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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Hygiene in the 18th Century

Splish Splash, We're Takin' a Bath!

Frances Boucher painting of a young woman bathing, 1766
Frances Boucher, 1766

Let's talk about personal hygiene in the 18th century! How often did they bathe? Were the women hairy? Does our hero smell like unwashed body or rose water? Here we go!

To start off the conversation, let's first establish that our heroes and heroines would not have been unclean, dirty, or smelly. That's the first order of business--understanding that the 18th century and into the Regency era was not a stinky and dirty world, at least not to the extreme we might think. Aspects of it were smelly, to be sure, but our heroes and heroines would not have been unclean.

The difficulty in tackling this topic is the basis with which we compare the Georgian era to now. Sure, if we compare the era to now and to our advancements in plumbing, underground sewage, and knowledge of germs and bacteria, then we might find our heroes and heroines to be living dirty and smelly lives--let's not be naïve about this, eh?--but it's an unfair comparison that leads to exaggerations, generalizations, and downright myths. Our heroes and heroines would have been clean. Fighting words? Let's explore before you challenge me to a duel!

There is a keen difference between the process of cleansing now versus then. It is not a matter of we care about cleanliness now while they didn't care then, rather it's a matter of why we've established a certain routine for cleanliness and how we accomplish that goal, which is quite different from then. If you were to ask someone in the 18th century why they don't value cleanliness or wash often, they would adamantly protest that they do value cleanliness and wash daily. The concept of what that means has changed, but not the appreciation for being clean. Concepts of "cleanliness" and methods for keeping clean changed even through the 18th century, so we see (and smell) a vast difference between the early 18th century and the late 18th century (especially at the turn of the century as we move into the 19th century and head into the Regency). Hang in there as we explore not just the 18th century in general but what changes between the first half and the second half, and then what we would see after the turn of the century.

Toilet of a Young Woman by Willem Joseph Laquy, 1771
Toilet of a Young Woman by Willem Joseph Laquy, 1771


The key aspect to modern cleanliness that leads to misconceptions about previous centuries is bathing. (This source addresses some of the misconceptions. Another source that tackles head-on some of the misconceptions can be found here.) By bathing, I don't mean cleaning oneself with water, rather I refer to full immersion in a tub or shower. We now value bathing/showering above all steps in our cleansing routine. This wasn't so easy in the 18th century (namely the early 18th century). The source for water might be a mile a way (village water well...spring...lake...), so there's the extraction of that water and then the transportation of the water to consider (to be fair, the finer homes had private wells, some conveniently in the courtyard, but that fact only removes the distance factor in the arduous task of collecting water). Once you get the countless buckets to the location of your choice, then what? Don't bet on that water being clean, either--nothing like submerging into dirty water, eh? And let's not forget about heating it in the fireplace, one happy pot at a time, while your coal and wood supply dwindle in order to heat the water for that single bath. It's a complicated business and something that only the wealthiest could achieve since they had the staff and resources to make this magic happen. The inability or unlikelihood of bathing does not mean our heroes and heroines did not clean themselves daily or have good hygiene. It simply means their method for staying clean wasn't full-immersion bathing.

The early 18th century saw little advantage or purpose to full-immersion bathing. Even the medical profession offered conflicting information on bathing, making it undesirable, such as bathing in warm water being hazardous to health because it opened the pores, leaving them exposed to possible illness, and likewise cold water being hazardous because it led to chills and catching colds--what's a person to do with such conflicting advice on how to stay healthy? (And something also to consider: cold water baths were used to treat those in asylums. If the water-cure was used for those considered mad, who would voluntarily do it at home!?) Bathing is the key word. We value bathing above almost every other aspect of the cleanliness routine. Those in the 18th century valued cleanliness, as well, but bathing wasn't part of that routine, at least not in the early 18th century, which then leads to the misconception that the people weren't clean and smelled terribly. Well, they smelled differently, to be sure, but they didn't smell of sweaty unwashed bodies as we might expect.

