18th century cleanliness

Discussion in 'General Reenacting Discussions' started by Stophel, Sep 11, 2019.

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  1. Sep 11, 2019 #1

    Stophel

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    How often I hear the tired old saw that people in the 18th century were always filthy, took a bath only once a year (why even bother with that?), rarely washed their clothes, and perpetually reeked to high heaven, when even cursory examination reveals this to not be the case. How could all that soap have been sold, if people weren't using it? How would men have shaved if their faces were covered in filth? How many period paintings and engravings have you seen of women doing laundry... that apparently they didn't actually do? :D

    Granted, people didn't take showers, and there wasn't any deodorant, and people actually worked for a living, so they got dirty and sweaty, but to me it seems that they at least tried to be as clean as possible and not stink all the time. There's too much evidence showing this.

    https://jerryhedrick.blogspot.com/2018/01/dirty-little-secrets-18th-century.html
     
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  2. Sep 11, 2019 #2

    Cruzatte

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    Can you say "sponge bath?" ;)
     
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  3. Sep 11, 2019 #3

    Grumpa

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    A nice post, Stophel. And the link is interesting, too. Today everyone smells like laundry freshener - "Spring Breeze", "Mountain Flowers" etc. There's much to be said for honest sweat, and the body's natural scents. (Even as a young man, I never cared for the scent of strawberries where strawberries never grew.) It takes a good bit of time before the natural body scents become rancid - I doubt if people back then cared to be around someone who had turned sour, or had gone rancid.

    Richard/Grumpa
     
  4. Sep 11, 2019 #4

    Cruzatte

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    Reminds me of a story of Dr. Samuel Johnson. It seems he was riding in a coach one day in company with several others. A lady passenger noticed Johnson, who was not known for his personal hygiene, and addressed him saying "Sir, you smell."

    Johnson replied "No madam, I stink. You smell."
     
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  5. Sep 11, 2019 #5

    Carbon 6

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    Samuel Hopkins (December 9, 1743 – 1818) was an American inventor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, On July 31, 1790, he was granted the first U.S. patent, under the new U.S. patent statute just signed into law by President Washington on April 10, 1790. Hopkins had petitioned for a patent on an improvement "in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.

    Hopkins also received the first "Canadian" patent from the Parliament of Lower Canada in 1791, issued "by the Governor General in Council to Angus MacDonnel, a Scottish soldier garrisoned at Quebec City, and to Samuel Hopkins, for processes to make potash and soap from wood ash."
     
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  6. Sep 11, 2019 #6

    Stophel

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    I don't know what it was I saw today to make me think of this, but it's been one of my many peeves for a long time. The notion that people were just filthy in the past...

    I vaguely remember, and I wish I could find it again, something I read from the early 19th century, where someone was describing their daily normal lives, and they talked about how often they bathed and washed their clothes, etc.

    Without deodorant, when you work, you're gonna sweat, and you're gonna stink (I sweat and stink even with deodorant!). It's a normal thing. But you don't have to keep on stinkin! :D
     
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  7. Sep 11, 2019 #7

    Loyalist Dave

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    I've heard that too, but there is a reason for it. What you've encountered is a minor misunderstanding, followed by gradual exaggeration. Happens a lot with lay people relating history.

    Somebody in the 1970's in a fledgling reenactment group read that "yellow was not a colorfast dye in the 18th century, thus it was normally used on clothing worn at night to prevent sun fading." Well when I joined this group in 1992, I was told this, and I asked, "So why is yellow used in the Maryland flags all through history? You don't fly flags only at night?" :confused: A lot of knitted eyebrows over my question....,

    …, Turned out..., the source of that bit about yellow was from a Smithsonian booklet on dyes from New England, and didn't mention goldenrod, which we have in abundance in Maryland now..., and centuries ago. Goldenrod does produce a rather colorfast dye.

    So in this case, many decades ago folks found out that people from the Elizabethan era forward into the colonial era didn't bathe on a regular basis. Some sources mentioned bathing once a year. Well so they must've been filthy...

