Soap, Optional (and What Is Shampoo?): The Sometimes-Surprising Bathing Habits of Americans in the Past

Basin and pitcher. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leland S. Hanson, 2003

We’ve all seen the period films (or heard the spiel in historic houses) that depict cozy fireside baths in a tub filled with warm water by an obliging servant. But is that the whole story? And how did people’s bathing habits and attitudes really differ from those of today?

Mary Cassatt. The Bath (The Tub), 1891. Color drypoint, soft ground etching, and aquatint. Library of Congress

Personal cleanliness was increasingly important in the 19th century and is frequently discussed in period guides to health, beauty, etiquette, and domestic economy. Of course, not everyone read these books—which were mostly written for the middle and upper-middle classes—and not all people followed the rules. But, in any case, the 19th century was unquestionably an age with new standards of hygiene. In The Habits of Good Society (1865), the author derisively describes the previous century: “Our great-grandmothers were not rigid in points of personal cleanliness. . . . There were those amongst them who boasted that they . . . had only passed a cambric handkerchief over the delicate brow and cheeks, wetted with elderflower water or rose water.”

Nineteenth-century advice books pay close attention to the skin as an organ of the human body, and readers are constantly reminded that removing oil, perspiration, and dirt is a key to good health. Some writers even describe unclean skin as downright dangerous. “The insensible perspiration, or animal effluvia, when it . . . is fixed and concentrated upon the skin, becomes an energetic poison, and acts upon the system as such,” warns Mrs. Farrar in The Young Lady’s Friend (1849), “. . . hence the danger to the health from want of cleanliness.”

What is missing in these early assessments of cleanliness? Germs. But the work of Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and other scientists would revolutionize microbiology by the end of the 19th century, which allowed the importance of hygiene to become better understood. (Even then, some people challenged “germ theory,” calling it a “craze” and a “fad.”)

Cleanliness was not just about health. We have all heard the maxim “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” from a sermon by the great English cleric John Wesley (1703–1791), and this precept was often reinforced in 19th-century Christian teachings. Just as cleanliness was linked to religion, it was also associated with moral purity. “Neither physical or moral beauty can exist without cleanliness, which indicates self-respect, and is the root of many virtues, especially those of purity, modesty, delicacy, and decency,” declares Julia M. Dewey in Lessons on Morals, a guide for schools published in 1899.

Chemise, 1830s; Shirt, 1870s; Drawers, 1860–68. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “A frequent change of linen is another essential of cleanliness. It avails little to wash the body if we inclose [sic] it the next minute in soiled garments. It is not in the power of every one to wear fine and elegant clothes, but we can all, under ordinary circumstances, afford clean shirts, drawers, and stockings.” (How to Behave, New York, 1857)

Then as now, social norms and propriety were also reasons for good hygiene. “Those who aspire to be gentlemen and ladies” must be clean in “person and dress,” writes Alexander M. Gow in Good Morals and Gentle Manners for Schools and Families (1873). And, needless to say, unpleasant smells from a lack of bathing as well as the use of strong fragrances must be avoided. “True politeness would suggest that we shall not be perfumed with cologne or musk, onions or tobacco, the odors of the hen-house or the barn.”

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, 1885. Charcoal and pastel on light green wove paper, now discolored to warm gray, laid down on silk bolting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. In The Lady’s Annual Register for 1838, Caroline Gilman discusses how to bathe: “You may have a shallow vessel like a large baking pan, if you choose, to stand in.”

How did people clean their bodies in the past? Sponge baths were a common choice. These could occur in a portable tub, such as the type consisting “of a large flat metal basin, some four feet in diameter.” (The Habits of Good Society) “A large coarse sponge. . . and a few Turkish towels” complete the necessary supplies. But not everyone had—or used—a tub. In 1849, Mrs. Farrar advised: “If you cannot command the use of a tub or a tin wash-pan, the whole surface of your body may be gone over with one large wash-bowl full of water, and by practice you will become so expert as not to make any slop on the carpet.”

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Woman Bathing, ca. 1891. Drypoint, aquatint, and soft-ground etching in color. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of William Emerson and The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund,

“For persons of really robust constitutions, a cold shower-bath may be recommended,” writes Sarah Annie Frost in Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869). But what exactly was a “shower-bath”? An article published in 1879, “Benefits of the Shower Bath,” provides a description: “A bucket of cold water (or tepid if the shock is too great) poured over the head, is the simplest form of shower bath, and as good as any. But it is not the most convenient.” However, manufactured shower-baths were available. “We happen to have a handsome one . . . made of polished walnut, with gilded weights, and the inside lined with zinc at the bottom.”