Engraving of a young woman bathing

Their main form of keeping clean was with washbasins and soap. No, it doesn't offer the same level of cleanliness as we value (easy to say when we have showers), but it was the most practical method at the time, enabling them to be clean. Soap was immensely popular, and there are any number of at-home soap recipes that even the labor class would be able to whip up. Don't think they just wiped the grime with a wet cloth. There was soap and scrubbing and exfoliating going on! Scented soaps were especially popular, such as lemon and rose. Herbal infusions were also popular, especially for washing the hair (the herbs--and other ingredients like, oh, arsenic--would help remove/prevent lice and fleas and help remove hair powder and pomade).

So imagine our 18th century hero wants to get ready for that evening dinner party which he knows the heroine will attend. What does he do? If he's wealthy enough (and it's the late 18th century), sure he might order a bath, but not likely (and even if he does, he's more apt to clean afterwards since full immersion meant sitting in dirty water). More likely he'll stand at his washbasin with rose-scented soap and a cloth, and he's going to exfoliate the heck out of his skin. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. He's going to get all of the hard to reach places, and by the time he's done, he just might be cleaner than the fellow who submerged himself in a tub of questionable water then soaked in his own filth. He'll also smell alluringly like roses (and whatever cologne/perfume he decides to use, which likely will also smell like roses).

We find in journals, letters, and diaries of the time, writers mentioning smells, specifically of people. A smelly person stood out as an outlier, an unpleasant and unwanted outlier. Rather than everyone smelling unclean and dousing themselves with cologne to cover the stench, the majority would have been clean so that those who smelled unclean stood out from those who didn't. At the dinner party the hero attends, there might be a few people who stink, but he would not be one of them, and if it was an upper-class party, they definitely would not have smelled. Now, with a lack of antiperspirant/deodorant (not created until 1888), by the end of an enthusiastic ball with dancing, the ballroom likely smelled like a gym locker, and everyone attending smelled like a gym sock (but then, even with antiperspirant/deodorant, we don't smell too differently after a party or dance...just saying), but you can wager that when they first arrived at the ball, they smelled clean with an aroma of roses, lemons, jasmine, geranium, etc. Even the cologne was just scented water or oil, so it would have been subtle, never overpowering, simply enhancing the soap from their sponge bath (I already linked to this source, and I know there are other sources about colognes of the time, but this one really is a favorite of mine, so I'm going to link it again! Nudge, nudge.).

 La Toilette Intime by Louis-Léopold Boilly, circa 1785
La Toilette Intime by Louis-Léopold Boilly, circa 1785

How about the heroine who knows the hero will be at that dinner party? She'll do the same--a thorough soap and water scrub, but rather than a washbasin (although that's a perfectly viable option), she'll more likely use a bathing chair or bidet so she can thoroughly clean the unmentionable areas (just in case he invites her for a tryst in the garden). A touch of scented rose water perfume on her wrists (for when he bows over her hand) and behind her ears will follow. There is countless scholarship on “ladies at their toilette,” as time spent in the dressing room often extended for hours and was an important aspect of the social culture. Their sponge bath, grooming, hairstyling, and dressing would all occur, but the wealthier the lady, the more of a public event this process would be with the entertainment of personal friends, sharing a breakfast tray with those friends, browsing fashions and possible dresses for upcoming events, and even writing letters. Cleaning was exceedingly important, even to the point of being a fun part of the day!

Before the Ball by Jean François de Troy, 1735
Before the Ball by Jean François de Troy, 1735

Hair Washing

While speaking of a lady's toilette, it's important to consider hair washing and hair brushing. Brushing one's hair was an important daily ritual, so if you meet a heroine who brushes her hair for 100 counts every evening, that's accurate. Brushing the hair restored the natural oils, removed the dust of the day, and removed/prevented the creepy crawlies. There were contradictory recommendations for washing hair frequently, however, some claiming it led to illness and some claiming it was important for the health of the hair. This source is a must read for getting to know hair care (Seriously, a must read). While body cleaning would have been completed daily (perhaps a few times during the day if they had an active day and changed clothes between activities), hair washing was typically not a task completed every day, so in the interim, pomatum or pomade would be applied (think hair gel, but made of some rather unsavory animal fat) to protect it. Granted, some recipes were more apt to attract lice and other crawlies than repel, but the idea was to keep it clean and prevent the crawlies. The pomade was lauded as being extremely healthy for hair--increasing its growth and thickness, keeping it clean, curing baldness, etc. It was so sticky, it certainly helped to style it (if you're remembering that scene from Something About Mary, then you get the idea). While many resources now focus on the negative and unpleasant aspects of pomatum, namely that it goes rancid if kept in the hair too long, the original use was well-intentioned. Pomades, when freshly used, were scented pleasantly and used to keep the hair healthy between washing. Just because they didn't wash their hair daily, they would have washed their bodies. This source offers a great look at both the positives and negatives of pomatum/pomade usage.