    The folks reading that fact, completely missed the fact that "bathing" in those period references meant complete immersion of the body into water...same as when going swimming at the seaside and one wears a "bathing suit". Ever wonder why the British call it a "bathing suit" and would go "bathing by the sea", when they were actually swimming and not in a tub of hot water and applying soap ?? ;)

    They didn't understand that people washed themselves, they just didn't get into a tub of hot water often, and perhaps never.

    So with this misunderstanding, folks with the misinformation that people were not bathing so must be "unwashed"..., then their clothes must be dirty too..., in spite of all the artwork and other documentation of women doing laundry. Let alone, as mentioned the use of soap, as well as lots of recipes for making shaving soap.

    We would probably notice the odor of "body odor" among a group of people from the 18th century in an enclosed space such as a meeting house...or tavern/pub if the tobacco smoke in the tavern/pub wasn't too thick.

    Otherwise they would not be too unclean by our standards today...

    LD
     
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  8. Sep 11, 2019 #8

    Nyckname

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    That was difficult for most of history. Into the 1970s, Andy Capp cartoons would show him sitting in a tin tub in the kitchen, and Flo emptying the tea kettle into in.
     
  9. Sep 12, 2019 #9

    Brokennock

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    I've often wondered just how bad the odor could have really been anyway. I've noticed that when I follow my diet very strictly, a sort of primal/"paleo" diet, with no unnatural processed "foods," no soda, or anything with chemistry set ingredients, even if I skip deodorant my odor is weak to non-existent, and takes longer before I start to stink. Before we get in a huff about not being able to smell oneself, if I eat the wrong things,,,,,,
    believe me,,,,,, I notice. Also, others have commented on it, and I've noticed it with other people with similar dietary habits.
    Folks back then are what nature provided, almost how it was provided for the most part. I'm sure some of us would notice some funk. But, most of us notice a slightly different aroma in other people's homes, even though those homes and people live cleanly.
    I hate anything with scents and perfumes added. I can't see how these people running around soaked in body spray, their clothes washed in scented detergents, dryer with scented drier sheets, stinky stuff to style their hair, and drinking a "coffee" loaded with sweet reeking "flavor" chemicals, can smell a darned thing anyway. It's like odor pollution.
    If everyone ate basically the same, had similar hygiene habits, and frequented basically same types of places, would they really notice the odors that we would if we were suddenly placed there and then? I'm sure they would notice the above nose pollution crowd, and likewise if one of their own skipped a few washings and spent a bunch of time at sweaty labor, it would not only be noticed, I don't think folks would have been as hesitant to be "judgemental," and speak up and let stinky know that their odor is unacceptable, as people are now.
     
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  10. Sep 14, 2019 at 4:35 AM #10

    tenngun

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    We have a lot of these sort of myths.
    Pepper was needed to put on spoiled food, when pepper cost its weight in gold during the renaissance and early modern times. If you could buy pepper you could buy fresh meat.
    They didn’t bathe so they had to stink.when they washed at least daily in most cases.
    Illiteracy made them ignorant, when in fact it made for well exercised memories and the complex social life packed their head with lots of current information.
    Their lives were very rich and full.
    I will say however when in the woods or camp, and cooking over a fire starting the fire and cleaning the pots and pans my hand are never as clean as I’m used to in day to day life
     
  11. Sep 14, 2019 at 4:56 AM #11

    appalichian hunter

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    Tenngun, I am with you on the camp chores such as washing dishes, The lady folks if in camp think there getting a break, I am getting sparkling hands.
     
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  12. Sep 14, 2019 at 1:06 PM #12

    Nyckname

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    I've been shooting this one down for decades. In the Age of Discovery, a common sailor who made it back to Europe with a small box of spices could sell them for enough to buy a house. One spiced food to prove one could afford to spice food.

    There's a scene in The Lion In Winter where King Henry breaks through a layer of ice on a basin to wash his face. No heating in the castle, but there was cleanliness.
     
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  13. Sep 14, 2019 at 2:39 PM #13

    DaveC

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    Well, when the Portuguese fleet and the Royal Navy escort finally deposited prince regent João VI and Carlota Joaquina in Brazil, safe from Napoleon Bonaparte's clutches, it is recorded that he took his first ever immersion-type bath. And he was a fastidious, pampered royal! The city in which he found himself, Río de Janeiro, had an innovative system of dealing with human waste: Slaves would carry chamber pots or even whole wagon loads of filth down to the beaches and throw it into the ocean surf!

