Monday, October 5, 2009

Annals of Bathing: Episode 1

Monday, October 5, 2009

Loretta reports:

Liz said,
“I have read in books by other authors that no gentlemen took baths before Beau Brummell made it fashionable. I would be interested to know from you ladies if this is true."

In a word, no. While bathing, at the time, usually meant sea bathing--which King George III is doing in the picture above--that wasn't the only kind.

A wonderful book by Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House, shows photos of bath houses and plunge baths dating to the 18th century. Many country houses before Brummell's time had them, although Christina Hardyment’s Behind the Scenes reminds us that these “should be regarded as roughly the equivalent of the modern domestic swimming-pool--having a bathhouse in the grounds did not preclude having a plumbed in bath in the house itself. Fixed baths, equipped with hot and cold water, were installed in the Palace of Whitehall in the 1670s and at Chatsworth in the 1690s.”

Not all houses had them, inside or out. Just because one had a bath, didn't mean one took a bath.

Ian Kelly’s Beau Brummell tells us “Brummell bathed in hot water, and this was considered remarkable. Almost as remarkable as the fact that he bathed every day 'and every part of his body.'”

This would have been remarkable only a generation or two ago in the U.S. Let’s remember that Brummell may have made it fashionable in his time but that doesn’t mean no one did it before he did or that everyone afterward--even every one of his devotees--bathed as religiously as he did. He attracted attention because he was a celebrity.

Many people, including doctors, well into the 19th century, regarded bathing in hot water as unhealthy. In most cases, it was simply impractical. Brummell’s house had, Kelly informs us, "an unusually large coal cellar"--which simplified heating all the gallons of water required daily.

Look for more about bathing this week from both NHGs. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this food for thought: “A survey in the 1950s showed that one Londoner in five never took a bath . . . . in 1958, over the whole United Kingdom, ‘about one third of the old dwellings’ were bathless.”
--Lawrence Wright, Clean and Decent


Ingrid said...

And there is of course the famous story that people who did have bathrooms in Britain, kept coal in the bathtub.
I don't know if it's true, but it's a good story.

Jane O said...

It wasn't just England. Around 1950, two of my aunts on Long Island lived in houses with an outhouse, and for another, in Queens (NYC), indoor plumbing consisted of a hand pump at the kitchen sink.

Vanessa Kelly said...

That is a terryifying quote from Lawrence Wright! I do remember as a child, though, only taking two or three baths a week. Five kids in my house, and only one bathroom. Lots of competition.

I love the illustration of King George taking a bath, especially the orchestra in the water with him!

Margaret Porter said...

Queen Mary II had a large bathing room in the Water Gallery, her private retreat, at Hampton Court, in the 1690s. A boiler boiler provided running hot water.

In my research on the 17th century bagnios I've read detailed descriptions of the hot and cold taps. It's clear that the spa treatments of today (massages, steaming, various forms of exfoliation) were practised then, available to men and women.

These bagnios were the precursers of the 18th century hummums, all of which were inspired by the Turkish baths and bathing practises.

Time for me to hit the shower!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I love reading this blog because I get so much useful information. I think authors need to include more bathing scenes in their books. I remember reading a Roberta Gellis where the heroine prepares a bath for the hero, who is not her husband, because it was apparently the custom in medieval england. I think she even helps to wash his back.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

This is so disturbing at breakfast. Yet I'm reminded of that Roman habit of bathing by rubbing olive oil, then salt or sand and scraping the residue from the body. I'm sure I'd rather go w/out bathing than do the oil/salt thing before hanging in the Italian climate. Unless it was more like a spa treatment.

Loretta, were courtesans expected to bath more often? Did the Eastern bathing habits influence the preparations, perhaps, in effort to be more exotic once Europe became all agog over things Turkish and the seraglio, etc? I'm assuming the harem women were very clean because they'd have followed a religious tradition?

Nessa, as a kid, I'd have loved growing up in your house if it meant bathing less often. :).

Vanessa Kelly said...

Michelle, three brothers and an older sister - one bathroom to share.

Loretta Chase said...

Wright's book mentions that in the U.S. in the 1950s, TVs outnumbered bathtubs. But in all times and places there are going to be variations, and this is the point Susan and I hope to get across this week. As Margaret mentions, there were public baths. Some in London dated to Roman times and were still in use in the Victorian era. Regarding Brummell: "his 'ablutions,' it was said, 'would have gained him a reputation for sanctity in a Mahomedan country,'" according to the Kelly book.

Loretta Chase said...

I spent part of my honeymoon at a farmhouse in the mountains of Virginia. An outhouse. A bathtub in the kitchen, but the running water was the spring outside the house. It takes a long time to heat up enough water for even a shallow bath--and that's using an electric stove (yes--no plumbing, but thanks to the Roosevelt electrification projects, there was electricity). So I keep coming back to the idea that you have to be highly motivated to bathe daily and you need to be in the right environment. Michelle, an expensive courtesan in nice digs could bathe daily. But we have to acknowledge that it's easier for the highly privileged classes, and to theorize that public baths were more common and more commonly used in hot climates. One might wish to recreate the practices of the east, but it's not going to be easy in early 19th C London. Still, that gives a writer lots of leeway, and I think I can keep my protagonists clean and decent without being historically incorrect.

Loretta Chase said...

Elizabeth, I agree about bathing scenes. I love them and use them in most of my books--which is why I've accumulated so much material on the subject. That and prurient interest, of course.

theo said...

My dad was born in the UP of Michigan around the turn of the century. He bathed every day, every day of his life, taking a sponge bath. Rarely did he get into a shower and never in a tub. His mother was a very proper Englishwoman who insisted her family always be clean (and she was born in the 1880's-go figure) so I'm thinking it wasn't just a cultural but also a regional and class thing (they were a fairly wealthy family whose father squandered their money).

It always irritates me to read people's comments on any historical novel where they insist people didn't bathe. Quite obviously they did, and often! :-)

The Victorian Times said...

Ladies, your blog is a delight to the senses and so well researched. Love it.

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