Things begin to shift from the early to the late 18th century. It was not until the late 19th century (1880s) when a connection between microbes and disease was made, and even then, frequent hand washing for health and wellness didn't take until the early 20th century. Still, we see an increase in hand washing in the late 18th century. During the length of the 18th century, we see a shift in cleansing and bathing practices, and on into the Regency era, we see an even greater shift.

Wardrobe Changing vs Bathing

In the early 18th century, cleanliness applied less to bathing and more to clothing. When our characters of the early 18th century wear white linen, for instance, it's a showing of their wealth to be able to launder the sweat stains and change shirts often to keep them pristine. Anyone wearing white clothing was making a social statement. To stay clean, they would don a new shirt or shift--whatever garment was the closest to the skin. Diaries and letters sometimes boast of the writer owning x number of white linen shirts/shifts, such as 10 or 60 or whatever would be appropriate for their pocketbook (we might assume that Mr. Darcy owns twice as many white shirts as Mr. Bingley). This source offers some insight. Armed with that concept, think how many times they change clothes during the day. Yes, each change of clothes would yield attire more accommodating to the activities to come, such as walking, receiving calls, dining, etc., but it was also a way to keep clean between soap scrubs. After an invigorating walk, a young lady would change out of her walking dress and into a new dress, thus ridding herself of the dirt, sweat, and smells of the walk (to an extent). Louis XIV of France (late 17th century/early 18th century) is said to have only "bathed" twice in his adult life. The washbasin was as close to a bath as he got, washing his face and hands, and perhaps (we hope) giving his body the damp-cloth treatment. Full immersion in a tub? Not so much. But before we accuse him of being one smelly monarch, let's remember that washbasin scrubbing with soap and cloth was more likely to be cleaner than the well water in the tub.

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in 1995 Pride & Prejudice
Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in 1995 Pride & Prejudice

By the end of the 18th century, however, bathing (as in full immersion into a tub) grew in popularity, specifically with the upper classes, not for health reasons since the scientific connection between health and cleanliness had not been made yet, but for social status purposes. Clean hands, especially, represented wealth. In contrast to Louis XIV, Louis XV bathed often and even had two tubs for the process so that one tub received all of the grime from his skin and the other tub rinsed him of any clinging residue left from the first tub. If our hero didn't have two tubs, he might reserve an extra bucket of water to douse himself after he rises from the tub, or perhaps he follows the bath with an extra scrub at the washbasin just to be safe. This source offers fantastic information on the subject. While this source focuses more on the dressing room than hygiene, it does touch on several aspects of hygiene. If we're reading about heroes and heroines in the early to mid 18th century, it's more likely they would soap and cloth scrub at the washbasin, but if we're reading about heroes and heroines in the late 18th century to early 19th century, especially during the Regency, it's likely they would have bathed in a tub a handful times during the week while giving themselves a thorough scrubbing at the washbasin between baths (that scene in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice where Darcy is in the bath? Oooooh yeeeeeah). Beau Brummel was rumored to have full-immersion bathed every day!

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, 1995 Pride & Prejudice
Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, 1995 Pride & Prejudice

Teeth Brushing

Cleanliness isn't all about bathing, though, is it? What about teeth cleaning and body hair? Let's start with teeth cleaning. The "dentists" of the time were barbers. Yes, barbers. You could have your hair cut and your tooth pulled all in one visit! We won't talk about the practices for replacing teeth, extracting teeth, etc., as that's a talk for another time, but let's say that these were so unpleasant, it would behoove our heroes and heroines to have good dental hygiene. Now if you do want to explore dentists' methods, as well as check out an 18th cent toothbrush, click here.