    The good old days were terrible. And filthy. :eek:
     
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  14. Sep 14, 2019 at 3:20 PM #14

    Straekat

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    Most of who we are, and how we like things is behavior we learn from people around us, or as a personally acquired taste.

    Food tastes among Americans are all over the map. Some people will only use mustard on a wiener and bun, and there are those who think nothing of dumping a bucket of catsup on it and fries are anywhere in sight. In parts of central Europe, pumpkins, squash, corn (maize) were considered cattle fodder unfit for humans. Modern Americans would disagree with that.

    Who does or doesn't -stink- can be a subjective things. For those who've been to SE Asia, a small room on a hot humid day, filled with Vietnamese who have recently eaten nook-mam using fermented fish as it's base may run out of the room. Korean kimchi...ditto.

    For those who like to argue how clean people were or weren't in the past, a rough index is to look at trash disposal methods and how close they were to houses. Large town or city dwellers who dumped stuff out the window and into the streets may have though their house was clean, but the air around them couldn't have been. Trash would have allowed flies to breed, rats to multiply and the spread of disease. Farms? Although human and animal waste might be piled onto a compost heap not farm from the barn/house, it would not have been sweet smelling, and would also have attracted insects, and nuisance animals such along the lines of skunks, possums, etc. Some people might kill and eat those farm yard raiders, but....that can also be an acquired taste.

    The street levels of many European and east coast cities are much higher than they were hundreds of years ago. The answer to how some of that rise happened, can be determined by how people disposed of all sorts of waste products. How those "waste" products could have impacted humans shouldn't be too difficult to figure out. Cleanliness outside the house would have been iffy at best, and returning home from a walk through streets and lanes would obviously have brought a few traces of the outside indoors. In a age that didn't understand how diseases were contracted or spread, "cleanliness" by modern standards and those of two or more centuries ago would have been very different.

    Amerindian settlements? That's a subject I'm not going to address because the historical and archaeological evidence has to be broken down into the regions of northern America, by time period, and even by ethnic/tribal/Sept affiliation.
     
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  15. Sep 14, 2019 at 3:47 PM #15

    mushka

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    I think that city people and those that lived by trapping and hunting had different requirements for cleanliness. Townfolk had the tools and ability to clean themselves somewhat. The hunters and trappers and those that lived primarily out of doors were not able to be fastidious in their personal hygiene.
    At home I shower daily but despise colognes and flowerdy smelling things and don't use them. While camping I can get pretty ripe depending on the season and where I'm at. I like being clean but sometimes it just can't be, so I clean up when possible. Most of us are like that I think.
     
  16. Sep 14, 2019 at 3:55 PM #16

    Nyckname

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    See my post above about Andy Capp. That would've been using a gas stove to heat the kettle.

    It took a lot of wood to heat the water to fill a bathtub, and even the royalty wood've noticed the deforestation going on in Europe.
     
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  17. Sep 14, 2019 at 3:58 PM #17

    Nyckname

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    I've heard of Americans wearing scented deodorant, after using scented shampoo in the morning, getting in cabs in Africa, and both the American and the driver would think the other reeked.
     
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  18. Sep 15, 2019 at 11:59 PM #18

    DaveC

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    During the U.S. occupation of Japan after WWII, apparently the Japanese thought Gringos/Yankees stank... Eating milk products, apparently. There are places where people wash, but don't really use soap all that much, and yep, those of us who do think "erm, what's that smell?" Of course I ride a bicycle to work in Texas and everyone I work with freaks to high heaven cause I'm sweaty. I've never seen more seat phobic folks, and they live in the sun belt. I have to make a big show of going to the restroom with a package of wet wipes for a "batchelor shower" or they'd probably file a complaint...

    As for overall, generalized filth back in the day, the upper classes used to sport little "scent bottles" to hold to their noses when things were a bit too noisome. Of course, during the same time period people believed the "miasma" theory of how diseases were spread...
     

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