The (Not-so-Hygienic) Personal Hygiene of the 17th Century

Many of us in the western world now have the luxury of bathing or showering daily, then we apply antiperspirants and perfume. Lots of us now know that germs are easily transferable from what you touch to your body. Naturally, people like to wash their hands with soap and water in order to reduce the chances of getting sick, and I’ve seen many people, including myself, use hand wipes, alcohol pads and more to get rid of dirt and germs.

That wasn’t the case in the 1600s.

This was a time of lice, fleas, intestinal worms (yes), plague, and pestilence.

Image: “Lucretia” from Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi

In Emily Cockayne’s excellent, Hubbub: Filth, Noise, & Stench in England, page 60, we learn that people, such as Samuel Pepys, “rubbed” himself “clean” – this does not mean he washed and lathered himself up with soap and rinsed. No. It meant he had a cloth or rag that may or may not have been wet, then wrung out then rubbed against the body.

Dirty boy Pepys got in trouble with his wife, Elizabeth, as a result of being unclean (she had gone to a public bathhouse) and she, rightly, was fed up with him being smelly (he was already kind of pervy):

[Elizabeth] refused to let him into the marriage bed until he had washed. After holding out for three days, he finally relented and bathed in hot water.”

– The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800; Lawrence Stone; page 304

One physician by the name of Thomas Cogan recommended:

“Wash your face and hands with clean cold water, and especially bath and plunge the eyes therein: For that not only cleanseth away the filth, but also comforteth, and greatly preserveth the sight.”

Nice soap was too expensive for most folks. Some people thought it was not so healthy to immerse the entire body in water, and anyway, if it’s winter and you’re freezing, with no hot water..well, I think you get the idea. A person’s hands and face were the things most likely to be cleaned daily, if possible. Some people, uncomfortable with being dirty or overly smelly, would wash themselves in a river or stream:

In such circumstances, nice smells were very welcome. In Gervase Markham’s popular 17th century work, The English Housewife, he writes how to make pomanders (which you carry around and sniff if near a particularly foul stench):

To make pomanders, take two pennyworth of labdanum, two pennyworth of storax liquid, one pennyworth of calamus aromaticus, as much balm, half a quarter of a pound of fine wax, of cloves and mace two pennyworth, of liquid aloes three pennyworth, of nutmegs eight pennyworth, and of musk four grains; beat all these exceedingly together till they come to a perfect substance, then mould it in any fashion you please and dry it.

– The English Housewife; Gervase Markham; page 133

Hannah Wooley (who lived from 1622–c.1675) stated:

“For stench under arm-holes, first pluck away the hairs of the armhole and wash them well with white wine and rosewater wherein you have boiled Cassia lignum.”

– Restoration London; Liza Picard; page 129

Useful stuff in the 1600s!

 

 

 

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Hear ye! 22 thoughts — so far — on “The (Not-so-Hygienic) Personal Hygiene of the 17th Century”:

  1. Lauren Hairston Collado

    Off to pluck away the hairs in my arm-holes…

    Right. That would hurt like the dickens but it sure puts paid to the idea that everyone had lots of underarm hair until the 1920s.

    I wonder what people do now that will seem absolutely revolting in the future… Better go fit some of it into my schedule before it becomes taboo.

    Reply
    1. soylent

      Having sex with another individual and making public records of all it’s facets is probably going to be THE most revolting and medically dangerous thing our time will be remembered for. Well, this or our use of the internet.

      Reply
  2. Joe D

    Four hundred years from now, I wonder which of our personal hygiene rituals will bring a chuckle (and whether we progress or regress from here remains to be seen)…

    Reply
  3. Jackie of Windsor

    Why oh why did not our noses lead us to daily washing/bathing & deodorants centuries ago or have our noses only recently evolved to smell things odoriferous? These things confound this lady’s brain!

    Reply
  4. Andrea Zuvich (The 17th Century Lady) Post author

    Lauren, I think that it’s safe to assume that since pulling out hair is painful, few would bother doing it – so let’s keep thinking most people had hairy armpits. Joe, I couldn’t agree more – people in that time thought they were cutting-edge, modern, as we think of ourselves now. It’s all relative – future generations will probably say how backward we are now. Jackie, I believe that one’s nose gets accustomed to smells. If one was very smelly, and everyone around you was smelly, it would adjust and then you may find a bathed, scented person too strongly perfumed! (This happened on the programme 1900 house, where people lived like early 20th century people and one visitor came (who had been living normal late 20th c showering etc) and the people in the 1900 house thought they were overly perfumed, even though they had only used shampoo and soap! Noses adapt!