The wealthier the individual, the higher the chances of avoiding the dentist (ie the local barber), because their diet would be healthier, and they could afford such luxuries as tooth powder, toothbrush, and toothpick, all of which was custom made. Much like snuffboxes, cases for toothpicks, powder, and brushes were sought after and oft displayed. The poor needed to devise their own methods, which didn't always work as well as they might hope (like substituting tooth powder with gun powder or soot). Homemade tooth powder and brushes were not difficult to craft if one didn't care to have a gold-handled brush with replaceable head (yes, really a thing...). Who bothered to do so leaves much to be desired.

Diet is of the most important consideration for dental hygiene and good breath. While foul breath can come from poor teeth hygiene, it begins in the gut. An upset gut leads to foul breath, caused by a poor diet, especially one heavy in sugars and starchy carbs. The wealthy, at least those not consuming a ton of sugar, would have had the best chance at good dental hygiene even without regular brushing since they had access to the most nutrient-rich foods.

The toothbrushes and tooth powder popular during the Georgian era are still popular today, although you'll not find them in the mass market shops. Both VanMan and Gaia Guy, for example, are companies that produce tooth powder and boar bristle brushes for those wishing to avoid synthetic and chemical-based materials. These modern products are, essentially, what our Georgian heroes and heroines would have used. It's safe to say our heroes and heroines would have had brushed teeth and fresh breath, even if their teeth were crooked. We can't say the same for Mr. Collins, who might have taken to heart the suggestion that brushing should only happen every fortnight.

But let's dig deeper. As with bathing practices, we see a shift from the early 18th century to the late 18th century (and on into the Regency) when it comes to teeth care. The early 18th century would have seen teeth cleaning completed every morning using water, a cloth, and a toothpick. Tooth powder (precursor to toothpaste) hit the scene in the early 18th century, thus paving the way to the change in dental care. By the mid to late 18th century, the most popular items for dental hygiene were tooth powder, toothbrush, tongue scraper (yup), and mouthwash. People would swish with mouthwash to dislodge, clean, and freshen, and they would brush with tooth powder, not so differently than we do now (although the tooth powder wasn't exactly Colgate quality).

George IV's silver-mounted toothbrush & cover
George IV's silver-mounted toothbrush & cover

Before the toothbrush, the chew stick (miswak) was popular from about 35o0BC. Bristle toothbrushes appeared as early as the 7th century and made their way to Europe in the 16th century and to England in the 17th century. Toothbrushes in the 18th century were not a new or uncommon item, but for those two poor to purchase one, scrubbing with a cloth or flossing with a root, bone, or feather was still the way to go. I think it's safe to say our aristocratic and gentry heroes would definitely have owned a toothbrush. Mass-produced toothbrushes for all classes didn't hit the market until 1780, so prior to that, they were a luxury item--not to say an enterprising person couldn't fashion one for themselves. After mass production, toothbrushes were fair game for the labor classes, as well (simply no excuse not to have good dental hygiene by the time we get to the Regency era, but then, how many people do you know now who don't brush or floss regularly?). We can confidently assume that our heroes and heroines brushed with toothbrushes and tooth powder then swished with mouthwash. There are recipes aplenty for what would have been in said powder and mouthwash, some recipes impressively effective while others not so much. Surprisingly, there are even advertisements in some of the old newspapers for teeth whitening methods. The next time you read about a character's pearly whites, don't be too quick to scoff, for it sounds like the character (possibly the hero) uses one of those teeth whitening methods!

As a quick overview of how our heroes/heroines might have maintained fresh breath, good teeth health, and good brushing habits, consider this list:

Fresh Breath:

  • Bark, roots, and herbs

  • Mint or cinnamon in tooth powder

  • Nutrient-rich diet void of sugars and carbs

Teeth Brushing:

  • Tooth powder of crushed bone and shells (oyster or egg) and pumice (opt + mint)

  • Toothbrush of boar or horse bristles with wood or bone handle (or gold handle with replaceable head!)

