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You Stink, Ladies and Gents! - Hygiene in the 18th Century

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 16 21

While watching a show or reading a book set in the 18th century, you best count yourself lucky that they are not realistic in terms of hygiene and that Smellovision is not a thing. It may look like it is all proper manners, powdered wigs and puffy dresses but under that there was some very filthy people.

Most historians agree that the 18th century was the worst in terms of hygiene. Especially during the latter half when the Industrial Revolution started to ramp up and the city air filled with soot and smog. The cities were crowded to the brim and hygiene practices were far and few between.



Bathing in the 18th century was more of an activity for fun rather than hygiene. In fact, many in the 18th century believed bathing to be harmful so thus even in rich households it was done in moderation. The theory back then was that germs, then known as miasmas, were everywhere and that they could enter the body through the skin.[2] Bathing the skin, especially in hot water, left the pores open so that these miasmas could seep in. So in lieu of dipping themselves in water, most nobles would take "dry" baths instead. This involved wiping away perspiration and skin oil with clean linen. This did not open pores and was thought to keep one from smelling too badly. Too bad that, as we all know now, body odor is not caused by sweat but the bacteria on the skin that grows and begins to stink.

 Seeing that people avoided bathing, they also avoided washing their hair. They enjoyed dirty hair as the scalp oil was considered great for providing soft, silky hair. As a result of this, many people--rich and poor--were riddled with head lice. Of course, a popular remedy for this was to rub mercury on their scalp. This of course lead to madness and death, but at least the maddening lice died.[2]

It's hard to believe, but the poor were actually more likely to be bathed than the rich. Though they did not soak in baths but a remedy for bedbugs (which were rampant) was to quickly wash the face, arms, and legs with cold water to get the bugs off your skin after sleeping.

chamber pot


It is no secret that before modern plumbing or even outhouses people used small pots known as chamber pots to do their business in. These pots, however, would have to sit for awhile before a servant (if you are wealthy) or yourself (if you weren't) could empty it. Leaving your household with a smell that just could not be purged.

Back then the smell of urine and feces was nothing to be ashamed of. The smell was everywhere. If you weren't smelling the sweet smell of some heavily perfumed noble, guess what wafted through the air? People would empty their chamber pots into the streets through their windows and if they were polite, they might even warn anyone below them. So urine and feces would be prevalent in the streets.

Interestingly enough, the tradition of the gentleman walking on outside of a sidewalk by the street originated from this. It was to prevent the lady from being splashed from passing carriages, often the water splashing them would be a mixture of water, urine and feces.

Though often times urine from chamber pots was kept. It was thought to be medicinal to acne and was used as a beauty product.[2]

duchess of devonshire

A Ladies Time of the Month

Many people wonder how women treated their time of the month before the invention of pads. Though ancient Egypt is coined with creating the first tampon from softened papyrus, they were not used in the 18th century.[1] Like they believed dirt was healthy, women believed that stopping the flow of blood to be hazardous and to cause more intense bleeding. Some women just let gravity do its work while others wrapped their nether parts in cloth to catch the flow.

marvis tooth paste

Teeth Cleaning

Teeth cleaning was actually relatively modern in the 18th century. They did not have toothbrushes, but they used tooth picks to clean food from their teeth and a piece of cloth to rub over the teeth and gums to clean them.

Tooth paste did make its emergence in the early 1700's by an Italian company called Marvis (that still makes tooth paste today). However it was a luxury good and many poor folk felt they could better spend their money buying meat for slew rather than fancy Italian tooth polish.

18th century fashion

Preventative Measures

While people were quite filthy by today's standards, they at least did not enjoy it. Dirt was seen as more of a way to prevent disease, not because they loved being smelly and dirty. So thus, nobles in many countries adopted ways to look clean while not actually being so.  With them, they bore the unique fashion of the 18th century. Nobles powdered their hair to give it a clean look or just wore powdered wigs to cover their hair. Particularly complex and puffy wigs also contained their head lice and, on occasion, maggots. So next time you see a dashing young rogue walking down the way in your 18th century drama, think about how he would actually look with powder in his hair or a wig with odd things crawling in it.

In the 18th century noble men and women went to great lengths to make themselves appear clean that they looked almost unnatural. They used whitened lead power not only on their wigs, but on their faces as well to make them look as white as possible. Up until the 1920's pale skin was a sign of wealth, so they whitened themselves as much as possible to differentiate themselves from the lowly day laborers. Since their face powder contained lead, if often lead to permanent blemishes on their faces. To cover these they applied melted beeswax to the face and powdered over it. So in that day, if you got too close to the fire you might see a few faces melt.

