Sunday, September 14, 2014

Keeping clean in the 18th century

The Bath by Sigmond Freudeberg, 1774
One question that crops up again and again when I talk about 18th century cosmetics and hygiene is “Is it true that they never bathed?”  There is a widespread assumption that people who lived then lived their lives in the most appalling filth, costly silks and perfumes covering a body that never touched water. That is not really the truth which is a lot more diverse. A simple yes and no to the bathing question is not possible.

Let’s ask another question, one that is much easier to answer: “Didn’t people in the 18th century want to be clean?”

Yes, of course they did. Cleanliness has always been an important aspect of every culture in history. In fact, cleanliness is an important aspect for every animal on earth, an animal that doesn’t keep itself clean is either sick or dying and that goes for humans as well. It was as important for those who lived in the 18th century to feel and appear clean as it is for people today. However, their view on what were cleanly habits was not the same as is the norm today. The standard of  personal hygiene means, for a lot of people now,  a shower every day, clean clothes every day, aided by washing machines, deodorant, soap, shampoo and tooth brushes. This is normal, this is what we are raised to believe is the minimum of cleanliness. If we would suddenly be planted in the 18th century we would find a world that smelled very differently from our modern world and it would smell more. But those who lived then would not have thought so. Even persons who washed themselves regularly would probably have smelled more than a modern person would think comme il faut, but that none of their contemporaries would ever notice. To understand hygiene in the 18th century we must understand that their view was different from ours, even if their aim, being clean, was the same.

Fashion plate, 1775

Baths, meaning immersion of the body in a tub full of warm water, was not something that everyone did on regular basis and there are a number of reasons for that. To begin with, we have to have clean and warm water. Today we use this all through the day without much thought, we just have to open a faucet in our bathrooms and kitchens, but in the 18th century this was a luxury item. In most large cities clean water was hard to find and to take a bath, a person must first have the means to acquire the water, which mean that someone would have to carry it from the source to the tub and then carry it all away, as most bathrooms didn’t have a plumbing system. If there even was a bathroom, a tub could be placed in a bedroom or a kitchen. If one didn’t do it oneself, then one must afford a servant to do it. There must also be the economical resources to heat the water to the right temperature. So something as simple as a bath wasn’t so simple to have two or three hundred years ago.

There was also a cultural resistance to warm baths, which was still around in the early 18h century,  a widespread notion that bathing in warm water was harmful. Pores were seen as openings in the skin and many doctors believed that bathing made it possible for diseases to enter the body. This idea got more and more unfashionable as the century progressed, though. It is also important to remember that the view on bathing differed from country to country.  In France and Britain public baths were largely closed which made it harder for the general populace to bathe, but in Germany they remained popular. In Russia as well as Sweden and Finland (then one kingdom) people used the sauna.
Toilette Intime by François Boucher

So, what did people do to keep clean?

Well, they bathed. Perhaps not everyone and perhaps not as often as we would like to, but baths were had throughout the century. Soaps of various qualities were easily obtained and most recipe books contained recipes for making wash balls, soap mixed with various substances, mainly herbs and spices, to make the soap goes further and often adding an exfoliating function.

Vaux de Vicomte bathroom with bathtub, toilet, and bidet.

People also took baths for other reasons than cleanliness. The medical profession saw no problems with contradicting themselves and to condemn baths for health reason while prescribing them for getting healthy. Jean Paul Marat is probably the most well-known example of bathing for medical reason. To alleviate a skin condition he spent a large amount of his time in a mineral bath and bathing was what he was doing when Charlotte Corday killed him. Going to spas were very popular as well, were you took to the baths to improve your health and, perhaps foremost, to socialize.

People also bathed outside, in lakes and river, when the weather permitted it. Cool water was never seen as dangerous as warm water and was more and more seen as something strengthening the body and keeping it healthy. When bathing regularly started to become the norm, at least for the upper classes, by the end of the 18th century, cool baths were seen as vastly better than warm.

Costumes de Différents Pays, 'Bains Publics à l'Usage des Femmes Turquea', France c. 1797
Even people who didn’t bath, or who did it rarely, had means to keep clean. In letters and diaries there are mentions of people who were considered dirty and smelly which point that even in a time where people smelled more than they do today, neglected hygiene was remarked upon. People did wash themselves, even if they did not take hot baths. 

With basins and water

Dry baths and sponge baths are a rather effective was of saving water while still getting clean.  With the help of a basin of water, soap and a sponge or towel it is relatively easy to wash the whole body in a minimum of water. In fact, you may even get cleaner than if you take an ordinary bath. While bathing everything loose on the skin gets to the surface, dead skin cells, hair, dust and dirt, mingled with soap. When you emerge from a bath that will cling to your skin and you will need to rinse the body to get rid of it. A bath can be nice and relaxing, but to get clean, you do have to shower or otherwise rinse your body before drying. Louis XV solved that problem with having two tubs, one for the bath and one for the rinse, but then he was a king. Both he and Madame de Pompadour were very fond of bathing and so was Marie Antoinette who bathed in the mornings. In France the bidet were popular, making more intimate hygiene easy, though a basin on a chair could easily be used as well.
Attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck

Another reason for washing was something we modern people rarely think about- the creepy crawlies. Lice and fleas were a problem shared by all and there are plenty of recipes for how to get rid of them. Some gives the advice of washing hair and body with herbal infusions, which perhaps wouldn’t’ work well as pesticides, but would help keeping you clean by default. To be truthful, some other recipes are more hair-raising, like washing the hair with an arsenic solution or anointing the body with a mix of mercury and butter. They might work on the lice, true, but perhaps a bit too well on the human as well.

Woman Searching For A Flea
White linen

An extremely important way to show the world how clean a person was was to have clean linen. It was an aspiration for all social classes to own as many shifts or shirts that it was economically possible.  For example, a budding admiral in the Swedish navy in the 1740’s writes that he owns several dozen linen shirts, while his man servant makes do with eight. Märta Helena Reenstierna, a Swedish upper class lady born in 1753 wrote in her diary in 1820 that she now owned 60 shifts and felt that she didn’t have to get more for the rest of her life. Those who could afford it had linen of different qualities, very fine fabric for the finest occasions and rougher fabric for hunting, sleeping or, actually, bathing. Martha Washington’s bathing shift of blue and white linen is preserved and there are both written sources and pictures of women bathing in their shift. In a time before bathing suits, a linen shift was used for modesty at public baths.

Dental care

Martha Washington's bathing shift
There is absolutely no question that dental care was much less effective than it is today. There were no dentists and if you needed to have a rotten tooth removed you went to a doctor or barber who could removed it with pliers and no anesthesia. They might also get the idea to fill up the empty cavity with some nice poisonous lead. Yikes. But there were a definite interest in caring for the teeth and every collection of cosmetic recipes devote quite a lot of space for various mouth washes and the precursor of tooth paste, tooth powder. Some of these recipes contain things that are too abrasive like pumice stone or sugary things like honey, but there are plenty of recipes that do a rather good job of cleaning the teeth. Tooth brushes came along in the 17th century, but were a luxury item, instead the cleaning were done with a piece of linen fabric, sponges, twigs or roots that was prepared in various ways to work as cleaning tools.


An important aspect of hygiene for every woman is how to deal with menstruations and other forms of vaginal bleedings. Comparatively little is known on how women dealt with it in the 18th century which often makes people assume that they just let it all flow, I think that is wrong and even if there are few mentions of sanitary pads, there are some. Rags made of old and worn out linen had various tasks in a household, as wiping rags, bandages, instead of the non-existing toilet paper and would work as sanitary napkins as well. Even if descriptions of the actual pad are rare, there are mentioned in François-Alexandre-Pierrede Garsault’s L'art de la lingerie from 1771. Called chauffoirs they were made of layers of linen, attached with the help of a belt around the waist. (Thank you Carolyn for drawing my attention to this in a comment at Frock Flicks.)

Ladies Bathing by Claude Simpol, 1717
There is also more roundabout evidence for some kind of protection, like descriptions of a man finding a rag that a menstruating woman had lost while dancing and not knowing what it was. Another roundabout way of getting a glimpse of menstruation habits comes, a bit surprisingly, from crime records. In Swedish court report during the 17th and 18th century it is mentioned that mothers could notice their unmarried daughter’s pregnancies due to the fact that there were no rags to wash after their period anymore.

To my mind there is one thing that no one really seems to think about when it comes to bleeding on your clothes and which really speaks for the use of sanitary pads are the fact that clothes in the 18th century were expensive. You remade and reused clothes until they were worn out and clothes were often sold second hand, given away in wills or as part as a salary. To wilfully spoil your clothes with blood seems totally counterproductive to all this. Blood starts to rot long before fabric do and bloodstained fabric will rot with the blood. True, most of the blood would stain the shift, which was boiled when cleaned, but a heavy period would go through the shift quickly and wool or silk can not be cleaned in the same way. I can’t imagine that women would go around with accumulating blood stains on their gowns and skirts destroying the fabric fibers, not to mention how it would look. And I rather think we would have some written records of women in bloody skirts if that was the norm.

Read more

American Duchess: Georgian Beauty Myths Busted, guest post by me.