    Reply
    1. Ali Browning

      hair was removed by sugar and lemons ( you make a sort of caramel from it by heating and apply it to hair and pull it off, this would be for the rich as lemons and sugar were costly) I’ve tried this method and it hurts but your legs and arms stay smooth for ages. I wonder if our noses do evolve, I have always loved buying vintage clothes and remember they always smelled vile back in the 80s, the arm pit area smelled of cumin seeds on those old dresses so took a hell of a lot of cleaning to get rid of that horrible smell.

      Reply
  5. WaxVac

    Good read. We seem so lucky to have a clean water system which happens to be an essential part for our daily hygiene routines. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  6. paul

    great site btw. always been into this period..read evelyn’s diary years ago… now on it again… covers much longer period than pepy’

    Reply
  7. Brian Mckay

    Even today, like last week, behind a women in line at a local Supermarket checkout her odor was breathtakingly ….. Foul ! As I moved to an alternative line the person behind me closed the gap but observed the facial expression changed very quickly. I almost burst out laughing!

    Reply
  8. Amanda Pendarvis Kieren

    It is strange though how you at least always see royalty bathing in movies and t.v. shows. I am sure this is accurate? -t-he-he

    Reply
  9. Louise Hudson

    Queen Elizabeth I only bathed once a month.

    In fact, she said that she bathed once a month \”whether I need it or no\”.

    However, in sixteenth century England this was far more frequently than most people bathed. The vast majority of commoners washed up very rarely. This was due both to a widespread fear of catching the Black Plague in public baths and to a general shortage of wood for heating water throughout most of Europe at the time.

    Reply
  10. paul

    nothing wrong with not washing.. i stopped.. long time ago.. only give myself a rub down.. the chlorine in water is bad for skin.. and my skin has stayed fresh and i never smell.. plus.. i havent had a cold or flu in about eight years.. theres such a thing as good bacteria.. unfortunately with modern chemicals that gets killed off… i only use organic products and wash my hair with organic soap.. and i have good thick hair..

    Reply
    1. Ali Browning

      ok if you are not like me and sweat profusely even with slight exertion in heat ( I am very heat intolerant) I can’t stand it if I cannot wash in flowing water twice daily.

      Reply
  11. Jackie of Windsor

    Gee Paul, I know you might think you don’t smell, but I’m afraid many others who come nearer, or as near as they can get, would disagree. And as regards noses generally, I’m sure history shows over and over again, that they were the sensitive organs they are today, because those people who had the leisure time to do it were heavily into potpourri and scented pomanders to disguise the many odours, personal or otherwise.
    And again, when I was a child I remember my father coming in from gardening smelling terribly of male body odour and I really found it offensive – this was in the days before underarm deodorant.

    Reply
  12. Menolly

    Paul, you may find historian Ruth Goodman’s experience with rubbing herself down with linen cloths interesting. She also found that she did not smell (this was when she was filming ‘Tales from the Green Valley’ and living and working as a Tudor farmer’s wife). The Tudors wore linen close to the skin – this was washed frequently – and their outer clothing was made from natural fibres like linen and wool. Ruth reported that her skin was in far better condition than when she showered/bathed daily.
    This is a link to the article: https://newrepublic.com/article/129828/getting-clean-tudor-way

    These days, so much of our clothing contains synthetic materials which do not allow the skin to breathe and which trap sweat and grease, allowing bacteria to flourish (hence B.O.)

    Reply
  13. Jackie of Windsor

    You have certainly brought up a very valid point Menolly. Yes, indeed, natural fibre does breathe well and holds very little body odour. However, synthetics like acrylic yarn and polyester retain body odour and even if you have showered within a very short space of time on a hot day the pong is awful. I find Indian women who have foregone the wearing of silk saris and substitute the polyester ones smell abominably. With the wearing of all things natural, perhaps the 17th century men and women didn’t smell quite as bad as we thought.

    Reply
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