MYTH # 61: People bathed once a year.

August 20, 2011

Other versions of this myth include: “Brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up their body odor,” and “People bathed twice a year, in May and October.” All nonsense.

Personal habits are notoriously difficult to document—when was the last time you noted in your diary that you took a shower? If the verb “to bathe” means to sit in a large tub of hot water and wash, then Myth #61 might be considered true.  Almost no one bathed that way until the 20th century when the miracle of indoor plumbing brought gallons of hot water directly into a tub with no more effort than it took to turn a tap. Before that, hot water required too much labor to allow even the upper classes to fill up a tub every day and soak in it. Men bathed in rivers and lakes as part of their swimming recreation, but women seldom did. Bathing in warm mineral springs and seaside resorts began to spread in the early 19th century, at first for the wealthy, but later for middle class people as well.

Just like today, habits varied. Some people washed daily and others did not. Some washed hands and face daily; others took sponge baths daily. Inventories and photographs commonly show a wash stand in bed chambers. And there are some written references to bathing. In the eighteenth century, William Byrd II wrote in his book, HISTORY OF THE DIVIDING LINE (1741), that he was relieved to bathe after several days in the wilderness. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia was writing about soldiers but his recommendations could have applied to any American when he said  that they should “wash his hands and face at least once every day, and his whole body twice or three times a week, especially in the summer.” 

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people visited public baths in towns and cities. Even a city as small as Richmond, Virginia, had one in 1832 and possibly earlier. There were several public baths in Richmond in operation until the last closed in 1950. John Zehmer of the Historic Richmond Foundation wrote in his new book, THE CHURCH HILL OLD & HISTORIC DISTRICTS, that the Branch baths served 60,000 bathers a year. “The cost [in the early 1900s] was five cents for adults and three cents for children. The bath was popular with judges, doctors, lawyers, and all classes of people because it was so much better than what was available at home. The development of indoor plumbing led to the closing of the public baths . . .”

Primitive “shower baths” came into play in the middle of the 19th century for the well-to-do. This newspaper advertisement dates from 1847. 

Still, most early Americans took sponge baths, standing beside their washstand with its pitcher and bowl of water or in a small tin tub with a few inches of warm water, usually in their bedchamber. Servants or slaves, if one were wealthy enough to have them, brought buckets of water from the pump, heated it in kettles on the stove, and lugged it up the stairs to the shallow tub. Otherwise you did the chore yourself. Ladies often preferred to put the tub by a fireplace. Some people bathed in the kitchen, nearer the stove—less privacy but less carrying.  Many who were willing to wash their bodies while standing in a basin were unwilling or unable to immerse themselves fully in a large tub. 

Interestingly, bathing and washing didn’t necessarily include the use of soap, at least not until the 19th century. Kathleen Brown writes in her book Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, p. 244, that the association of bathing with soap began in the 1830s, representing “a new fastidiousness about body odor that increased the labor required to achieve decency.” 

One thing’s for sure, people washed their hair less often than we do today. A women would have had to spend half her daylight hours sitting by the fire or in the sun to dry her long tresses. Hair styles reflected this reality. Until the 1920s when American women began cutting their hair short for the first time, most braided, knotted, or twisted up their long hair and wore it under a cap or bonnet. The invention of the electric hair dryer allowed a greater variety of styles.  

In the 1870s, the discovery of germs helped boost the idea of cleanliness in Europe and America. Modern indoor bathrooms with a sink, tub, and toilet in one room, gained popularity from the 1920s on. But even then, by 1940 (just before World War II), only half of American homes had this sort of modern bathroom.

Accuracy might best be served by saying that, while people bathed less frequently than most do today, they did not necessarily wash less frequently. 


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