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!