History of Hygiene: Bathing, Teeth Cleaning, Toileting, & Deodorizing

In present times we are obsessed with bathing. How many shampoo brands are there? Soaps, razors, perfumes? Hundreds, thousands! People make a stink, literally, if they smell the dreaded B.O…. Nobody wants to be downwind of someone who hasn’t bathed in awhile…

How did they wipe after going number two? We’ll discuss that next week who cleaned the toilets out…

So how did they deal with this in history? As usual we will only be discussing a part of history’s time line, Medieval through Regency times. In addition to the different time periods, we also have to remember that hygiene practices would have been different between peasants, nobles and royalty… Who would you rather be?


As in a lot of things medieval bathing was by some seen as a form of sexual debauchery and by others seen as letting the devil into you. It was also widely believed that being naked and letting the water touch you would make you severely ill.

At any rate, those that were able to in medieval times bathed more than we thought they did, by most historians standards. It particularly became more popular during the outbreak of the Black Plague. People were looking for reasons why it was spreading and how to decrease the effects, they found that frequent hand-washing in warm water, warm wine and also in vinegar helped. They also found that keeping the surroundings more clean helped too.

I’m also sure that looking, feeling and smelling clean was a bonus not only to yourself but to those around you.

Medieval kings and lords and their household bathed more than most. Some had special rooms set aside for bathing and others bathed in huge tubs brought into their rooms. The tubs tooth forever to fill as the water had to be gather, heated and then carried in buckets to their rooms, where it was poured in and mixed sometimes with perfumes, scented oils and flower petals. Their ladies were just as lucky.

Because gathering water was so difficult several people may enjoy the bath before the water was thrown out. Especially within the poor. The eldest went first down to the youngest, hence the saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water…”

Peasants submerged themselves in water rarely for a bath and were more likely to wash quickly with plain water and a rag and if they were lucky some soap. During warm months they may have slipped away to the river for a dip.

Hand-washing before entering the great hall for a meal was standard. During the crusades, knights brought soap from the East. Prior to that people used water only and the oils from flowers.

In chambers, people had basins of water for washing the face and hands, and maybe a more intimate part of themselves…

Rivers, lakes, ponds, etc… were used to taking dips and rinsing the filth from one’s body.

As a writer of historical fiction, and a lover of history in general, I try to do a lot of things the way they were done way back when. I dry my clothes in the sun sometimes, (not on a clothesline, but just a drying rack I set on my deck), I have a tapestry on my wall and an antique painting of a Highlander, I drink wine from goblets, I sit outside with the only light coming from torches and lanterns, I buy food from fresh markets and farms, I attend a Renaissance festival yearly, Huzzah! And I use homemade soaps from a local farmer. I really like them a lot. She makes them almost close to the way they were made in medieval times, and they smell fantastic.

Soft soaps were made of mutton fat, wood ash, and natural soda. Often they had flowers and herb oils added for a sweet smell, but this was very expensive. Hard soaps were made of olive oil, soda, lime, herbs and flowers.

In some cities they had public bath houses, where people could bathe all day. (Check out my previous blog, on the city of Bath England http://historyundressed.blogspot.com/2008/04/taking-waters-in-bath-england.html)

Elizabeth I, is said to have had a bath once a month. She herself also restored the bath houses in Bath, England.

During Regency times bath houses and sea bathing became popular. In the homes of the wealthy they bathed in copper tubs lined with linen. The poorer if they had a wooden barrel would bathe in them.

Earlier in the nineteenth century the hands, feet and face were regularly washed as in previous centuries, and the rest of your body every few weeks or longer. However the tides quickly changed.

It is said that Beau Brummel bathed every day, and made this more popular among the aristocrats. He believed men should smell clean, without the use of perfumes.

In some journals you read that children of the wealthy and their parents bathed daily. Some in the summer even bathed twice a day.

For the poor a weekly bath that all the family shared was more common.

It wasn’t until piping became regular sometime in the 19th century for homes to have water brought to them, rather than servants gathering the water themselves.

Brushing Teeth

The first toothbrush was not patented until 1857, so how did they get their teeth clean? Obviously from accounts in history of even the wealthiest and most royal of people having brown teeth, that most people didn’t get them all too clean…

Those that tried used the following methods:

* Rinsing mouth with water to remove gunk from mouth.
* Rubbing teeth with a clean cloth to wipe tartar buildup and left over food particles from the teeth.
* Chewing herbs to freshen breath, mint, cloves, cinnamon, sage
* Using “toothpicks” to clean out the teeth.
* Mint and vinegar mixture, used to rinse out the mouth.
* Bay leaves soaked in orange flower water and mixed with musk.
* “Barbers” would also be used as dentists and would extract teeth that were rotting or bothering a person profusely. They sometimes were able to muck out the junk in teeth and create a filling of sorts.