Dressed in Time: Fancy a Swim? Going For a Dip 18th Century Style

Frock Flicks: The Gross 18th Century: Calling bullshit on hygiene myths

Historical Honey: Glorious Georgian Bathing

Madame Isis' Toilette: Bathing beauties, 18th century style

Two Nerdy History Girls: The Truth about the Big Hair of the 1770s: Part II: How They Did It


Anonymous The Complete Vermin-Killer, The Fourth Edition. With Considerable Additions, Fielding & Walker, 1777

Ashenburg, Katherine Clean: an unsanitised history of washing, London: Profile, 2009.

Buc'hoz, Pierre-Joseph The Toilet of Flora, London: printed for J. Murray, and W. Nicoll, 1775.

Chesterfield, the Earl of Letters to His Son, 1750

Corson, Richard Fashions in makeup: from ancient to modern times, London: Owen, 1972

Coxe, William Travels Into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark: Interspersed with Historical Relations and Political Inquiries, T. Cadell, 1785

Hammar, Britta  Rasmussen, Pernilla Underkläder, en kulturhistoria, Bokförlaget Signum i Lund, 2008

Read, Sara L., “Thy righteousness is but a menstrual clout: sanitary practices and prejudice in early modern England”, Early Modern Women, An Interdiciplinary Journal, 2008:3

Roche, Daniel The Culture of Clothing, Dress and fashion in the ‘ancien régime’, Cambridge University Press, 1996

Monday, June 09, 2014

Article on 17th century makeup at Your Wardrobe Unlock'd

My second article on mid-17th century beauty is now up. Makeup trends, skin care and ingridients and I also do two makeup tutorials with period makeup. I thought it was interesting to see how different makeup can look depending on ingridient and was of application.

If you subscribe to Your Wardrobe Unlock'd, then you can read the article here.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I have written an article about 17th century hair for Your Wardrobe Unlock'd

Lady Margaret Tufton by David des Granges, 1638-1650
Some time ago, in February, I approached Your Wardrobe Unlock’d and asked if they might be interested in two articles about 17th century hair and makeup. To my delighted surprise they were and the first article went live today. I feel quite exited, I can tell you! The subject is the woman’s hairstyle that was popular for the whole mid-part of the 17th century where the hair was put in a chignon in the back and the side hair was hanging down around the ears. In my article I go through the key variations of it and also how to set and style a wig. The next article that will be up next month, is about makeup during the same period.

You can read, if you subscribe to Your Wardrobe Unlock’d, here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A 17th century recipe for green hair

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York by Sir Peter Lely, 1662
This is a very short recipe

To make your hair seem green
The distilled water of Capers will make your hair green./Eighteen books of the secrets of art and nature by Johann Jacob Wecker, 1661

The questions this recipe brings are much longer. Does a distillation of Capers really turn hair green? I have no idea. The Caper bush, Capparis spinosa, is a bush that can be found, for example, in Mediterranean countries. It provides edible flowers, leaves and berries. It needs a long growing period and a lot of sun, so it may have been solely an imported item in the 17th century, which would make this tint quite expensive. It is certainly green and a distilled liquid would very likely provide that colour, perhaps even strong enough to provide a green tint to hair. If so it would probably not last long and I guess the hair would have to be fair if it was to show.

Intriguing. And, I am so curious about this, who, in the 17th century, would want to dye their hair green? Actors? Temporarily for a masked ball? The fashionable jet set?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Spanish Wooll, a 17th century rouge recipe

The recipe

XIV. Spanish wooll, wherewith women paint their faces red.
Boil shearings of Scarlet in water of quick-lime half an hour, of which take two pound, to which put Brazil two ounces (rasped) Roch Alom, Verdegrise, of each one ounce, Gum-Arabick two drachms, boil all for half an hour, which keep for use.
XV. To do the same another way.
Take Spirit of wine one pound, Cochenele half an  ounce, rasped Brazil one ounce, Gum-Amoniack three drachms, mix and digest till the Gum is dissolved, then boil it gently and strain it for use, into which you may put old linen rags, or Spanish wooll at pleasure. / Polygraphice, William Salmon, 1672

Two recipes that differs quite a bit. The first recipe is more complicated and potentially more harmful. Shearings of Scarlet is simply scraps of red fabric, dyed with Cochineal, a bright red pigment, which is a thrifty way of taking care of the leftover after a sewing project or worn out garments. Quicklime, Calcium oxide, which is probably needed to make the fabric scraps give off its pigment, is a caustic substance which is definitely not advisable to inhale or apply to the skin. Rock alum is an astringent, and Gum Arabic a water soluble sap from acacia trees, which would bind the pigment. Brazil wood gives a brownish red pigment, but verdigris is a green pigment which is made be made from copper. It is poisonous and should not be applied to the skin. I find it a bit curious to add green pigment to rouge.  All in all, this recipe is a bit complicated, were do you obtain Cochineal dyed fabric to tear up, and is also harmful for you.

