Keeping it Clean, Part One

I may love to talk about the 19th century and sometimes dream a little about stepping into a time machine and visiting it, but there are a few facets of life in which I am firmly 21st century…and one of those is taking a nice hot shower every morning. But how did our 19th century counterparts keep clean?

By the early 19th century, hundreds of years of aversion to getting wet had given way to the theory that bathing might actually be good for you. The health benefits of visiting places like Bath, where the Romans had built extensive public baths to take advantage of the natural hot mineral springs, were accepted and those who could afford it flocked to bathe in the public and private baths there. Sea-bathing also became a fashionable “cure” for everything from skin complaints to digestive problems. Eventually, keeping up the habit at home gradually caught on as cleanliness was accepted as a desirable—and healthful—quality.

So if you were a young lady of fashion, how would you keep clean? Unless your home had been recently built, it was unlikely it that it had a bathroom, at least in the way we define that word. Instead, the usual method of bathing was in a portable tub, often a hip bath, set up by the fireplace in your bedroom on an oilcloth sheet in case of splashover and surrounded by screens to block drafts and provide privacy. Hardworking servants had to tote cans of hot water up from the kitchen to fill your bath for you.

But taking a bath wasn’t your only option; by this time a shower apparatus had been invented as well, though they were generally used with cold water which was poured into the top and released when the bather pulled a cord or chain to open the sluice. According to the wife of prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, her husband had great moral courage but no physical courage, so whenever he took a cold shower-bath (as they were called), she always had to come and pull the chain for him!

In between baths, you could have a sponge-bath in your room; a standard piece of bedroom furniture was the washstand, which held a broad, deep basin which your maid would fill with warm water. It was easy to wash the upper body this way, and certainly much easier than dealing with the hip bath.

By mid-century more houses were being built with bathrooms located near the bedrooms; earlier bathrooms had often been built on the ground floor, with the bathtub doubling as a clothes-washing vessel. Advances in plumbing engineering took a while to catch up, though, and there was often insufficient pressure to get water to those upper floors…which meant those maids had to continue toting water, poor things!




Keeping it Clean, Part One — 8 Comments

  1. On a very rainy day in Paris, I once talked myself into Malmaison (Josephine de Beauharnais’s home) when the museum was closed, saying I was a writer doing research. Which I was, but it was the first time I had ever identified myself as such, and it felt wildly transgressive.

    One of the things I got to see was her bathing room, on the top floor, with a gravity-fed shower. As I recall, there was an chamber above the bathing room where a cistern of water could be heated, providing the former Empress with a hot shower. The ne plus ultra in luxury. I have to confess, when I tour the homes of the Great and Near Great, I’m always more interested in the servants’ quarters and bathing arrangements than the grand drawing rooms.

    • I forgot to say: I believe the bathing room was on the upper floor because the cistern was filled with rain water, because it was deemed to be purer. What happened to the Empress when there had been a prolonged period of sunny, dry weather, I do not know.

  2. Something a bit similar.
    Between 1950-1968 appartments in the Netherlands were often built with a “lavet”, a large sink (installed at hip height) that doubled as a hand-cranked washing machine and as a sitting bathtub (definitely for children, but older people could also use it, if they used steps to climb in and out).
    Picture (there are more pictures and an article on that site as well, but it’s in Dutch):

    You could put a vertical axle with scoops and a handle into the hole in the bottom, fill the tub with soapy water and clothes, and crank the handle around to turn the washing just as a washing machine does.

    My great-aunt lived in an appartment (built in the early 1960s) with a lavet until she died, a decade ago – when the apartment management was taking out all the lavets to install modern showers instead (in the 1990s) she declined as she didn’t consider it necessary and didn’t want the mess and fuss.
    Both she and my grandma, born in 1908, preferred sponge baths when they became very old, as that was what they were used to in their youth (even though grandma had a perfectly serviceable shower).

    They both did have a modern washing machine though, and the hand-crank needed to use the lavet as a washing machine was long lost when we had to clean out her appartment after her death.

  3. Growing up in the 50s in a working class suburb in England, our bath was a galvanised tub that hung on the back of the kitchen door – until Sunday evening when it was taken down for bath night. We had no hot water so every pan and kettle was piled onto the gas cooker to provide enough water to half fill the bath which was set down on the kitchen floor next to the cooker – so the oven could be lit and the door kept open to defrost the bather.

    The family would then take turns, using the same bath water, topped up by frequent additions of boiling water to keep the temperature up. As the youngest, I was always last to climb into the soapy and often lukewarm water.