Have you ever wondered about the personal hygiene practices of women living during the Victorian Era or before? We live in a time where we are bombarded with magazine ads, TV commercials, billboard signs and peer influence regarding the latest and best products and current trends to use to practice our daily and monthly hygiene rituals.
Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) was a period of intensive industrialization, urbanization, and social change. This time period marked massive changes and attitudes towards class and hygiene, where ‘cleanliness’ was equated with respectability and ‘smell’ was an indicator of health, class and social order. When Queen Victoria was crowned, fashion and art were generally only for the upper-classes. As her reign wore on, the middle-classes grew and copied the gentry. By the late 1800s, even the working poor were doing their best to emulate the elite.
Bathing: Personal hygiene in the Victorian period, and indeed in nearly every era preceding it, was not conducted with the same rigor as today. During the first decades of Victoria's reign, baths were virtually unknown in the poorer districts and uncommon elsewhere. Those who could afford a bathtub would have bathed a few times each month, while the poor were likely to bathe once a year. Victorian men and women would wash arms, hands and faces regularly but the rest of the person was pretty much left to itself. This may seem remarkably smelly, but if everyone else smells the same then one assumes the odor becomes unremarkable.
The Industrial Revolution was a major influence on the English economy, trade, population, advances in medicine and the importance of personal hygiene, recommending that more frequent bathing would help reduce or eliminate some of the major health issues of the time. Bath houses became popular, but women didn't disrobe to bathe, rather they kept on their underpinnings while they would soak with other women in a public bath. Water was heated over open fires, causing a lot of the bathhouses to burn down. The wealthy had portable tubs that were brought to their bedrooms and placed in front of the hearth. Victorian women used pumice stones to clean, adding flowers and citrus or perfume to their bath water.
Toilet: Dealing with human waste has always been part of being alive. Humans typically practiced open defecation or employed latrines. “Outhouse”, “water closet”, “privy”, “necessary house”, “the closet” are just a few terms that have been used to refer to where a person would go to “taking care of business”.
If you were a Victorian woman, you would have eaten, drank, and taken physical exercise at about the same time each day. So women would of course try to time their privy use in the morning and night, when they were disrobed. But their main trick: underwear, or what most people think of “bloomers”, had no crotches. They were leg coverings that were left split, wide and droopy, usually from front to back. This allowed a woman to use a chamber pot, outhouse, or early toilet by just flipping her skirts (which she needed both hands to do, they were so long and heavy), and squatting.
Wiping? The wealthy would have included wiping themselves with wool, lace, or hemp. The poor simply used their hands or cleaned themselves as best they could with rags, wood shavings, leaves, grass, hay, stone, sand, moss, water, snow, maize, husks, seashells and fruit skins – essentially, whatever was handy and available given the country, weather conditions, or social customs. Man has tried various ways to dispose of human waste by using chamber pots, which were cleaned manually by the servants or slaves, with toilets protruding out of the top floor of a house or castle, and dispose of wastes in the river below or into the streets or drains in urban areas.
Time of the Month: Before the 20th century, women ate less, were pregnant more often, and died much earlier in life, so menstruation was a somewhat rarer occurrence and simply not a priority. Abstinence, coitus interruptus, or a “condom” made out of chemically treated linen or animal tissue (intestine or bladder) were used until rubber condoms gained popularity in the mid-19th century. Women had few options when Mother Nature called once a month. Some would use rags (hence the saying “on the rag”) or pieces of cloth sewn into their clothing that would be reused several times. Some women simply wore black and let gravity do its thing. A form of what we know as tampons could be used. It consisted of a stick with lint wrapped around it to collect the blood. There were “sanitary belts” like the one in the picture that were metal, where fabric was sewn into the crotch area. Because of the odor, most women stayed away from others during their menses. Doctors during this time believed that the regularity of a woman’s period was related to her mental health – her body controlled her mind and it was the responsibility of the oldest man in the house to make sure that her menses flowed on a regular basis.
Dental Hygiene: For the lower classes, dental hygiene was little more than a toothpick and wiping down your gums with a cloth. Women generally had worse dental hygiene than men due to vitamin loss from pregnancy.
Toothpaste had been invented in the early 1700’s by an Italian company, Marvis, but it wasn’t an “essential”.
By the early 1800s, a variety of toothbrush and toothpowder manufacturers were competing with each other for a rapidly growing number of clientele in a thriving toothpowder trade. Tooth powder recipes proliferated, and toothbrushes began to be sold in great quantities.
The Victorian Era seems to be a glamorous period in time because of the style of clothes, the advances taking place during the Industrial Revolution, the romance novels written for that era, along with the romanticism that Hollywood has depicted in movies representing the time, have created a picture of elegance and refinery. But life was not glamorous or easy for a female before modern times. Body odor, homes and cities smelling of human waste, water to collect and heat for bathing or laundry, while dealing with their monthly menses was a real chore! Women of today have truly been blessed with the availability of hot water, indoor plumbing, and personal hygiene products that make it so much easier to take care of personal hygiene and bathroom business.
Submitted by: Irish Rose