People Rarely Bathed in the Past?

You might have heard that people didn’t bathe very often in the past, at least in the distant past. 

A lot of other stories go along with this. To whit: 

—Mainland Europeans thought that Vikings were obsessed with cleanliness because they bathed every week.

—Brides carried bouquets of flowers at their weddings in order to cover up their body odor. (No stories about how grooms might have covered up their own stench.)

—At most, people only bathed twice per year in the middle ages — May and October.

All of these are myths. Almost all cultures in the past have considered bathing important. Further, bathing rituals have been central to many religions. And bathing hygiene has been linked to healthy living since pre-history. Granted, bathing like many 21st century people do — a daily bath or shower with modern conveniences and lots of hot water and soap — was almost unknown until indoor plumbing was perfected in the early 20th century. But people bathed and washed as often as they could in past centuries.

It’s important to make a distinction early on between “bathing” and “washing.” “Bathing,” as in completely immersing yourself in a tub of water, river, or pond, was done somewhat infrequently through most of history. But, even still, it was rare for someone to go more than two weeks without some sort of bath. “Washing,” as in washing specific parts of the body (hand, face, and feet especially) was very common and frequent. Think of these like sponge baths.

The Ancient World:

Not only did the ancients bathe and wash more than is generally thought, but some cultures also built elaborate and extensive aqueducts and plumbing systems in order to bring enough fresh water to cities and towns. Bathing, therefore, was a major public concern and lots of resources were employed to make it happen.

When they weren’t busy writing epic poetry, ancient Greeks washed daily with wash basins, foot baths, and even small bathtubs. Larger baths (which were sometimes communal) were used as long ago as 2,000 B.C., especially in palaces, estates, and larger houses. The Romans used similar receptacles to bathe, but built even larger and more complex public baths. Further, they constructed extensive aqueduct and piping systems that brought fresh water into cities, and even into individual houses. Some of these piping systems even included braziers to heat the water before it entered the house. Of course, these braziers required a lot of work to start up and keep going.

Bathing was perhaps most common in ancient India, with immersion in rivers not only being used for cleansing but also for some frequent religious rituals. Smaller-scale washing was done as often as three times per day.

The “Medieval” Period:

Bathing was also common in the medieval period. Written records from China and Japan as early as the 6th century contain many descriptions of public bathing, as well as smaller-scale washing. Initially, Buddhist temples in China and Japan included a bathhouse for the monks, with the public given limited access. But gradually the public was welcomed fully because purity was important in Buddhist theology and bathing came to be seen as the best way to obtain bodily purity.

Bathing in medieval Europe gradually changed from a public to a private affair. In the early middle ages, public bathing was the norm, usually taking place in central bathhouses. Gradually, though, the Church frowned on public nudity and many public bathhouses were closed. Bathing moved to the private home. Wealthy people were able to devote the time and trouble to immerse themselves in specially constructed baths, whereas most other people satisfied themselves with extensive washing from basins and only bathed in rivers or communal baths every few weeks. 

Early Modern Period (1400s-1760)

Renaissance and Reformation thinking in Europe gradually stressed increased hygiene both in terms of the body and the clothes. Cleanliness came to be seen as an expression of the purity of the soul. Medical science also began to emphasize cleanliness in order to keep away sickness and disease. Washing visible parts of the body became even more important and more frequent bathing became the norm. Private baths at home now completely replaced communal bathing. Poor people often shared bathing tubs among families rather than each family having to buy their own.

European explorers to Mesoamerica (generally speaking the area we think of as southern Mexico and Central America) commented at length on the extensive bathing habits of Americans in this period. Bathing was a daily activity, usually taking place in the early afternoon, and was practiced by the entire population. One Spanish chronicler said bathing was “as common and frequent as eating” among the native Americans. Mostly this was done in rivers and lakes, but Mesoamericans also developed a highly sophisticated bathing house, which used steam, cool water, natural soaps, and plant scrubbers to keep themselves clean.

Modern Bathing:

The Industrial Revolution changed bathing, as it changed a great many other things. But not overnight. It eventually made plumbing cheaper and more available, but it took the addition of other developments to change bathing habits. Scientists and doctors began to stress the medical importance of more frequent full body bathing (immersion), in addition to extensive hand and face washing. Public baths were revived and became very popular throughout Europe and North America. Soap and other cleansing materials (freshly laundered towels, etc) became consumer items and began to be advertised heavily. By 1850, weekly bathing was the norm. By 1900, daily bathing was no longer rare.

Bathing frequency only increased with improvements in plumbing, clean public water systems, and even more emphasis on hygiene by doctors. But remember, these are increases only in degree. It isn’t as if people never bathed until the Industrial Revolution and then everyone started lathering up whenever they could. 

But what about teeth, Professor, you say?

Teeth brushing followed a similar pattern. The major difference was that the effects of poor dental hygiene were more obvious than just a dirty body. Black and rotting teeth were common until modern times, but not universal.

Ancient and medieval teeth were cleaned by: rinsing with water (or sometimes with a mint and vinegar mixture); rubbing them with a clean cloth; and using early versions of toothpicks. Rotting teeth were extracted and people tried to scour out the mouth with various implements after the extraction.

In early modern times, teeth were rubbed with burnt rosemary. Vinegar was used as a mouthwash. Powdered sage was rubbed on to whiten teeth. And mint was chewed to freshen the breath. 

The first toothbrush was invented in 1857, and various powders were used along with it, especially baking soda. Modern toothpaste (a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda) was invented in 1900 but didn’t become popular until after World War I.

We would almost certainly encounter body odor and bad breath if we stepped out of our time machine into a previous century. But it probably wouldn’t be as bad as we tend to think. So scrub up and chill out, Buzzkillers, and don’t be so high and mighty about how much cleaner you are than your great-great-great Aunt Tilly.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Mary Miley Theobald, Death by Petticoat.

From famous legends to embellished truths to outright fabrications, Death by Petticoat debunks myths from American history in witty, entertaining narratives that shed light on the real truth about the past.  

Every day stories from American history that are not true are repeated in museums and classrooms across the country. Some are outright fabrications; others contain a kernel of truth that has been embellished over the years. Collaborating with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Mary Miley Theobald has uncovered the truth behind many widely repeated myth-understandings in our history in Death by Petticoat including:

* Hat makers really were driven mad. They were poisoned by the mercury used in making hats from furs. Their symptoms included hallucinations, tremors, and twitching, which looked like insanity to people of the 17th and 18th centuries–and the phrase “mad as a hatter” came about.

* The idea that portrait painters gave discounts if their subjects posed with one hand inside the vest (so they didn’t have to paint fingers and leading to the saying that something “costs an arm and a leg”) is strictly myth. It isn’t likely that Napoleon, King George III, or George Washington were concerned about getting a discount from their portrait painters.

Pregnant women secluded themselves indoors, uneven stairs were made to trip up burglars, people bathed once a year, women had tiny waists, and apprenticeships lasted seven years–Death by Petticoat reveals the truth about these hysterical historical myth-understandings.

Posted in