Shower-bath. Illustration from An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes, London, 1844 (American edition, 1848). “The water is forced up into a cistern, a, with a perforated bottom by a syringe, b, and the bather, by pulling a string, opens a valve, which causes the water to descend suddenly in a shower on his head and body through the perforated bottom. . . . The whole is made of tin-plate painted, one of the upright supports being hollow to allow the ascent of the water.” Shower-baths were believed to be therapeutic and were sometimes suggested for people in ill health. (Alternatively, an extreme version was used as a punishment in prisons.)
Plunge bath, 1840–80. National Museum of American History, Gift of Kenneth E. Jewett. The plunge bath, like the shower-bath, was an immersive bathing experience. This one is made of tin, which was a common material for bath tubs.

Warm or cold? Everyone in the 19th century, it seems, had an opinion on the best water temperature for bathing. The New American Cyclopaedia (1863) is one of many sources that promotes washing in cold water for people with a “vigorous constitution.” “The effects of the cold bath, where it agrees, are tonic and bracing; it stimulates the skin, improves the appetite, and renders the circulation more active and vigorous. It hardens the system . . . against the liability to take cold.” As for warm baths, the Cyclopaedia cautions that “its frequent use tends to . . . debilitate.” Not everyone agreed, including Mrs. Farrar, who says the opposite: “Warm bathing is highly useful to the health, and if properly indulged in, has no debilitating effect.” She does, however, recommend cold baths for certain people under the right circumstances. “By washing a small part of the person at a time, rubbing it well, and then covering up what is done, the whole may be washed in cold water, even in winter time, and a glow may be produced after it in a young and healthy person.” Cold baths were seen as invigorating, but warm baths—in addition to being soothing—were deemed the best way to get clean.

Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1757–1827). Salt Water and Fresh Water, March 25, 1800. Published by Rudolph Ackermann, London (active 1794–1829). Hand-colored etching and aquatint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959. This satirical print depicts two kinds of bathing. At the top, a woman enters the sea from a bathing machine. Salt-water bathing was seen as refreshing and invigorating, as well as excellent for the health. In the bottom scene, a woman pours heated water over a man in a tub while another one scrubs him with a flesh brush. A decanter and wine glass on the floor remind us of what some people saw as the “debilitating” effects of the warm bath. At any rate, both bathers struggle with their gleeful attendants.

Friction was a vital part of the cleansing process because it can remove dead skin. In the 19th century, this meant exfoliation with sponges and the vigorous use of towels and brushes. In The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility (1856), Emily Thornhill says to “let the body be thoroughly dried with a soft towel, and rubbed with a soft flesh brush, or gently with horsehair gloves; the latter, at first, will not be very pleasant, but in a short time becomes a luxury.” Mrs. Walker describes the flesh brush in Female Beauty (1840): “This is a brush with long silky hairs sufficiently soft not to hurt the skin, and at the same time sufficiently elastic to remove all those little scaly pellicles which the water has raised.” In Health at Home (1875), Dr. W. W. Hall says that “friction should not be spared.” Bathers should lay “the towel flat on the hand, keeping the mouth closed, then rub with a will nearly as hard as the hand can press.” Popular choices were Turkish towels—made of cotton with a looped pile—and huckabacks—a woven linen and/or cotton towel with a textured surface.

Advertisement for a “sitting bath,” “improved bathing pan,” and other articles sold by Waterman’s Kitchen Furnishing Rooms in Boston. Sketch of the Lives of Taylor and Fillmore [1848?]. “All the essentials of a well appointed kitchen will be found at this establishment,” the ad promises. Along with broilers, refrigerators, and kitchen gadgets, this store offers bathing items that “far surpass all others for daily ablution.”

Was the use of soap optional? For a long time, it was. But, why? Soap—which people used for laundry and household cleaning—was harsh on skin. In 1828, Dr. Richard Reese warned in his medical guide: “Some practitioners have attributed a variety of inflammatory and irritative diseases of the skin to the use of soap, with its caustic alcali.” Over fifty years later, Dr. H. Newell Martin of Johns Hopkins University still had the same view, writing in The Human Body (1884): “Nearly all soaps contain so much potash or soda that lathers made from them are really weak ‘lye.’ . . . Probably as many skin-diseases have been caused by too free use of soap, as by uncleanliness.” And even when milder toilet soap was available for use on the skin, plain water was usually considered just fine for bathing. If people did lather up, they often preferred “white soap”—which the New Family Encyclopedia (1833) tells us was made of “olive oil and soda, or with tallow and soda.” Ladies and gentlemen could also indulge in toilet soap perfumed with fragrant essences such as rose, bergamot, cloves, vanilla, and musk. By mid-century, bath soap was on the rise, and in 1849, Mrs. Farrar reassuringly wrote: “Some persons avoid the use of soap as pernicious to the skin; but good white soap, in moderate quantity, and with soft water, can never do any harm to a healthy skin.” In 1876, The Popular Health Almanac further reflects evolving opinions on soap and hygiene: “In washing and bathing, if for no other than sanitary reasons, the use of soap cannot be too much recommended.”

Advertisements from the 1890s for Cuticura and Ivory show that bar soaps were sometimes used for washing the hair.

Washing the hair with soap (or what we call “shampoo”) was not a common practice until the late 19th century. In fact, “shampoo” used to have nothing to do with clean hair. The outdated definition is “massage,” and in 1867, Webster’s dictionary still defined it as such: “To rub and percuss the whole surface of the body . . . in connection with the hot bath.” By 1875, however, Webster had expanded the meaning to include washing the head with soap. So how did people clean their hair and scalp? For ladies, it involved a great deal of brushing, and the secret, according to Sarah Annie Frost in 1869, was “a clean hair-brush.” “Brush the hair carefully both at night and morning,” she says. “Let it be occasionally cleansed with yolk of egg beaten up, or a mixture of glycerine [sic] and lime-juice.” Indeed, eggs were commonly recommended for cleaning the hair. Nevertheless, frequent hair washing was not advised, even late in the century. “Too frequent shampooing of the hair is detrimental,” Godey’s cautions in 1896. Except in very warm weather, the hair should not be washed “thoroughly more than once a month; a sponge, wet in tepid water, rubbed on the scalp every morning, will be sufficient to keep it clean.”

Bath Room Interior. Illustration from Catalogue “G”: Illustrating the Plumbing and Sanitary Department of the J. L. Mott Iron Works, New York, 1888. This “very artistically designed Bath Room” from 1888 features luxurious state-of-the art plumbing fixtures and fine wood cabinetry.

How often did people bathe? Many experts agreed that some form of daily bathing was imperative. In 1851, J. Bradford Sax was adamant on the subject in The Organic Laws: “We now presume the necessity of daily washing or bathing the whole surface of the body, in order to remove the waste material . . . daily deposited thereon. . . . Soap should be used occasionally. . . . Some go for months and years without ever washing more than their hands and face. No terms are strong enough properly to reprobate the filthy practice. I would almost as soon go to the breakfast table without washing my face, as I would without my morning bath. . . . Strange that civilized beings can neglect it!”

Interior of a Swimming Bath. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, August 20, 1870. In the summer of 1870, new “swimming baths” opened for the poor in New York City. This one, “at the foot of Charles Street . . . contains 68 rooms, the water is four and a half feet deep, and 200 bathers can be accommodated at one time. . . . Such institutions are not only beneficial to the poor, who are unable to leave the hot and sweltering city during the summer, but to the whole community, as all are equally interested in preserving the health of our population.” About a month earlier, on July 1, 1870, the New York Herald published “The Washed Democracy.” “The first public baths established in this city were opened yesterday . . . at the foot of Fifth street, East river, and at the foot of Thirteenth street,” promising “prospects of metropolitan cleanliness.”
Anthony Imbert (1794 or 1795–1834), lithographer. Facade of Arcade Bath, New York City, 1830s. Library of Congress. The Arcade Bath, which offered warm, cold, shower, and vapor baths in marble and tin tubs, was a lavish bathing facility for well-to-do New Yorkers at 39 Chambers Street. In 1836, an advertisement in Longworth’s City Directory announced: “This establishment has recently undergone a thorough improvement.” “The whole arrangement of the Bath is tasteful, rich, and convenient, and is said to bear a favorable comparison with the best establishments of the kind in Europe. . . . The interior gives about 80 rooms for bathing, and connected with the ladies’ bathing-apartments (which are entirely distinct from those for gentlemen) is a neatly furnished parlor for their accommodation.”

Finally, where did people bathe? Ablutions were often performed in the privacy of bedchambers, which were furnished with a washstand, basin, and pitcher and could also accommodate a portable tub. “Where two or three occupy the same room, without any dressing-room, or closet, large enough to wash in, it is impossible for the toilet to be properly made,” Mrs. Farrar writes. In that case, she proposes options such as bathing “when the eyes of younger sisters are closed in sleep.” Occasionally, baths took place in the kitchen, where water could be easily heated and tubs might be stored. And let’s not forget that indoor plumbing and modern bathrooms made bathing easy for the lucky few, especially in the second half of the 19th century. Public baths were also an option.

Today, a stroll through the personal-care aisles of a big-box store shows just how much times have changed. Soap and shampoo? Yes, please!

Margaret Highland, Historian

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2 Responses to Soap, Optional (and What Is Shampoo?): The Sometimes-Surprising Bathing Habits of Americans in the Past

  1. Pingback: An Elaborate Pile of Comfort: Making the Bed in the Days of Horsehair, Straw, and Feathers | mansion musings

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