  • Quill ends and linen for flossing

Teeth Health Maintenance:

  • Diet void of sugars

  • Meatier the meal, stronger the teeth with less chance of decay

  • Swishing tooth powder to remineralize, dislodge, and freshen breath between brushing

Removing Body Hair

The next fun point is about body hair, namely exploring just how hairy our heroines would have been (and don't deny you've wondered at one time or another!). This portion of our discussion is the most contentious and open to speculation as there is little documented about it, and what is documented is conflicting, some research pointing one way and some pointing another. Keep an open mind! Let's start with a bit of humor. Imagine Great Aunt Sasquatch is in town and decides to call on our heroine. Our heroine and her fifteen sisters cringe because they know dear auntie will want to kiss their cheeks. The problem? Great Aunt Sasquatch has a hairier lip, chin, and neck than their papa, and the older she gets, the more beardlike it becomes (cursed menopause!). Well, this scenario isn't too likely to have happened because that sort of "look" would have been socially discouraged. Would auntie have taken her husband's razor to her cheeks? Nope. She would have pulled out her jar of homemade depilatory cream.

The Toilet of Flora, 1772
The Toilet of Flora, 1772

Before we talk about auntie's depilatory cream, let's first get straight that the body parts exposed in a social setting would have been expected to be free of dark hair. Even men would have been cleanly shaven. Beards were not en vogue, and in fact the only facial hair we see on a man would be in satirical cartoons if depicting someone as unkempt. Aside from what was exposed to visible view, it's open to speculation (But we'll see what you think after I share the possibilities). If the body parts weren't exposed, then there wasn't much point, was there? No one (socially) would know if a lady had hairy pits or a fur carpet on her legs, much less if her bikini line was a veritable forest. That said, there is an abundance of advertisements, books, and recommendations for homemade hair removal products in the 18th century, ranging from pumice stone to shoemaker waxes and beeswax (which then begs the question what they might have been using all those hair removal products for--just the chin and upper lip? Hmm.). Check out the detailed and comprehensive 1772 Toilet of Flora for DIY recipes on just about every hygiene point imaginable, including hair removal! In the early 19th century, industry-created creams hit the market, profiting on women's desire for flawless skin, but they were chemical-heavy and led to some unpleasant side-effects (have you ever left Nair on too long?). Not until the late 19th century do we get the first commercialized depilatory cream, courtesy of Dr. Gouraud. During the 18th century, they were all homemade.

Danaë & the Shower of Gold by Adolf Wertmüller, 1787
Danaë & the Shower of Gold by Adolf Wertmüller, 1787

Waxing has been popular since the Stone Age, but Ancient Egypt takes the cake for the most hairless period in history, as Egyptian women of the time waxed all their body hair (yes, ALL). The waxing process wasn't dissimilar to what we have now, interestingly. This preference for hairlessness was held by the Roman Empire, although they didn't go to the extremes the Egyptians did (they didn't, for instance, remove head hair). The women in the Roman Empire removed all body hair, including pubic hair. Throughout history, we see cultures that preferred to be hairless for social and/or cleanliness purposes. Even many Eastern cultures valued hair removal as a rite of passage from youth to womanhood. Queen Elizabeth I changed this by setting a new trend of removing all facial hair (off with the eyebrows!) but not body hair. There was a growing popularity for having body hair (both men and women), for it signified virility/fertility. The 18th century changes that. In 1760, we have the creation of an L-shaped straight razor that reduced the risk of cuts. This meant women could more easily shave should they desire (although waxing was still more popular for obvious reasons). While the razor was marketed towards men, women used it in abundance. The social dictates valued smooth skin, and as we approach the 19th century society also appreciated the Ancient Greek and Roman preferences for hairlessness. Social norms would change throughout the 19th century and on into the Victorian era (there are references to female body hair during the Victorian era, such as men expecting the women to be hairless only to marry and find out that wasn't the case--shocking!), but once we hit the 20th century, we again see the preferences for hairlessness.

The Woman in the Waves by Gustave Courbet, 1863
The Woman in the Waves by Gustave Courbet, 1863

The question here is if our 18th and early 19th century heroine would be a hairy beast. Maybe. Maybe not. There is enough evidence in either camp to go either way. Since there is enough evidence to suggest the popularity of waxing and shaving, I think it's well worth considering. Just compare the presence of body hair in the art pieces included here, say the 1787 and 1780 (Georgian) pieces vs the 1863 (Victorian) piece. The Georgian pieces do not show body hair, not even on the unmentionables, but the Victorian pieces do. We know that waxes and razors were popular items among women, but perhaps it was just for that hairy chin or mole--but perhaps not. There is documentation pointing to certain classes and professions (especially prostitutes) that most definitely waxed/shaved their body hair (including the unmentionables), but that documentation doesn't extend to all classes, leaving a bit of mystery as to what the other other classes, especially the upper class, did.