If they had some form of deformity, such as a smallpox scar on the face, the nobles of the 18th century would add circles of black silk to their faces to cover them.



Mar 3, 2013 7:15am
Inreresting article and as a history buff, I enjoyed. Also, the bride carrying flowers at her wedding began to give her a better fregrance--the Puritans bathed around once a month so you hit on quite a historic theme. 2 big thumbs from me and a rating.
Mar 3, 2013 2:35pm
I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Fun fact i happened across while researching this, King Louis XIV of France in the early 18th century only bathed once in his life. On his wedding day.
Mar 3, 2013 9:31am
This is something that I never really thought about. Very interesting read! Thumbs Up!
Mar 3, 2013 2:32pm
Thank you. The thought doesn't come up too much since they never portray these things quite accurately.
Mar 3, 2013 12:44pm
I have never thought about the powdering of wigs and whitening of skin with lead, as a means to fake a kind of cleanliness. Interesting! However I do often think how films and romance books are so very guilty of sanitizing the reality of times past. Reading real history can be a shocker. I enjoyed your article muchly.
Mar 3, 2013 2:32pm
They certainly are guilty of it. I actually got the idea for this article from watching Sense and Sensibility.

Then again, viewers don't really want to think about this stuff when they are watching. I think it might ruin the romance. :D
Mar 3, 2013 2:55pm
Will you marry me? I really don't think I could've done any better with this myself! BIG, non-stinky thumb's up!
Mar 3, 2013 2:57pm
Thanks! That means a lot :D

Sadly though, I already have a man after my affections, lol.
Mar 4, 2013 7:35am
Really interesting, but oh so dirty.yeuch
Apr 25, 2013 6:09am
Great job Amerowolf. Almost makes me want to forgive the guy who shows up to work every morning drenched in afershave.
Apr 25, 2013 6:27am
wonderful info that a lot of people simply do not envision when they get the romantic picture of the day. yuk! this is along the same lines as one i was imagining about the smell on the television show Survivor. notice how the host sits at least 20 to 30 feet away from the contestants at all times? ever wonder why?
Apr 25, 2013 1:02pm
Hah, I always though it was because the host of survivor always seemed really snobby, but I guess that could be a reason too. :D
Apr 25, 2013 6:54am
Very interesting..as a history nut I loved this article. And, June and July were THE wedding months cause people were still relatively un-stinky after their annual dunk!
Apr 25, 2013 8:15am
Very interesting article on a neglected historical aspect. I can see why perfumes had a great importance back then, given the situation you describe :)
Apr 25, 2013 9:24am
This is a great article. More people need to know about how hygiene was back then because it's not talked about much.
Apr 25, 2013 1:00pm
Nobody wants to talk about the stinky truth, not historians and especially not Hollywood.
Apr 25, 2013 11:03am
This was really interesting. Made me glad we have running water and soap.
Apr 25, 2013 3:05pm
Wow! What an interesting article! I find it really hard to believe that people went through such hardship in the 18th century. You would think they would have put two and two together and realized the benefits of bathing. Maggots, lice, smallpox, scalp oil, dirty bodies, YECH! It's a very wonderful thing that we have gotten so good at taking care of ourselves in the modern day. But I suppose it was normal for them to stink and for everyone to stink. Wow, this article was quite a read indeed. Thanks for posting it!
Apr 25, 2013 4:04pm
Terrific article, Amerowolf! I love the way you used pictures to reflect the hygiene items of the time. Now I know some of the reasons why people generally live longer today. They often became sick or acquired unnecessary skin diseases because of nasty hygiene. I can only imagine how many died because of this. Dirty hair? Refusing to bathe? I am happy that I was not alive during that time. Words cannot begin to describe how filthy they lived.
May 9, 2013 3:00pm
Great article! Very interesting!
May 27, 2013 11:08pm
Great article! I have always wondered about this, but never really remembered to research the subject.
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  1. "History of Menstrual Products." Natural Menstrual Products. 2/03/2013 <Web >
  2. Jonathan Andrews "History of Medicine: Health, Medicine and Disease in the Eighteenth Century." Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies. 34 (2011): 503-515.

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