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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Regency Hygiene, or the Lack Thereof, Part I

Regency England was a dirty place--and not only because of the large amount of horse manure around. Although the proverb "cleanliness is next to godliness" was known at this time, its meaning was different from today's interpretation.

For most of the era, cleanliness meant the daily washing of hands, face, and neck and wearing a clean shirt (for men), or a clean chemise (for women). The notion of immersing the entire body in water was anathema in Western Europe, and had been for the previous several hundred years.

Such an attitude did not exist in the ancient world. In the days of the Roman Empire, everyone--men, women and children, free and enslaved--visited the public baths every day. The Romans built baths in every corner of their far-flung empire. Even chilly Britannia, at the outer edge of their rule, had baths. Aquae Sulis (The Waters of the Goddess Sulis), now known as Bath, received its Roman name from the hot springs located there.

As the Empire waned, so did its legacy, including baths and bathing. Public baths acquired the seedy reputation of encouraging licentiousness, although they remained fixtures in European life for centuries after Rome's demise.

The death of bathing occurred as a result of another death--the Black Death.

The Black Death (bubonic plague) was the worst pandemic the western world has ever seen. 30-60% of fourteenth-century Europe's population perished in agony due to this scourge. Panicked physicians, unaware that fleas transmitted the terrible disease, made a frantic search for any method of prevention.

The standard explanation blamed the planets for causing noxious vapors to rise from the earth and enter the body through the lungs. A new theory arose that skin softened by hot water became porous and provided the infection another entry. In terror for their lives, people stopped bathing. Bath houses fell into disrepair.

From the Black Death to the Regency, Western Europe grew dirtier and dirtier. Clothing, often tightly woven as another barrier to disease and made of hard-to-clean materials such as wool and silk, went unlaundered. The rich wore strong perfume to mask the often-overpowering stench of their neighbors' unwashed bodies. The poor just stank. Lice and fleas were rampant on everyone, regardless of class. The title of this 1638 Georges De La Tour painting is Woman Catching A Flea.

Dirtiness reached its peak--or nadir--in the Georgian era. By the time of the Regency, England had begun to clean up its act. The single person who was most influential in the resurgence of personal cleanliness was George "Beau" Brummell.

Next time—Beau Brummell.

Thank you all,


Joanna Waugh said...

Great article, Linda. I have more information about bathing during the Regency and early Victorian period on the front page of my website at

Margaret Tanner said...

Enjoyed the article Linda, very interesting. Just reading about fleas and lice make me feel itchy.



Maggie Toussaint said...

What an interesting post. I guess your nose became used to the stench after you were in it for a bit. I can't imagine cuts ever healing in such an environment. Probably best not to get cut in the first place.

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Joanna, and thanks for the info. You have a great website, lots of wonderful information.

Hi Margaret, and thanks. I agree, fleas and lice--ick!

Thanks, Maggie. Yes, I guess you get used to any smell after a while. Infection was a very large problem before modern antibiotics, with the lack of cleanliness a major contributor. But that's a whole different blog post!

Mary Ricksen said...

Thank God for Beau or we'd still be stinkin'!
Great post Linda!!

LK Hunsaker said...

Sad that their "preventative" made the disease spread worse, but I think that's still true in many cases.

Great blog, Linda! I'm interested in the Beau Brummell info, as I recognize the name from the Annie song. ;-)

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I think you make some good points, Linda. I agree that things were changing in the Regency. I've been reading a lot of magazine and newspaper advertisements from the time, and adverts for tooth powder, soaps, shampoos, etc. abound. I hate to think of 'our' people being dirty, so I'm glad it was changing! Thanks for the great post.

Linda Banche said...

Mary, thanks. Beau was something of a fanatic over cleanliness, but he certainly "cleared the air", so to speak *grins*.

Thanks, LK. Sadly, the preventative not only was ineffective against the Black Death, it contributed to more disease in the succeeding years.

Beau Brummell in two weeks!

Thanks, Lesley-Anne. Nice to know there were lots of adverts for soap, shampoo, etc. in the Regency. People were finally taking the cleanliness message to heart.

catslady said...

Thank goodness this is something we don't think about when reading our romances lol.
And of course they killed the cats (that would have killed the rats) blaming it on them too (sigh).

Cathie Dunn said...

Fab article, Linda. Thanks for posting such insightful tidbits. I dread to think how disgusting those clothes would have become with all that ingrained dirt. Yuck! ;-)

Tiffany Green said...

So true! Not only did the people smell, London was awful. People threw sewer and garbage into the streets and chimneys belched out thick, heavy smoke continually. Thanks for sharing what life was like back then.

Lilly Gayle said...

What a fascinating post! I did not know about the link to the plague. But I am familiar with Brummell. He designed London's sewer systems. I wrote a historical based in London during the "Great Stink" of 1858. The Thames was so polluted and the vapors or Miasma was so bad, even Parliament closed that summer. Thanks for sharing this.

Linda Banche said...

Catslady, romances are idealized, and well they should be. I don't want to my hero to stink!

The plague-infested fleas came over on rats on ships from Asia. The poor cats would be infected, too.

Thanks, Cathie. Aren't we lucky to have washing machines!

Tiffany, thanks. We don't think about London's chamber pots, horse manure, and so much coal smoke you couldn't see the sky.

Hi Lilly, thanks for coming over. I didn't know Brummell designed the sewer system. And I've never heard of "the Great Stink". I'll have to look it up.

Savanna Kougar said...

Linda, fascinating post. I didn't realize the lack of bathing was connected to the plague. Though, I had heard bathing too much was considered unhealthy.

If anyone is interested in how essential oils and herbs were used to prevent and cure the plague look up the history of what is now called Thieves Oil.

Jen Childers said...

HI LInda,

Fenrec Nadasdy boasted a bath on Christmas only. I have to hand it to the guy who suggested all ladies at balls wear the same fragrance. The ability to say "everyone wear the same thing, the BO is bad enough without 20 differnt perfumes" is a true diplomat!
thanks for the great post

Linda Banche said...

Hi Savanna, thanks. I'll have to look up Thieves' Oil. All kinds of things were tried to prevent the plague. Shows how you can't prevent/cure anything if you don't know the cause.

Thanks, Jen. Fascinating anecdote. I came across more than one story of people who boasted about not bathing. Thank goodness times have changed!