My thoughts on the matter based on the research available: While unmarried, I doubt a woman would see the point. Unless she had female friends visiting her dressing room, and they valued hairlessness and impressed on her the importance of it, she would have no need to wax or shave unless for cleanliness reasons. For cleanliness purposes, she might. If she's sheltered and mostly friendless, she may not have anyone to teach her how to wax or shave, much less introduce her to the concept of hairlessness--what's hair removal!? Once married or before the wedding, she might be encouraged to remove body hair (encouraged by a female friend or relation before the wedding or encouraged by the husband after).

It is entirely likely, though not a certainty, that yes, our heroines would have taken advantage of homemade waxes and/or razors (let's hope they're using the waxes on the curvy areas, not the razor. Yikes!). The next time you imagine the hero and heroine getting jiggy with it, don't cringe thinking she's as hairy as her Great Aunt Sasquatch. In all likelihood, she's smoothly waxed. A great deal would depend on her status, her social circle, the closeness to female relations and friends, and her awareness of the oh-so popular Greek and Roman statues and art depicting hairless women, not to mention her husband's preferences which would certainly factor in after marriage.

The Morning by Felix Ivo Leicher, 1780
The Morning by Felix Ivo Leicher, 1780

This particular point--body hair during the 18th century--is quite a contentious point, as aforementioned. Some research shows that women did not remove their body hair; some shows that yes they did (especially 18th century prostitutes who favored the full Brazilian); and other sources indicate it's a keen possibility but not a certainty. I side with it being a keen possibility. The obsession with Ancient Greece/Rome alone hints at the possibility, but the popularity of homemade waxes, and even the popularity of hairlessness in other cultures at the time all indicate that it's a very real possibility. I can't say that I've seen references to it in the gentry or upper class letters, journals, and diaries, which is part of the problem (can you imagine Jane Austen writing to her sister Cassandra about her leg waxing routine?). The art of the time is mixed, some depicting a smooth finish, others revealing nothing to tell us one way or the other. This discussion is an interesting look at how art depicts female body hair. Could the art be evidence of a societal preference for hairlessness? Possibly. Especially with the desire to imitate all things Greek. Some of the information out there really does point to the possibility.

This example might have you laughing, but it's proof that there was an interest in body hair removal, even the pubic hair, although it doesn't tell us if it was all classes, some classes, or only a select few classes: there were mons wigs (give "merkin" a quick Internet search), popular especially with prostitutes, wherein they would wax their privates (for cleanliness purposes to prevent pubic lice), but don the little wig if a client preferred a bit of hair (check out references to this in Alexander Smith's 18th century book). No point in the existence of mons wigs if no one (except prostitutes) was shaving/waxing, right? On that note, if you can imagine a man who has only known the arms of a prostitute marries a young maiden who turns out to be hairy, he just might find that offensive and request she remove the hair (hence my emphasis on after marriage as being the most likely case for a preference to hairlessness).

While our heroes' and heroines' cleanliness wouldn't hold up to today's standards (let's not delude ourselves, eh?) with our love of the shower and sanitizers, let's be confident (and not give into exaggerations or misconceptions) that they would not have lived in a completely filthy, unsanitary, and smelly world, and would have valued cleanliness as much as we do, although their methods relied on what was available to them at the time (which might be more than you were expecting!). We can rest assured that when our heroes and heroines do the deed, they have scrubbed themselves clean, smell of lemons, roses, or other botanical, herbal delights, have cleaned their teeth and freshened their breath (although perhaps not as minty fresh as the Listerine swished mouth of today), and possibly even smoothed their skin with a shave/wax to show off when the clothes drop. (Unless you like body hair, then by all means imagine that heroine hairy! You just might be right. Maybe.). In closing, it would be fantasy to assume they would meet our level of modern cleanliness since they lacked the tools and science necessary. But it would be a grave misconception to believe they were not as clean as they could be for the time, which is, to many degrees, cleaner than most teenagers are these days. Wink.


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