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.
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!