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  • Writer's pictureNicole Salter

Getting clean: A brief history

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Have you ever read historical fiction novels or watched period pieces and wondered about the little basin and pitcher that were provided in one's bedchamber for washing? Not sure about you, but if were to be transported to the Victorian Era, I would not really feel comfortable washing my entire body in a small bowl. Yet we know that the ancient Romans and other cultures had beautifully designed communal baths and even shower technology so you could immerse yourself as well as rinsing off. What happened in that time span to change bathing so radically? In short, what is the history of the bath?

Bathing has its roots in cave times

Photo credit: Cinemablend

...Well, at least that's what dramatizations like The Clan of the Cave Bear series of novels would have us believe: it all started with a single determined woman who wanted feel clean and fresh, so she broke through glacial ice in order to wash up, cleaned herself with juice from the soapwort plant, and even used urine for its disinfecting ammonia -and by the end of the series, she had accidentally discovered how to make soap out of mammoth fat and ashes. But by all accounts we humans were pretty grubby and pest-ridden until we come to...

The Ancient World did have bath time

According to Wikipedia, the ancients appreciated the benefits of a good bath, which, like later Greek and Turkish baths, often involved cleansing steam. Indians bathed daily as part of a hygienic ritual, whereas the ancient Japanese, once they had brought baths to the masses, mixed bathing with all kinds of hanky panky. Stateside, the Aztecs were all taking baths, not just royalty, but probably only the royalty got to have those wonderful massages as part of their baths.

Although all kinds of ancient peoples did have hygienic rituals that involved bathing, there were some cultures that elevated bath time to a whole 'notha level.

The Greeks, Turks and Romans made baths an art rather than a chore

Perhaps you have seen pictures of an ancient Roman bathhouse. Pretty impressive, right?

It's almost unbelievable by today's architectural standards, but the ancient Romans erected elaborate, expensive bathhouses that were so impressive that in some cases they could accommodate up to 6,000 bathers at a time (apparently, people weren't as shy about public nudity then as they are now; must have been all the naked statues). Of course, more than just getting clean went on there; like the public toilets, a bathhouse was also a place to...

  • hang out

  • chat and gossip

  • take in some entertainment

  • work out

  • eat and drink

  • listen to public speakers

  • conduct high-powered business deals

  • meditate

Public and semi-private baths might have onsite healers. You could even bring your own slaves or hire some and get a massage! It's basically the opposite of woke.

Of course, despite the elaborate system of aqueducts (another architectural marvel of the day) that fed these bathhouses, they eventually fell into disrepute, in part because of all the hanky-panky that was so offensive to Christendom, in part because they were expensive to maintain. When the Roman Empire fell, the aqueducts became discontinued, and the secrets of effective modern plumbing were lost for centuries.

Suddenly, bath time became uncool

How did baths go from awesome to evil? You can blame a lot of political and religious stuff, as well as disease. To find out how we got from a beautiful hot spring, steam bath or aqueduct-fed pool to a little cup and bowl of water, you have to look at the history of the times.

From about the late 1500's to the late 1700s, bathing fell out of fashion as bathhouses gradually came to be seen as a place of self-indulgent sin where people lounged around engaging in lewd acts instead of praying and tithing like they should have been. Touching your body was seen as too sensual; dirt thus became proof of purity. Then of course you had the various plagues and germ-borne diseases that had previously ravaged much of Europe through the Dark Ages; though these plagues were, ironically, a result of unsanitary conditions, they were mistakenly believed to be caused by cleanliness instead. A protective barrier of grime was recommended to prevent 'bad air' from penetrating through the pores.

Photo credit:

Of course, people still wanted to look clean, and they were aided in this with such things as cosmetics, perfumes, and elaborate layers of clothes. The move away from wool clothing to linen clothing made it possible to effectively launder the clothes such that they looked clean, whereas the (wealthy) person underneath was absolutely foul by today's standards.

Right up until two hundred years ago, the general advice was still only to wash those parts of the body that were visible to the public - the face, hands, and neck. Without running water, and with the effort and fuel required to heat that water, it was only practical to make full-body cleansing an occasional rather than a regular activity.

In the modern era, we can't live without all-over clean

Fortunately for businesses like ours, things slowly began to change as baths became popular when doctors argued that cleanliness really does improve health conditions. Suddenly baths were in vogue again (of course, the advent of modern marketing had even more to do with it; body odour, bad breath, unwanted hair and all those things marketers cleverly convinced us were turn-offs, suddenly had to be addressed). Even though bath tubs were still more basin-sized than those we are used to, and most people didn't have running water, at least more people were washing, right?

The rest is history. Today, we are a culture obsessed with clean, where daily washing of some kind is usually to be expected.

There is, however, a backlash: the proliferation of anti-bacterial soaps and the obsession with being squeaky-clean and sanitized, has led some to feel that we bathe too much and are too clean. Personally, I can't live without my daily shower (or weekly pampering spa bath) and just try to use the most natural possible products so I don't kill my skin from all that washing, but sometimes, I wonder if these days as a society, we really are 'too clean'. What do you think?

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