I’ve been re-reading a great book about domestic life: ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’ by Lucy Worsley. I highly recommend this book for a fascinating, very accessible history of the home. Of bathrooms she says, ‘Bathrooms are now…the only rooms…with a lock on their doors, yet the activities that take place within did not always require privacy’.
The full immersion of the body into water was more of a ritual for spiritual purposes or for political allegiance than it was to do with getting clean. Soldiers would cleanse themselves before going off to the crusades – it was a setting aside of the physical and the spiritual self for the express purpose of going into battle for God. Knights bathed before receiving the conveyed upon them.
The concept of a room set aside (more or less) for the sole purpose of cleansing the body is a relatively new one. Previously, bathing was a communal, social activity. In the medieval times, both sexes enjoyed bathing in public bathhouses. It was not done to cleanse the body but for fun and relaxation. You could even get a meal sent in to you, and a few pints of ale from a nearby inn. Unfortunately the bathhouses where you could bathe, drink and be merry rapidly acquired a reputation for naughty sexual shenanigans, and it wasn’t long before bathhouses became brothels, pure and simple. There were other concerns too: sharing water with a large number of other people meant that bacteria lurked, and bathing became more likely to infect your body, not less. Bathing began to be regarded with suspicion and distrust, and consequently, people stopped doing it.
This gave rise to the private wash in the bedroom. We have probably all seen the large jug sitting in a matching china bowl on a washstand, a vital piece of furniture. Hot water was carried up from the fires of the kitchen or scullery by panting maids who must have had biceps and shoulders like a modern action movie hero. These days we still see these jug sets in homes, guest houses and boutique hotels, no longer for daily use but for decoration, used to convey a sense of homely comfort and traditional values.
But with bathing out, the emphasis was on the wearing of clean clothes. Underwear was invented, and it became the norm to change the clothes more often. Washing was done in the dim recesses of the servants areas of the large country house, with households employing one, two or sometimes a whole team of laundresses for this particular work. Labour was cheap, clothes were not.
And it wasn’t all about the nasty germs that you might pick up from bathing, nor about having enough staff to fill a bath or run up and down with hot water. From the middle of the nineteenth century more than half of Britain’s population were living in cities. The sheer logistical demands of bringing fresh, clean water into the cities was a nightmare. Remember these places still had open sewers until the beginning of the 19th century. Water, when piping began, was often rusty, or tainted, or just not available due to the inefficiency of the system or the lack of proper distribution. Piped water was often only available at set times, so households had to either manage without, or get used to collecting and storing it until needed. This all required management and planning.
But from the Regency period onwards bathing, at home and beyond, again began to be seen as an important part of everyday life across all social strata. If you watched the new adaptation/reimagining of Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon on TV recently, you would have enjoyed the sight of gorgeous young men emerging from the sea after a swim – naked, of course, but perilously close to where the ladies are bathing from bathing machines in a ridiculous array of clothing to swim in. In Jane Austen’s wonderful work Pride and Prejudice, the precocious Lydia says, ‘I’m sure I should love to go sea-bathing,’ whilst her mother responds with ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.’
There were still concerns about the dangerous effects of the action of the sea having a stimulating effect on women in particular, as ‘everyone’ knew that women were hysterical creatures at the best of times, and any kind of physical enjoyment was to be strictly controlled. I wonder if the birth rate went up nine months after a trip to the seaside? I guess that depends on whether or not ladies spotted someone like Sidney Parker (aka Theo James!) ambling out of the sea with not a stitch on.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland travels to Bath with Mrs Allen to take the waters for their health, and in doing so, they are participating in the huge trend that was sweeping the nation: it was once more a good and healthy thing to do, not to mention a vital aspect of the social calendar for the well-to-do. To go to Bath, to see and be seen in the various rooms of the spa was on everyone’s to-do list. Science – or natural philosophy as it was then called – touted the benefits to mind, body and spirit of warm water containing salts and minerals. They didn’t just bathe in it, either. It was drunk by the pint.
But what if you were too poor to be able to be seen at a trendy spa?
The poor, or even middling wealthy, could of course, always swim in the sea, or lakes and rivers, and were arguably less at risk of the rapid rise and fall of fashionable opinion. New coastal resorts sprang up from the Regency era onwards, and from the middle part of Victoria’s reign the railways took even the less well-off to the coast for a day’s relaxation, walking swimming and sandcastle building. But even at home, the tin bath would come out and be filled with hot water for getting off the week’s grime and starting a new week fresh and clean. Ish.
Faith played a part here. Religion determined your bath night. Did you believe that Sunday or Saturday was the sabbath? Was the start of the new week Sunday or Monday for you? Because that dictated which day of the week your family had their weekly bath. For many, the end of the week was Sunday, and that was bath night, but there were large numbers for whom Saturday was the last day of the week and Sunday the first, so they had their bath on a Saturday night. Scandanavian languages still carry this concept in the everyday word for Saturday – in Swedish it’s lördag, in Danish and Norwegian it’s lørdag, and in Icelandic it’s laugardag (which is the closest to the language of origin). But they all mean the same – pool or bath day. There was also a sense that bathing was a social duty – one had to consider the people aroudn one, and the idea of smelling bad to others was abhorrent.
For most people who were brought up C of E (Church of England/Anglican) Sunday remained the day when you had your weekly bath. And there was a strict order to who got to have the bath: starting with either the eldest or the ‘man of the house’ or main bread-winner (usually all three would have been the father of the family), and proceeding down the chain to the youngest. All using the same water. Can you imagine the state of the water by the end? There is a reason we have an old saying ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.’ I’m guessing the water was so murky it would be hard to tell if anyone was left in there, though I sincerely hope no mother would accidentally leave her baby int he water and forget about it. (Said the woman who once took a picture of her baby in her new coat, then left the house, and was halfway into town before remembering the baby was still lying on the sofa… sorry, Darling!)
In 1918, a law was passed in Britain to the effect that all new houses had to have hot and cold running water to a bathroom. But of course, this had no impact on the millions of older homes. Only as finances allowed would bathrooms be added to the terraces and villas across the nation. These days if you buy a Victorian home, you will find either a bedroom or two have been sacrificed to provide bathrooms, or a bathroom has been added on as a built extension to the back of the house, often downstairs.
Fast forward to the Second World War, and hot water was rationed – or rather the coal that was usually the means of heating it, and individuals were only supposed to use a depth of four inches of water per day in their baths. I’m not sure how anyone hoped to regulate this, or how much it contributed to the war effort, but like a lot of things at that time, it gave the community as a whole a sense of ‘doing our bit’ and made people think they were helping their nation to win the fight.
So that’s it, from there we went to actual baths in actual designated bathrooms, and the concept of a daily shower quickly became a normal part of our cleansing ritual.
I want to close with this lovely item. I took this picture at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. It’s a portable or travelling shower bath. The bamboo supporting canes can be removed, and the water tank at the top taken off, so that the traveller is left with conveniently-sized separate sections that can be readily reassembled on arrival at the destination. Always supposing you haven’t left vital screws, nuts or bolts etc on the dining room table at home. I like to think of it as a kind of IKEA device, with a Scandanavian-sounding name. Maybe The Lördag?
next week – the loo!