Hygiene in Keats's Day

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Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby BrokenLyre » Sat Dec 26, 2009 3:15 am

After watching the 1971 musical "A Christmas Carol" with Albert Finney yesterday, I was wondering about the state of hygiene in Keats' day - circa 1819. Does anyone have knowledge about this? I wonder:

- How often did English people take baths?
- How often did they wash up at all?
- How did they control the body odor? Perfume I guess. Just masked it over??
- What kind of soaps did they have?
- How often did they clean or wash their hair?
- How prevalent was the lice problem in London?
- What cleansing agents were used for clothes? For body?

It made me wonder about the possibility that "dear Junkets" may have had serious body odor (sorry ladies to pop your romantic notion of Keats :) ) but I was just wondering. Did everybody just smell bad so nobody cared? Maybe our British friends on this Forum could enlighten me.

Not a serious topic, I suppose. I'm just asking about real conditions "back then."
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Malia » Sat Dec 26, 2009 4:16 pm

Hey BrokenLyre :) Good questions all! I can answer a few of them. From what I've read (in a very cool book called "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist--the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England"), people in the early 19th c. generally only washed their face, hands/arms and feet on a regular basis. Boiling water for baths was a pain that kept most middle-class and lower-class people from bathing regularly. Wealthier people with more servants tended to bathe more regularly. Most people didn't start taking regular (once a week) baths until the middle of the century.

Though this doesn't have to do directly with bathing, it is my understanding that women--especially in larger cities like London--would carry with them a handkerchief scented with lavender and other perfumes that they could bring discretely up to their noses if they happened to be downwind of anything (person or otherwise) that smelled rank.

According to my book, soap in the early 19th c. was made from tallow. Most poor people avoided using soap (because the tallow could be used for better purposes such as candle-making) and instead beat their clothes against rocks at the river until they were clean. Soap that wasn't handmade was also a taxable item, so it might have been used sparingly among the middle class.

I don't know how much effort was put into hygiene in an effort to stave off lice--as, at that time, I'm not sure people knew that lice spread disease. (I'd have to look that one up--as I'm just venturing a guess here.)

I expect that Keats didn't smell like roses--especially if he had bad teeth (which seems to have been, according to some authors, what caused his chronic tonsilitis). But he would have been only one among the many. I'm reminded of the BBC Miniseries of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. The actor who played Mr. Collins seems a perfect representative of the hygiene of that era. His hair is oily (as if he only washed it once a month) and he's always sweating. . .I can imagine the BO that emanated from him!
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Saturn » Sat Dec 26, 2009 5:26 pm

Sticking up for the British, I don't think any of those bathing habits were any different on your side of the pond in the 19th century: the same technological standard existed there, on the cusp of the industrial revolution's full flourish. I think most people in general throughout the western world had appalling hygiene until well into the 20th century before the advent of aerosols, personal cosmetics and indoor plumbing and showers and hot running water.

Daily hygiene routines are a relatively recent phenomenon, I think most people throughout human history before the 20th century would smell awful to our modern noses. :mrgreen:
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Malia » Sat Dec 26, 2009 6:27 pm

Oh I am sure people in America smelled as "pungent" as they did in England, Saturn--especially as there were so many more striking out on the Frontier. I expect finding food and shelter was more important to frontiersmen than was showering on a regular basis. I do expect that, as in England, the wealthier Americans living in developed areas bathed regularly.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby BrokenLyre » Sat Dec 26, 2009 10:57 pm

Thanks Malia & Saturn :D . I certainly did not mean to imply that the British had worse hygiene than Americans back then. (Reading my post over now, I can see how it can be taken that way). I just thought people in Britain today might know more about their own specific history of hygiene than I know of English hygiene in 1820; which I assumed would actually be more advanced than early America due to the rugged nature of pioneering (as Malia pointed out), and the lack of European goods by the way.

Thanks Malia for the name of your book you mentioned. That sounds like a fascinating read which can give me the sense of life in 1820 London. I can probably pick it up on eBay, like everything else.