The second recipe, on the other hand, is perfectly doable. The alcohol is drying to the skin, but if one isn’t too sensitive, that isn’t harmful. It also makes use of cochineal as a pigment. Instead of Gum Arabic this recipe calls for Gum Ammoniac, a gum-resin, though I can’t really say why it is to be used instead of Gum Arabic.

These recipes are from the 17th century, but Spanish wool was available in the 18th century as well. Charles Lillie notes in The British perfumer, written around 1740 that it comes in various qualities and is cut into pads, the Spanish sort into the size and thickness of a crown piece (about 4 cm across), the Chines makes them a bit larger. There is also Spanish papers were the pigment is spread on paper instead, which makes them convenient to carry around in a picket book. He also says that the best Spanish wool should glisten in gold and green, which my version most definitely does not. Perhaps it would if there had been Verdigris in is.

Making the recipe
It was really very easy and fun to make. I used Vodka to which I added cochineal, Brazil wood and pulverized Gum Ammoniac. I stirred it a bit to dissolve the resin and then let it simmer a while before I strained it through a coffee filter. Then I saturated a piece of clean lamb’s wool into the solution and left it to dry. In retrospect I think I may have used a little more wool, but that is not really a problem. When dry I cut it into round pads. To use it one will damp a pad slightly and rub it into the skin.

As you can see it turned a very bright red. I suppose that the Brazil wood tampered the cochineal somewhat, but not so I noticed. It also became quite bright red on the skin and I think I will have to be very careful to just dampen the pad slightly, at least as long as there are a lot of pigment left.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An article on stage makeup in the 17th and 18th century

Some time ago I was asked by Talia of The Gibson Girl's Guide to Glamor if I wanted to write an article about stage makeup in the 17th and 18th century for a website she runs about Commedia dell'Arte. Which I, of course, wanted and you can now read the article here.

I wish I could have found out more, but if there is a work especially on stage makeup for these centuries, then it has eluded me. 16th century and 19th century yes, but not for 17th and 18th century. I think it is a very interesting subkect, though.

David Garrick as John Brute in 'The Provok'd Wife' by Vanbrugh, Drury Lane by Johann Zoffany, 1763

Saturday, January 04, 2014

At the vanity, 1750-1800

You may have noticed that the mythological ladies primping themselves are gion ein the 18th century. There are, of course, plently of allergorcal nakedness elsewhere, but the vanity is now for the ordinary lady, with or without an entourage of maids and friends.

This charming lady has a small pot of rouge on her table and either a swandowns puff for application, or perhaps just some crumpled fabric.
Portrait of Madame Courcelles by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Alexander Roslin, 1755-1760
The Toilet, 1760

A lady at her toilet in an interior by Abraham Hendrick van Beesten, 1762
Van Loo

Powder box with a powderpuff with a handle as well as a cabinet that sems to contain bottles of various kinds.
Powderbox with puff and a small brush beside it. I winder to what? Powdering face, rouge, clothes?
A family scene by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1778

A Woman at her Toilet with a Maid, a Boy, a Dog and a Young Soldier; verso: A Sketch for a Similar Composition by Johann Eleazar Zeissig, called Schenau, 1770
The Morning Toilet by Pehr Hilleström
The lady and her maidservant at the morning toilet
 Not an ordinary toilet room but an actress dressing room, but it is worth noting that she has just about the same thing on it as other ladies.
An Actress at Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen just Breecht, anonymous artist after John Collet, 1779

Pehr Hilleström

My favourite pictures are those were you get a glimpse on how the hairstyle is constructed. Here you get a view on both the front and the side.
Mademoiselle Du T... by Jean-François Janinet, 1779

 A hair that has completely broken down.
The Broken Mirror by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1763
Two back views that clearly shows how hairstyles was worked in sections, first the front, and then one could arrange the backhair in curls, braids, etc.
An Interior With A Young Lady At Her Toilet, Combing Her Hair Before A Mirror by Johann Anton de Peters

A woman combing her hair in front of the mirror by Pehr Hilleström
What to do when one hasn't got a special powder room. Protect the furniture with a screen and draped curtains and protect the floor with a piece of cloth.The lady herself is swathed in a powder cape.

La Coiffure by Baptiste Mallet

The Toilet by Robert Sayer, London. 1786

The English Dressing Room, Stipple engraving by P. W. Tomkins after Chas. Ansell published 1789

Lady with attendant, engraving by Jean Francois Janinet after Nicolas Lawrence
The Coquette at her Toilet, after George Morland

Dressing for a ball, 1797
There is an abundance of satirical drawings depicting vain men and women in the 18th century, but the items of the dressing table looks just about the same as in more serious paintings.

Frontispiece to Anstey's election ball, 1776

The Lady's Maid or Toilet Head Dress, 1776

The English Shaver of Frenchman in the Suds, 1772


The Coiffure, model attributed to Gottlieb Friedrich Riedel, c. 1770