On hygiene

Cleanliness is next Godliness

The Victorian middle and upper echelons had much pride in their dress but what hygiene. Queen Victoria when ascending the throne in 1837 found not a single bathroom in Buckingham Palace.

She apparently bathed in her bedroom with a portable tub but how often has been a much asked question…probably daily though as recommended at the time.

The bath-room should be arranged according to the pecuniary resources at one’s disposal; but here, as everywhere else, one should do one’s best. The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Baroness Staffe, trans. Lady Colin Campbell, 1893 – Part I

Of course hygiene is a huge consumer product now with multitude of soaps, cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, toothbrushes, combs, hair brushes, shower gels, deodorants, anti-perspirants, scrubs both normal and now organic, hair dyes and a billion other products at our disposal…such choice! Of course our Victorian fore bares had a choice be it somewhat limited in comparison with to ours, but dress and hygiene was as important in the Victorian era as it is in the modern era.

In the early Victorian period you generally caught an illness as a matter of inherited susceptibility, a very basic idea of genes of running in the family and of course ‘individual intemperance’ or your own lifestyle, the way you lived your life and where you lived.

Sometimes these were deemed productive of ‘noxious exhalations’ and bearing in mind here that London must’ve have been appalling without any sewage system bar the river and no environmental concerns. Of course we know that many diseases are water or airborne but this was sadly yet to be not generally accepted.

The causes of fever included injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold. Cholera, shortly to be epidemic in many British cities, was said to be caused by rancid or putrid food, by ‘cold fruits’ such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage. Buchan’s Domestic Medicine 1848


Well some treatments relied heavily on a change of air, to Brighton maybe or Worthing together with vomiting and diachronic purges, even bleeding by leech (this thankfully disappeared around the 1850’s) these apparently cleared ‘impurities’ from the body. Along with this, a few medicines and prayer were the only alternatives and it was not just the poorer classes it effected. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort contracted Typhoid in December 1861 died. Typhoid is caused by drinking either dirty water or milk, or eating dirty food. The usual cause of typhoid was allowing drinking water to be polluted by sewage. Another big killer disease of the mid-nineteenth century was Cholera an imported disease (probably from China in the 1830’s).

So with the example of poor hygiene what was the level of personal hygiene and grooming?

So lets start with the mouth…

The brushing of the teeth preventing your teeth from falling out and of course breath that would curdle milk?

The first toothpaste were in the form of powder, which you mixed with water. A dentist called Peabody was the first to add soap as an ingredient to toothpaste, in 1824, it must’ve tasted disgusting!

John Harris added chalk in 1850 and The first commercialised toothpaste in a jar was produced by Colgate (a name we still know and love) in 1873. If you fancy making you own here’s a recipe I came across:

2 oz cuttlefish 
1oz cream of tartar
15 drops clover oil
(from Farmers Almanac 1850)

So most Victorians cleaning your teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste or powder was a luxury but as a luxury it was gritty and tasted of tartar and fish.

Many people cleaned their teeth with salt because it was abrasive and toothbrushes were bristle in wood.

Poor people were offered advice to either regularly eat brown bread because they thought that the flakes in it would clean their teeth or to chew on a piece of tough celery so that the fibres would get between the teeth and clean them… how very helpful!

So breath must’ve been pretty farty or funky in the Victorian Era but I guess it really came down to what you ate and drank:

Lord Thurlow meets a gentleman with bad breath. The latter man says he has been out for a stroll to get some fresh air. He adds that it was an unpleasant walk, “as I had a damned north wind full in my face all the time.” Thurlow responds that he doesn’t need to complain, since “the north wind had the worst of it.” 1838 volume titled Scottish Jests and Anecdotes.

and now the body

Well deodorants or antiperspirants didn’t exist as such so it would’ve been natural remedies.

Lemon juice was used and is an apparently a great deodorant. The citric acid with its low pH breaks down the cell membranes of the bacteria and dries up excess oil although some people can be really sensitive to it especially after they have shaved under the arms…ouch!

It can be mixed with baking soda to make more of a ‘powdery’ texture which is easier to apply and dries quicker – the baking soda absorbs excess sweat or you can water down juice which has been strained through a cheesecloth and put it in a spray bottle to spray directly under arms.

Make sure the juice is completely dry before you put on your clothes as it may stain clothing or alter the color of the dye when it is subsequently washed.

You can substitute Lemon for Vinegar if you really wish too. I think I’d stick with soap.




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