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