, to put it vintagely, they become visibly dirty. And that even when I do a lot of physical effort that makes me sweat like shit literally. I will take to work the same sweaty t-shirt on me that I had yesterday on me, if it is not visibly dirty or if it doesn’t look like shit on me.

      And believe me, I eat a lot of diary products. In fact I have a huge lust of diary products like cheeses for instance. I drink milk every other day also. As for meat, I eat it maybe once or twice a week (I don’t typically eat meat because of my blood group A2, and it is said that A2 people who eat meat, they will become dizzy because of the meat and it’s true. I eat meat only when I don’t have to go to work, or have some busy day, such as in weekends.

      But I never eat spices. I detest spices. The only spice that I used to kinda like was chili. But even that I used to eat only once a week or so. Now I don’t eat even that. I’d rather have you put a bullet in my head than force me to eat garlic or curry or stuff like that.

      But how I stay fresh? All the food I eat is organic. 100% organic. So I do not have the malcontents of un-organic food in me, such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides and definitely not GMOs. These malcontents are very dangerous for your body and obviously, your body tries to rid itself of them and that happens through sweating. So when your sweat smells really bad, it’s because those malcontents are getting eliminated through your skin, causing stench in the process. On the other hand, spices make you stink even when they are organically grown, but as I said, my diet is 0% spices.

  41. Do these people not understand that cloth making was a labor intensive process of many steps involving many craftspeople and clothing was in consequence a serious expense? Do they seriously believe that women were cool with staining their good linen chemises and petticoats, not to mention the unwashable woolen outerwear.

    1. Exactly, Roxana! Textiles were precious and even included in household inventories along with furniture, they were so important. Can you imagine counting your pillow cases and underwear these days?? NO way they would be bled on deliberately. Stuff like that shows a complete lack of knowledge about history. (I love this group – one of my pet peeves is how textiles (and sanitation are often overlooked by historians and novelists).
      Sara Lorraine, this was one of the best threads ever, thank you! Some fabulous contributors! I have a lot more reading to do now!

  42. Just a quick comment on an old post – I suspect that these legends are pretty heavily influenced in our generation by Patrick Sueskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which is set in 18th-century France and begans with a lengthy riff on how disgusting unhygienic everyone was then.

  43. People did not wash so addictively back in the day because they did not need to. You see, the reason people stink these days is because of the food. It is because people don’t eat organic food today. The food of back then (say 19th century) was, by our present day standards, organic. I remember back in 2010, so that’s 10 years ago, I had some problems with being overweight and wanted to do something about it. And guess what. I used to do resistance runs everyday. Resistance runs are not as fast as sprinting but certainly faster than mere jogging.

    I used to do at least 2 kilometers of resistance running per day and even up to 5 kilometers in the days I was highly motivated to run that much. And bathing? Well, that was only once a week. And obviously no showering either. So washing my body other than hands and face was something I used to do once a week, in the proverbial Saturday evening before church day, only in my case I bathed on Sundays evenings, since the purpose of bathing was to stay fresh a whole week, not just 24 hours, and it was to become fresh before Mondays. Also, I did not take what is known as dry baths (where you rub your body with a towel in the morning, to get rid of the sweat).

    Deodorants? Changing clothes everyday? None of these happened. I detest deodorants as they have the opposite effect on me that they have on your Average Joe. Deodorants make me really stink and that is because my body is allergic to chemicals and deodorants have a huge amount of chemicals. As for clothes, I used to change only my underwear every morning before going to school (I was in high school at that time). T-shirts were worn for 2-3 days before changing them and jeans the whole week, as well as the same socks the whole week.

    Not to mention that I used to do the jogging part in my school clothing most of the time, and sometimes I also engaged in the, quite unusual habit to say the least, of sleeping in my outside clothes, not changing into pajamas when going to bed.

    So my day back then would be. Waking up (many times in the clothes I wore the day before at school). Washing my face and hands. Changing only my underwear. Going to school. Coming back home. Resistance running 2-5 kilometers a day, usually in the clothes I had on me at school. Doing my homework. Going to sleep, often in the clothes I had the whole day on me and then waking up the next morning and going to school in the same t-shirt, jeans and socks as the day before, only not the same underwear.

    And you know what? I don’t remember stinking or someone telling me that I stink. You know why? Because the only thing I used to digest back then (I was on diet also), was half a liter to a liter of milk every morning, but not just any kind of milk. It was a milk that was as organic as you can get. No chemical shit in it.

    You see, the stench is produced by the chemicals in your food and drink, and that’s why you stink. Yes, people back then did wash themselves once a week or once every other week and such and they did not stink. Also, they did not have deodorants or perfumes, etc. They probably did not wash themselves only once a year, or once a lifetime, as it has become known in our popular culture, because even if your sweat doesn’t stink, you still accumulate a lot of it on your body, and that can make your skin quite itchy. So they still washed themselves usually once a week or once every other week.

    But you see. In the 1920’s ‘Murica something happened. Chemical fertilizers became widespread on the market. And since then, they spread to most of the world. And not only that, but foods have been messed with in other ways since then, such as spraying them with dangerous pesticides and genetically modifying them. And of course, just like with chemical fertilizers in the 1920’s, pesticides and GMOs first knew economic success in ‘Murica out of all places. And that’s why this “shower everyday” habit started in ‘Murica out of all places.

    Today I am back to washing myself only once a week, since now I have read about organic food and I eat only organically. Also, I don’t wash my face these days, since when I used to do that, I had hell-a-lot of acne on my face. Once I stopped washing my face, acne disappeared. Also I don’t change clothes everyday and don’t wear deodorants. Do I stink? Nobody has complained about it.

    This is how life of people must have been back then also.

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