Then vs. Now: The Dirty History of Personal Hygiene

Here’s how bathing went from public to private.

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Today, many Americans shower so frequently that their hairdressers and dermatologists are telling them to bathe less. Considering this, it’s hard to believe that your ancestors might have cleaned themselves by just dipping in the river occasionally, washing nothing but their face in a basin, or sponging off with dirty water that made them smell even worse.

It’s easy to think of these earlier civilizations as dirty and smelly (and to your 21st century nose, they might be), but you’ve gotta admit that their hygiene methods were pretty inventive.

Ancient Hygiene

Famously, ancient Greeks and Romans were known for their public bathhouses. The bathhouses served many functions: They were a place of community and socialization, they were a place to rinse off and cool down after exercise, and they were a way to conserve water (instead of each person bathing individually).

In ancient Rome, bathing was an everyday occurrence. Bathing was so valued in ancient Rome that it is believed they exercised because it made their baths even more enjoyable, according to Katherine Ashenburg in her book The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. Romans would do some light exercise, then go to a warm room and scrape off oil and dirt with a metal “strigil,” and then plunge into the heated water.

All this bathing wasn’t necessarily about disease. Ancient Greeks and Romans had a much different idea of good health, believing it was a balance of the four humors in the body: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. (This is why bloodletting was such a common practice to treat illness.)

Instead, ancient Greeks and Romans bathed frequently because they associated it with elegance, beauty, and self-respect (in other words, for the same reasons that they prized exercise and perfecting the human form).

These ancient civilizations might have been known for their ahead-of-its-time indoor plumbing, but as time went on, and plumbing became less sophisticated, communal bathing continued—more out of necessity than anything else. For example, communal bathing helped conserve water during the Middle Ages, when access to clean water was severely limited to most people.

Colonial America

Across the Atlantic, colonists in the early United States didn’t have the elaborate bathhouses of the Romans and Greeks, although it wasn’t unusual to have a social dip in the river to rinse off. But again, this was less about preventing illness and more about personal comfort and beauty.

Besides these pseudo-baths, colonial Americans essentially just sponged themselves clean with a damp cloth—and usually just the face and hands. Some wealthier colonists had a “bathhouse” in the backyard, but it’s purpose was for cooling off, not cleansing.

A few wealthy people had bathtubs, but this luxury was still rarely used. First of all, baths were a lot of work: Pails of water had to be dragged in from the well, heated, and then vented out afterwards. Plus, too much bathing was considered bad for the body: It stripped the body of its natural oils, which they believed would cause diseases (the opposite of what we know today).

The Dirty, Dusty Industrial Revolution

And then there was London. Most metropolitan hubs were filthy during the Industrial Revolution—including New York and Boston—but London was the most infamous.

The cities simply weren’t ready for the urbanization that happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. The overcrowding of people made it difficult to bring in enough clean water—and dispose of dirty water and sewage. The combination of factories and chimneys vomited soot and chemicals into the air. Plus, all those horses resulted in streets that were packed with horse droppings, which mixed with other dirt and debris.

In particular, working-class Londoners were dubbed “the Great Unwashed.” From the dusty roads to the greasy factories, dirt clung to working-class Londoners, according to Lee Jackson in his book Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth.

To make things worse, most lived in tenements with scarce access to clean water. They washed themselves and their clothes in dirty water, which somehow worsened the stench. Referring to his working-class patients, one London surgeon wrote, “When they attend my surgery, I am always obliged to have the door open,” according to Jackson.

That said, some wealthier Brits were better off. Many had “washstands” in the home, which allowed them to do some bathing with cleaner water. Guides for housewives at the time advised daily washing of the armpits, groin, and feet, according to Jackson.

Cleaning Up 

It wasn’t just toilets and bathtubs that improved hygiene during the late 18th century. The link between hygiene and disease revolutionized the understanding of health—not to mention hygiene practices.

Germ theory—which was originally discovered by Robert Koch but described and made famous by Louis Pasteur—made it clear that small organisms like bacteria and viruses could invade the body, resulting in the devastating diseases at the time like smallpox.

Sure enough, studies revealed that diseases occurred at higher rates in the dirty cities, where their citizens were frequently exposed to feces (from both human and horse), soiled water, unclean air, and germy bodies.

During the late Victorian era, governments made health a social issue, attempting to break the stigma of poor hygiene as a moral failing. They not only cleaned up cities, but promoted good hygiene practices and immunizations, which were fairly new at the time. (Learn more about the history of vaccines here.)

Private Baths + Daily Showers

As indoor plumbing became more common in the 20th century, bathing at home in hot, clean water became increasingly normal. At first, once a week for full-body baths was standard.

So how did Americans get to the point of taking daily showers? You can thank marketing for that: Ads for new bath products convinced people to bathe more and more frequently (to buy and use more soaps, shampoos, and lotions).

Today, “personal care” products are a booming industry with an overwhelming array of products urging what can only be described as hyper-cleanliness. Whether you want moisturizing, anti-wrinkle, or odor-blocking, there’s a product for that.

From public to private, and beauty to health, personal hygiene has seen several changes. Get the facts on current science for your best hygiene: