With today’s hygiene standards, some people are shocked to hear that it was very common in the 19th century to only bathe once a week. But it was!
So why? Well, for a multitude of reasons. First of all, it was simply tradition. From the middle ages on, it was thought that bathing too often would make you sick or sickly, and bathing once a week was enough. Some people or some cultures started to bathe more often (an example is Marie Antoinette at Versailles, who bathed every day) but this was definitely not common practise by the 19th century.
Also, bathing means full-on taking a bath. Many people were spot cleaning: washing face and hands every day, and maybe their feet as well. The same thing happened to clothes, by the way. It was very common to wear the same dress all week but to switch out collars and cuffs more often.
Water had to be drawn from wells for a large part, and heated on stoves. And with families as large as in the 19th century, there really was no way they could have washed themselves or their clothes more than they did! Homes with dedicated bathrooms that resemble our modern bathrooms started appearing in the late 19th century, but homes in rural areas often didn’t have plumbed bathrooms even well into the 20th.
Eww, that’s gross, you say? Well, the notion of what is clean vs what is dirty has varied a lot across the ages, and very, very few populations ever have had the economical means to apply our standards of washing everyday and changing clothes often. Currently, we’re a very clean culture, scrubbing and using lots of detergents to get everything spotless and desinfected. The 19th century was, for a large part, really more about not appearing to be muddy.
Bathing was a pretty big deal. There’s a scene in Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy where Almanzo has to take a bath and he hates it very much, because he doesn’t like just sitting there and getting wet, and also it’s cold and he has to wear clean clothes that are very stiff. So it was really a different outlook back then.
Clothes were changed about once a week (these school regulations from the 19th century show that students had to bathe on Saturdays and change their clothes once a week.)
This had to do with cleanliness but also very much with the fact that clothes were very expensive in the 19th century. Basically, clothing was vastly more expensive to produce prior to the advent of mass production, which is really only possible once the sewing machine has come into use. As late as the American Civil War, the vast majority of clothing was being hand sewn, and much of it, especially coats and trousers, were tailor made. So, people generally owned far fewer sets of clothing, but they were comparatively better quality than what most of us wear today.
As an historical example, Abraham Lincoln’s first proper suit of clothes (a frock coat, trousers, and a vest), made during the 1830s or 40s, cost $60. This is at a time when a private in the US Army made about $10 per month.
So, should you bathe more often than once a week? You shouldn’t if you lived in the 19th century, only maybe take some care to keep your hands and face clean. And change out your cuffs, if they get dirty. Otherwise, once a week is plenty.
Some academic sources for you:
- Georges Vigarello, Le Propre et le Sale : L’hygiène du corps depuis le Moyen Âge, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, coll. « L’univers historique », 1987, 288 p. (ISBN 978-2-02-008634-9)
- In english: Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2008
I was totally blown away by this page and the amount of effort that was put into it. I don’t want to say too much to introduce it really, except to say that this page visualises historical events that took place around the same time, and that it’s AMAZING!
Go check it out: http://waitbutwhy.com/2016/01/horizontal-history.html
The 19th century and especially the latter half of the century is known for its obsession with ghosts, spirits, morbid things, and the subconscious. In fact, talking with the dead, being inspired by them or guided by them, as well as spirit photography and ouija boards were a big fad around the 1850s.
One artist interested in spirits was Georgiana Houghton. She began producing ‘spirit’ drawings in 1859 at seances. This is what she said about the process:
“the execution of the Drawings my hand has been entirely guided by Spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced…” She explains that the spirits were definitely those of dead people, and after having heard of such possibilities of communication as early as 1859 set out to “obtain mediumship” by holding hands with her mother at a small table for some months on end waiting for contact—which of course she says happened. Sundays worked best, “as we should then be less disturbed by evil influences”
In 1871 Houghton rented a gallery and showed her watercolour drawings in London.The exposition was met with mixed reviews, and only one painting sold.
These days though, we can appreciate her paintings for what they are: beautiful, colourful abstract paintings, full of movement. Houghton was a pioneer in paingting, choosing this abstract and free-flowing way of working instead of meticulously working out historical paintings. For the first time in 150 years, these works will be presented to the public, so don’t miss out!
Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings is at the Courtauld Art Gallery from June 16 to September 11 2016. Admission £9. Open 10am – 6pm daily.
A very interesting book of spirit photography by Houghton can be viewed here: http://www.keithdelellisgallery.com/Exhibitions/Spirit/Spirit2index.html
Recently I read Victorian Fashion by Jayne Shrimpton, a small but very informative book! Read on for my review.
I’ve read a lot of books on Victorian fashion, and I’ve looked at many artworks and fashion plates. So I would say I’m a pretty tough customer to satisfy when it comes to fashion books. I loved this book by Jayne Shrimpton!
This book is fairly thin at 93 pages, but gives a really great oversight over the fashions between 1837 and 1901. While some of the bigger books go into detail more, this book really gives you the overview of fashion and how fashion depended on changes in society or inventions of the time. The book is specifically meant to be an introduction that will inspire further research. To do so, lots of sources and places to visit are included in the end, which is a really nice touch.
Victorian Fashion examines the principal fashions for women, men and children, talks about how clothes were acquired, and touches upon some special themes like eveningwear, sports wear, bridal clothes and mourning clothes.
