Sunday, 19 April 2015
The Stand-Up Wash: Keeping Clean in Victorian Britain
When is a bar of soap like a joint of beef?
Answer: When they cost the same.
Money for Old Soap
In Victorian England, a four-ounce bar of soap cost roughly the same as a joint of meat. For poorer households, faced with a choice between cleanliness or eating, naturally they looked for other ways to keep clean.
Indeed, since Victorian soap worked best with hot water (it didn’t dissolve or lather well in cold water), this involved additional time, money, and effort, to bring coppers of water to the boil. So all in all, washing with soap and water was not a realistic daily habit for many people.
Stand and Deliver
This doesn’t mean people neglected their personal hygiene. Full immersion baths were a rarity but most peoples’ daily routine started with a stand-up wash. For most this was done in the bedroom, although some female servants may have done their ablutions at the kitchen sink – made more conducive by the heat from the range.
A washstand was a standard piece of furniture in many Victorian bedrooms. On it stood a jug of cold water, a bowl, and a clean rage. The person washed first thing in the morning, immediately after rising. Most bedrooms were cold, chilly places, especially as the sash windows were kept open at the top and bottom (regardless of weather) to allow good ventilation and reduce the risk of illness. This meant in winter most people kept their nightclothes and worked on one part of their body at a time.
The art of a stand-up wash was to pour water into the bowl. The soaked flannel was then rubbed on each part of the body, and rinsed. Once the water became too soiled it was discarded into the slop bucket and more water poured into the bowl. Working methodically, all of the body was cleaned, with each part being scrubbed and dried before moving onto the next bit.
In more affluent households, a servant rose before the rest of the house. She boiled a kettle, to provide hot water for her employers’ morning ablutions. Washing regularly was a Victorian phenomenon since previous to this it was believed that the skin’s pores allowed entry to disease. Since washing opened the pores, this made the activity potentially foolhardy for those wishing to keep well. Part of the change of attitude came about because the Victorians believed that oxygen passed into the body through the pores, and so clearing away dirt aided this process.
Before the advent of anti-perspirants the armpits of garments could be ruined by perspiration. To combat this, ladies who wished to protect expensive gowns used dress-protectors. These were small detachable pads which fitted into the armpit. These could then be removed and washed separately, having done their job of shielding expensive fabrics from sweat.
And finally, one home remedy to reduce the unpleasant odour associated with sweaty armpits was a wipe over with vinegar. In theory this might help kill the bacteria that created the worst smells – but the trade of was that it left you smelling like a fish and chip shop.