Bath Time with Beau Brummell by Libi Astaire

Posted by on Jun 22, 2015 in 18th Century England, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell

The idea of the daily bath has had its ups and downs throughout human history, but it got an enthusiastic thumbs-up during England’s Regency era, when Beau Brummell – the period’s authority on all things fashionable – insisted on taking an hour-long soak every day. Bucking a popular theory of the time that perspiration formed a protective cover on the skin that kept diseases from entering the body through the pores – a theory that advised against bathing the entire body too often – the Beau advocated the opposite: rinse away the grime and germs will be washed away as well. He also insisted that no manufactured perfume – no matter how lavishly splashed upon the body or clothes – could match the fresh scent of a clean body, and advised taking a hot bath for the best results. His personal hygiene regimen was topped off by donning spotless, freshly laundered linen, which became yet another hallmark of the fashionable Regency gentleman.

The new fad trickled down to the emerging middle class, where cleanliness became not only a sign of respectability but also a status symbol. Why a status symbol? The reason was simple. Clean water was a scarce commodity in many quarters of Regency London.

For the wealthy, obtaining clean water wasn’t a problem. Elegant townhouses were equipped with pipes on the ground floor that were hooked up to the water supply of one of the city’s privately owned water companies. Servants heated the water in the kitchen and then carried large canisters filled with hot and cold water up several flights of stairs, to where the bedrooms were located. There the water would be blended to a comfortable temperature for the bather, who might either enjoy a bath in a full-length tub or take a shower-like bath in a hip tub, where the water was poured over his head by a servant.

Although plumbers knew how to install pipes leading to upper floors, it seems that neither the gentry nor the servants were in a hurry to change their ways. Tearing up walls can be both expensive and inconvenient, two reasons why the gentry were content with their standalone tubs. As for the servants, although lugging heavy canisters was hard work, at least they had work and steady wages – something that couldn’t be taken for granted during a time when machines and mechanical inventions were increasingly taking on jobs previously performed by human beings.

In the poorer parts of town the story was very different. The East End slum that is home to General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane, the teenage pickpockets who help solve the crimes in my Jewish Regency Mystery Series, wouldn’t have had water pipes hooked up to each of the overcrowded tenements. Instead, there was one pump located in the street, which was used by hundreds of people. That pump was open for business only during certain hours of certain days. The rest of the time, the water company in charge of the area turned off the water supply.

Beau Brummell soap dispenser, circa 1904

Beau Brummell soap dispenser, circa 1904

Water was therefore a precious commodity, and it was difficult for poor people to stay clean when there was so little water to bathe with. Barbs about their lack of cleanliness could hurt – Jews, in particular, were singled out in the press and on the stage for this offense – and General Well’ngone protests vigorously when a member of the gentry insinuates that he and the Earl of Gravel Lane smell. As he points out, at least he and the Earl took a dip before the Jewish Sabbath in the mikvah (ritual bath) that was located near London’s Great Synagogue – a weekly ritual that has been an integral part of Jewish life for thousands of years.

It would take another hundred years or so for running water and an indoor room devoted to “the necessities” – aka the bathroom – to become standard in even London working class homes. While the introduction of indoor plumbing for all has meant that bathing daily is no longer a status symbol reserved for the wealthy and the status-seeking members of the middle class, Beau Brummell surely would have approved of the higher personal hygiene standards in place today – as long as people don’t overdo it with aftershave lotions and perfumes.

Libi Astaire, June 22, 2015

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post! Hygiene through history is a tricky topic, with a lot more myth than reality. People must have gotten over their fear of infection through water by Regency times. Apparently, that was mainly a sixteenth century belief.

    I’m sure your proud lads keep themselves up as best they can!

  2. Good post! The situation was not much better at the end of the century, especially in France. Have a look at the post “Jacques Takes a Bath” here:

    https://victorianparis.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/jacques-takes-a-bath-2/

  3. We had a taste of this when we visited Romania 20 years ago when the Ceaucescu years were still wreaking their toll. Water in the hotel was from 10am to 6pm. The children in the orphanage were not allowed to flush the toilets; this was done by the director once a day. They had hogsheads of cold water in which they bathed. The orphan who stayed with us when the kids visited England was totally fascinated by baths and hot taps.
    Oh, and at least the toilets in Regency England generally had a wooden cover to sit on. The ones at the train station and in the restauraunt were foot rests either side of an open sewer. We take cleanliness so much for granted, we can easily forget that other places or times do not have that luxury.
    the Prince of Wales had piped hot, cold and seawater in the Brighton Pavilion. what a contrast…

  4. Thanks for all your comments. I remember the “interesting” plumbing options in Europe, as well. Indoor plumbing is definitely something to be thankful for.