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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. 52549420dbfa3f2cb501051a._w.309_h.316_s.fit_

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.

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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.

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Definitely didn’t buy rights to this picture DX

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

 

 

 

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A long time ago I wrote about Keats and the saddest life story: one of the most romantic poets, living a very short and unhappy life, and now being tragically undervalued by, well, by most people (except Percy Bysshe Shelley but even that was not much of a consolation!)

I found this funny remark in E.M.Forster’s A Room with a View, referring to Keats as a writer of beautiful romantic things.

“Isn’t Romance capricious! I never notice it in you young people; you do nothing but play lawn-tennis and say that Romance is dead, while the Miss Alans are struggling with all the weapons of propriety against the terrible thing. ‘A really comfortable pension at Constantinople!’ So they call it out of decency, but in their hearts they want a pension with magic windows opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairylands forlorn! No ordinary view will content the Miss Alans. They want the Pension Keats.”

A Room with a View, by the way, is a very pleasant book to read. In describing the life and choices of a young girl it shows the difference between Victorian values and the new, more free attitude of the turn of the century, and how this affects people in their everyday dealings.

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Last week I told about the book I read, in which Prince Pückler-Muskau tells about his travels abroad. Here are some more bits from the book.

Prince Pückler attends a breakfast at the Duke of Devonshire’s at Chiswick. It begins at three, and last until past midnight. The brother in law of Napoleon was there. There was a big chaos of coaches driving up, a cabriolet was crushed and many coaches were damaged, because everyone wanted to get as close to the house as possible. The Duke brags that the dessert alone had cost him a hundred pounds. At two o’clock he leaves for the Duke of Northumberland’s, where a small party of about a 1000 people will take place.

Description of a concert: “The rooms were choke-full, and several young men lay on the carpet at the feet of their ladies, with their heads against cushions of sofas on which their fair ones were seated. This Turkish fashion is really very delightful: and I wonder extremely that C— did not introduce it in Berlin.” [C— is the English ambassador in Berlin]

He is surpised at the press freedom: the “Great Captain” who wants to re-enter parliament is called ‘a spoiled child of fortune’ in the newspaper. In Germany, censorship was introduced in the 1820s by Klemens von Metternich.
He receives 5 to 6 invitations a day for social gatherings, and goes out quite a lot.
When he is going horsebackriding with some ladies in the countryside, air balloons are seen. I didn’t know air balloons were used (except by scientists and adventurers) that early!

Prince Pückler also shares with us some information on the dandy. “An elegant [a dandy] requires per week: 20 shirts, 24 pocket handkerchiefs, 9-10 pairs of summer trowsers, 30 neckhandkerchiefs (unless he wears black ones). 12 waistcoats, stockings à discretion.
He dresses 3 to 4 times a day: a breakfast toilette: a chintz dressing gown and Turkish slippers. A morning riding dress: frock coat, boots and spurs. A dinner dress: dress coat and shoes. Then a ball dress: ‘pumps,’ which means shoes as thin as paper.”

I hope you enjoyed Prince Pücklers adventures in England! I’ll go back soon and write down some more.

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Recently I have been reading the book Tour in Germany, Holland and England in the years 1826, 1827 & 1828, with remarks on the manners and customs of the inhabitants, and anecdotes of distinguished public characters. In a series of letters / By a German prince by Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau, in a translation by Sarah Austin, London, 1832.
The book is a collection of letters by Pückler-Muskau (1785-1871), written to his love Julia. I wasn’t allowed to take the book from the libary, or make copies, so I transcribed some parts of it, because it’s quite amazing.

“This evening, a splendid fête at Lord H—-‘s closed the Easter festivities. Most fashionable people now make another short stay in the country, and in a fortnight hence the season proper begins. I am going bach to Brighton for a few days, but shall wait for the Lord Mayor’s dinner.

[april 16th] This took place today in Guildhall; and now that I have recovered from the fatique, I am extremely glad I went. It lasted full six hours, and six hundred people were present.” There were two bands of music, tabled in parallel setting, and toasts of a national character (which he dissaproved of, being German). The ladies were “frightfully dressed and with a tournure to match.” At 12 the ball began, but the Prince was too tired from dining for six hours in uniform, that he drove home in a hurry and went to bed.

I have some more fragments from the book, which I will post next week!

If you’re interested in Prince Pückler’s work, you can read an interesting article on his influence on American landscape gardening, in this PDF.

If you’re interested in travel literature (it was quite a fad!) you can find a list here.

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Beau Brummell, né George Bryan Brummell (7 June 1778, London, England – 30 March 1840 (aged 61), Caen, France), was the arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. He established the mode of men wearing understated, but fitted, beautifully cut clothes, adorned with an elaborately-knotted cravat.

Beau Brummell is credited with introducing and establishing as fashion the modern man’s suit, worn with a tie. He claimed to take five hours to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne. His style of dress was known as dandyism.

Apparently, Brummell is the main figure in a series of murder mystery books…That’s quite curious!

There are as much as two Brummell movies: this one and this one, and a BBC four series. I’m a big fan of the historical BBC series, usually they’re very accurate and interesting, and beautifully made. You can watch some clips of it on the site!

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King Louis Philippe once said to me that he attributed the great success of the British nation in political life to their talking politics after dinner. (source)

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, KG, PC, FRS (born Benjamin D’Israeli; 21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881), was a British Conservative statesman and literary figure. He served in government for three decades, twice as Prime Minister—the first and thus far only Jewish person to do so (although Disraeli was baptised in the Anglican Church at 13). Disraeli’s greatest lasting achievement was the creation of the modern Conservative Party after the Corn Laws schism of 1846.


An interesting (long!) article on dandyism.net

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Unrelated: If you are into history blogs and websites, check out this great article, listing one hundred history blogs. It’s quite a collection!

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Southern Gothic literature builds on the traditions of the larger Gothic genre, typically including supernatural elements, mental disease, and the grotesque. Much Southern Gothic literature, however, eschews the supernatural and deals instead with disturbed personalities. Southern Gothic is known for its damaged and delusional characters, such as the heroines of Tennessee Williams’ plays. Instead of perpetuating romanticized stereotypes of the Antebellum South, Southern Gothic literature often brings the stock characters of melodrama and Gothic novels to a Southern context.

My favourite writer was only born three years before the end of the nineteenth century, so I hope you’ll forgive me for posting it here.

William Faulkner is an American fiction writer whose work is deeply rooted in the Southern United States, particularly in his home state of Mississippi. William Faulkner, who lived from 1897 to 1962, had a unique, stream-of-consciousness writing style and was far more experimental with his texts than many of his fellow writers were. Though relatively unknown for much of his career, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Today, William Faulkner is considered to be one of America’s greatest Southern writers, along with Mark Twain.

Probably his most well-known story is “A Rose for Emily,” which is both romantic and creepy. You can read it online, here.

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