Cleanliness and Class


Cleanliness and Class

It’s a common misconception that our ancestors rarely bathed or washed properly. Cleanliness was like everything else desirable; the richer you were, the more you could have of it. The wealthier people of the eighteenth century certainly appreciated being clean, at least as much as we do today—though perhaps without quite the same obsessive attachment to what they would have seen as extreme levels of washing. After all, many of the links between poor hygiene and disease had not yet been discovered. Being clean was a matter of comfort and acceptability more than health.

Labourers and the poor probably did smell a good deal. The better off tried not to smell, unless it was of expensive perfume. They also tried to keep away from those who did — and likely had plenty of fleas, lice and unpleasant things like ringworm.

What did you need to be clean? Money, energy and time.


Being clean was expensive. All water for washing or bathing would have to be fetched in buckets from a well or a stream. Then it had to be heated by burning suitable amounts of wood or coal. To heat enough even for a shallow bath would take a good deal of fuel — fuel which otherwise could have been used for cooking or heating a room.

Many of the wealthy would have used perfumes to keep themselves smelling good — another expense beyond the reach of the poorer classes — and had access to clean underclothes, shirts and bed-linen whenever they wanted. If you couldn’t afford the large quantity of linens needed for this, you might wash, but you wouldn’t stay clean for very long. This was a time when washing clothes was both labour-intensive and expensive, as I shall show in an upcoming post, so even the better off might undertake it once only every few weeks.

Energy (of Servants)

The rich could sit in a warm bath. In the 18th century, of course, there was no piped water in houses, which precluded having showers—even if the shower had been invented. Baths were certainly available to be carried up to bedrooms or dressing rooms — during the French Revolution, Marat was assassinated while in his bath — but the huge labour of heating and carrying enough water made bathing less common than today, even for the ultra-rich.

You could bathe in cold water. Grand houses might include a specially-built bathhouse, sometimes hidden in a garden folly, or a suitable plunge pool. You could use an ornamental lake or a convenient stream. Mr Darcy’s plunge into the lake in the film version of “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth was perfectly authentic to the period, even if Jane Austen didn’t actually include that scene in her novel. Some of the ‘middling sort’ also had outdoor baths constructed. Mary Hardy, the brewer’s wife who lived at Letheringsett in Norfolk in the latter part of the 18th century, had one. However, while this might have been fine in the summer, outdoor winter bathing during the “Little Ice Age” was never going to be possible.


Lady’s Shift for Bathing

What any type of bathing, or even extensive washing, needed was energy to fetch water, heat it and carry the used water away afterwards. That energy was supplied by servants. Imagine how many buckets of warmed water would be needed for a bath. Even to wash standing, or use a bidet for intimate hygiene, needed someone to bring the water and take it away when it had been used — as well as mop up any messy spillages.

As an aside, our common injunction not to throw the baby out with the bathwater originated in this period. The cost in labour to fill a bath or large basin was so great that less wealthy households would share the water, proceeding in strict order of precedence from the master and mistress to the youngest family member. The baby got the coolest and dirtiest water. Maybe there was a danger that it would be missed in the grime and thrown out! Unlikely, but you can see how the notion arose.


I’ve included time and leisure in the list of essentials for two reasons. Although actually bathing or washing might take no longer for the individual than it does today, the entire process was lengthy. Servants engaged in making it possible would need to be taken off other duties. Fine, if you had many of them. Not so easy if you had only one or two.

The second time demand has more to do with the leisure that came to the rich through not needing to work. Working people would be on the go from dawn to dusk, probably six days a week. When could they find the time for more than an essential minimum of washing?

The wealthy could wash or bathe whenever they wanted. The middling sort could make time, but not so often. Taking a bath (outdoors, presumably) was an unusual enough activity for Mary Hardy, the brewer’s wife, to note it each time in her diary. Artisans and the poor — the very classes most likely to become sweaty and grimy in the course of their employment — would have least time to clean themselves. I’m sure the upstairs servants in great houses were expected to make sure they did not become offensive, but even they would not have been allowed much leisure away from their many duties. Perhaps the unwillingness of their masters to come into more than the essential contact with the servants — more marked as you passed into the 19th century, when the facilities for the family to wash were much improved — stemmed originally from trying to avoid unpleasant human smells. Certainly the 19th century records of Felbrigg Hall show quite a few servants being dismissed for being dirty.


A servant brings her mistress chocolate while she is bathing!

Was cleanliness next to godliness? Maybe it was in the evangelical 19th century, when the links between hygiene and freedom from disease were becoming clear. Before that, it was more likely to be next to wealth and social class, as so much else at the time. The rich man in his castle enjoyed a clean body in clean clothes. The poor man at his gate had neither, and never would have. That was the way of the world.

Next week, on October 19th, Dr Adam Bascom’s latest mystery adventure, A SHORTCUT TO MURDER, will be published on Amazon Kindle. If you’d like to take a look, you can use this link.


About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
This entry was posted in Georgian Society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cleanliness and Class

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Looking forward to reading your new book. I’ve lived in some places where only cold water was available and know what it is like to try to keep clean and not smelly under the circumstances – a lot of quick sloshing with icy water!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.