* Rubbing teeth with the ashes of burnt rosemary.
* Powdered sage rub used to whiten teeth.
* Vinegar, wine and alum mouthwash
* After dinner comfits were eaten to freshen breath

* The same practices for cleaning were in use, but the “barbers” aka dentists had begun to learn more about dentistry.
* The first dentures, gold crowns, and porcelain teeth, were constructed in the 1700’s.
* 1790 brought about the dental foot engine, similar to the foot pedal of a spinning wheel, it rotated a drill for cleaning out cavaties.
* The first dental chair was made in the late 1700’s.

* They again used the same methods.
* A letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son urges the use of a sponge and warm water to scrub the teeth each morning.
* The recommendation of using one’s own urine in France was widely flouted by Fouchard, the French dentist.
* Gunpowder and alum were also recommended.


A bathroom or toilet back in the day was referred to as a garderobe or privy. In castles and monasteries/convents they had large arrangements of these for the people.

I had the fortune of grandparents residing in France while I grew up, and so I visited several times. On one particular occasion we visited a small village in the south of France, I can’t remember the name now. At any rate, I had to go potty. I followed the signs in the village to the public restroom and was floored, literally… There was just a hole in the floor.

As I was a young adolescent at the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to maneuver it. I’d been camping before so hence I’d had the pleasant (joking!) experience of peeing on the ground, but a hole? How would I am? I’m female, not trained in the arts of target practice while urinating… Needless to say I was able to handle it, but I couldn’t help but imagine at the time how medieval it was J

Garderobes were a room in a castles or monastery that had a bench with a hole in it. Not unlike how we use a toilet today. The person would sit down, do their business wipe with straw, moss, leaves, wool or linen rags, and then walk away. The waste would fall down a shoot into a pit or a moat. If into a cesspit it was then cleaned and mucked out by gong farmers. Garderobes were sometimes blocked off by a screen or door and sometimes out in the open.

When I visited Ireland they showed us a garderobe with chunks of moss for writing. It was pretty interesting.

At some point an enemy took it upon himself to use the garderobe as means of access to gain entry to a castle…yuck! So they were then built with iron bars so no one could climb up them.

Chamber pots were used in bedrooms in a castle that didn’t have a garderobe. Some of the larger castles actually had a latrine tower, which was filled with them. Some city walls also had privies so the guards could use them while on duty.

Imagine sitting on that cold stone in winter with the wind whipping up and hitting you square in your most sensitive spot… No thanks!

For peasants, a toilet was a bucket in the corner of the room that was tossed into the river, or a bucket behind the house, or a tree in the forest. No privies for these folks. Unfortunately water for cooking and bathing came from the same river…shudder…Perhaps this is why they thought bathing could make you ill?

Chamber pots were used widely up to the 18th century and then began to taper off as more and more households began using toilets. Some chamber pots were hidden in boxes. Growing up one of the coolest pieces of furniture we had was a chamber pot box. My mom, humorously, used it as a side table. If you took her accoutrements off and lifted the lid, there was the hole where the pot would have sat. Quite funny.

Chamber-pots would be emptied into sewers or cesspits.

Even during Regency times sewage and waste could bring about illness. Some London homes had toilets, not like the standard toilets that we have today, but they did include piping, however these pipes frequently backed up causing fumes to carry throughout the house. Some people had “earth closets” that would periodically drop dirt into the pipes to flush out the waste. The poor had privies in the backyard that were emptied into a cesspool. “Night soil men” would come by and empty the muck. All the pipes from homes and the wagons full of muck were dumped into the Thames River. This led to plenty of epidemics until emptying waste at certain times and away from the water supply was developed.

Manor homes had cesspits, that frequently became overflowed. They were often in the cellars of these homes and were emptied by the “night soil men.”

Although a flushable toilet was invented in the 1500’s there was no way to use it since they didn’t have running water. However they were able to develop systems of valves to keep the smells from coming up from the toilets, and periodic flushing was done.



Obviously there wasn’t any Secret, Degree, Old Spice or Gillette, so what did they do to keep the big bad B.O. away?

Using perfumes was widely popular even in the middle ages. Oils from flowers, mixed with herbs and spices created all sorts of pleasant smells that both males and females indulged in.

When they did bathe, nobles and royals or even rich merchants bathed with scented soaps, so that their skin would take on the fragrance as it may not be a few days or longer until they could bathe again.

Nose-gays (literally kept the nose happy, or gay!) became popular when walking in the court or through crowds. A nosegay was something to keep the smells at bay, held in the hand, on the writs on a lapel. They could be a small bouquet of flowers, a sachet of dried flowers and herbs, an orange studded with cloves, or a sprig of herbs. People would often hold it up to their noses when walking in a large crowd.

Flowers and fresh herbs often adorned table tops in homes to keep the house smelling fresh…but we’ll discuss housecleaning in a couple of weeks.


Published on June 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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