The book is very rich in pictures, some well-known fashion plates but also lots of lesser-known advertisements and photographs. This really makes the book stand out and give it a very well-researched feeling. Also, I just love looking at images of great Victorian outfits :)
There is a lot of attention for how certain fashions emerged, and how they are tied to events or happenings at the time. For example: the book talks about how a newly discovered way of pleating, where more fabric could be gathered into a pleat than before, gave way to a trend of pointed bodices and dome-shaped skirts. Or how the prevailing idea of the woman as a demure, shy and perfect angel resulted in constricting and restrained fashions like large shawls, dainty boots that covered the foot very well, and funnel-shaped poke-bonnets. It tells how the first use of sprung steel, starting in 1857, gave rise to a big fashion of hoop skirts.
I would really consider this book as a great starter book, to get into Victorian fashion in general and start your research with, or if you’re just interested and want to read a little bit more. It would definitely make a great gift, as the book is good-looking, very informative, and light enough to be a very pleasant read for everyone! For real history-buffs, it might offer little new information, but it would still be a very nice book to read and brush up on your knowledge.
Here’s some fun news! Until May 31st 2016, you can get a 20% discount upon purchasing this book! Go here: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/victorian-fashion-9780747815082/ and use the code: VFASHION20
I really do love Victorian advice. Ususally you’ll find this advice in lady’s magazines, and it really gives an excellent peek into Victorian life.
A bit ago, this article was circulating, which features some excellent strange advice: http://historybuff.com/5-pieces-of-bad-advice-from-victorian-womens-magazines-p4r1DvaQAoPl
There were some complaints on this post because the advice picked is rather ridiculous, and the tone of the article is very mocking. There is also some really good advice, however. I loved this one since we on this blog have been puzzling about how people know all of the exact etiquette of the 19th century:
Marian says: “ I have frequently had calls from fashionable ladies who have sent their card in, or left them, with one or more corners turned down. Can you tell me the meaning of it? Pride prevents me asking any one else. By answering the above, through the Lady’s Own Paper, you will much oblige a friend.” The turning down of the corner of the card means that the ladies or gentlemen, as the case may be, left them in person, instead of sending them by messenger or otherwise.
Often, advice was given anonymously, and without printing the letter. Only the answer was given. As in this case:
What you complain of is difficult – nay, impossible – to cure all at once, but they can be subdued in the manner given below; although, iI tell you honestly, you have to be patient, and allow time to help you. They do not arise from a bad circulation, as you surmise, but are due to the blocking up of the sebaceous glands of the skin.
Whew! Pimples? Acne? Freckles? Something else altogether? Noone knows.
Some makeup advice:
You must apply friction to your lips, and be continually moistening them slightly and biting them. I do now recommend you to tint them, as it is always unmistakable, and by the above simple method the skin of the lips becomes thinner and the blood shows through. Seawater is injurious to the hair, and you should certainly wear an oilskin cap when bathing.
And some advice against red noses (still a problem even today):
If you are able to walk for an hour, you should certainly walk five or six miles a day, and you will find that the more brisk exercise you take the less you will have to fear your enemy – the red nose.
All advice from this post was found here: https://books.google.nl/books?id=DvlXXsmlW2sC&pg=PA166&lpg=PA166&dq=advice+victorian+womens+magazines&source=bl&ots=6dEurKHpng&sig=_rz_v_daaeGiHzPSA5qNvRRzN3o&hl=nl&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjHwd-6x9LLAhWFJZoKHWz8BqwQ6AEIQDAG#v=onepage&q=advice%20victorian%20womens%20magazines&f=false
Ready to read some lady’s magazines? Go here: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-englishwomans-domestic-magazine
Now that spring is afoot, I thought it was time for a tale of creepiness. Turn down your lights, shut the drafty windows, and let’s read a bit about Graveyard security and the Resurrection Men.
Graves, burials, and dead bodies, were seen entirely different in the 19th century. And to understand this, you have to view it in the light of the emerging health care and medicine studies.
First of all, healthcare was less developed. A patient that today would be in a coma, might be declared dead in the 19th century. There was no or little knowledge of resuscitation. Still, people were aware that someone might appear dead but be, in fact, alive.
Secondly, the profession of surgeons was developing rapidly. But, in order to learn more about the human body, a dead body was needed to perform anatomies on. But there was no legal way to obtain a dead body.
Enter the body snatching. Body snatching is the secret disinterment of bodies from cemetaries. In the 19th century this was done in order to sell the corpses for dissection and anatomy lessons in medical schools, more than grave robbing. Those who practiced body snatching were often called “resurrectionists” or “resurrection-men”.
In 1832 the Anatomy Act came to pass, but before that the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. The problem was, by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. With the expansion of the medical schools, however, as many as 500 cadavers were needed annually.
Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were used frequently, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes.
In fact, the securing of graveyards heavily impacted the design and layout of graveyards. Some graveyards were secured by walls or railings, some were secured by watchhouses. Sometimes great iron cases were erected over the case, either permanently or for the first few weeks, until the body was safe from body snatchers.
In Scotland, where the demand was even higher, watchmen were employed to guard the burial-grounds. Graveyards would sport big towers at the entrance like a Medieval castle, to house the watchmen. (Source: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1586841.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
So what about the buried-alive issue from earlier in this post? The solution was simple. Some graves were outfitted with bells. The bell was operated by a string, tied to the buried person’s body. Should you find yourself alive in a coffin, a simple ringing of the bell would do:
A bunch of bleak pictures of body snatchers can be seen here: http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2012/03/06/grave-matters-the-body-snatchers-unearthed/