Life before 1945 was actually quite rough when you think about it. And yes, modern hygiene (in advanced countries) is remarkably different than in all previous eras. I've been to India, Sri Lanka, Mexico and England - and the differences are astounding. That's partly what made me think about this issue.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Raphael » Tue Dec 29, 2009 5:46 pm

After watching the 1971 musical "A Christmas Carol" with Albert Finney yesterday, I was wondering about the state of hygiene in Keats' day - circa 1819. Does anyone have knowledge about this? Maybe our British friends on this Forum could enlighten me.




Well as I am British may I add to this subject? :D I’ve been wondering the same things and had a discussion with a guy who works in a Regency house here ( he was on my art gallery training programme) and he thought people back then would have been very unfragrant ( to put it delicately).


How often did English people take baths?


I think that as today, that would vary upon individual to individual. They had hip baths then which were smaller could be filled and put in front of a fire. And there were wash jugs and stands to wash with. We had bathrooms from the middle of the Victorian period- before that one washed/bathed in one's bedroom. Of course I'm not including the poor in this discussion- just people of the middle- upper classes- the poor would have been very dirty.
They might not have bathed every day, but had a wash every day and a bath once a week- that’s how I grew up SHOCK HORROR! In the 70’s/80’s- my parents were poor and couldn’t afford to put on the hot water tank every night so we had to boil a kettle on the stove and take it up and wash in the bathroom. Bath night was Friday or Saturday. Now- I shower in the morning AND evening!! I’m mad for it now lol


How did they control the body door? Perfume I guess. Just masked it over?



Talc, herbs and perfumes probably. I don't use anti perspirant myself- SHOCK HORROR! I cannot - it makes me itch, so I use either a rock crystal one and at the moment a handmade one from a local lady- it is made of rock crystals liquidised with essential oils. It works. It doesn’t stop the wetness but neutralises odour.


What kind of soaps did they have? - How often did they clean or wash their hair?



Soap is very easy to make- I am an eco person and dislike modern chemical things and know a lady who makes soaps ( and the deodorant I got)- you use coconut oils, vegetable oils, beeswax, add essential oils, shea butter flower petals etc etc- there are many recipes. Soap making goes back thousands of years. I use a soap bar on my hair. It cleans it well. In fact I have met people who only use water on their hair and it is perfectly clean. From looking at Junkets’s locks of hair it looks like his hair was washed fairly regularly- it looks so beautiful and shiny, not greasy or mucky.


How prevalent was the lice problem in London?



That I don’t know- I know it was a problem in the Middle Ages. But many natural herbs kill lice, dirt and germs. I’m a real proponent of natural cosmetics!


What cleansing agents were used for clothes? For body?




It was always soap and some herbal products such as lavender, horse chestnut leaves make a lather, lemons whiten, vinegar is a disinfectant as is Eucalyptus and Lavender. Natural products do the job just as well and in some cases better. For dishes- lemon and salt probably. With some soap. I use mostly these things- I have washed clothes using soap nuts, and use natural cleaners in the home.


It made me wonder about the possibility that "dear Junkets" may have had serious body odor (sorry ladies to pop your romantic notion of Keats ) but I was just wondering.



Well….I’m trying not to idealise him here…nor go the other way and think of him as being unclean either..( by modern standards that is..) but- he does make refs in one of his letters to washing, brushing his hair and putting a clean shirt on and liking how good he feels, he refers a few times to bathing in rivers and the sea ( and is put out when his health means he cannot) so it seems he must have washed fairly regularly. He also makes references in his letters to a Scots lady who is "not clean" in her smell, and another Scot, a man- i forget the exact comment - I'll look it up. so he must have had a certain standard of hygeine. With no anti perspirant back then he must have (sorry John…) smelled of sweat at times, but he couldn’t help that could he? But that isn’t so bad when its fresh.


Did everybody just smell bad so nobody cared?



That’s what the guy on the art gallery programme thought- but I argued otherwise for the higher classes.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Raphael » Tue Dec 29, 2009 5:47 pm

Malia wrote:Hey BrokenLyre :)
I expect that Keats didn't smell like roses--especially if he had bad teeth (which seems to have been, according to some authors, what caused his chronic tonsilitis).


They had toothbrushes and tooth powders then. :D
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Raphael » Wed Dec 30, 2009 3:52 pm

I was getting logged out of the library yesterday so didn't have the chance to reply fully- so I typed this up on a disc at home and here it is.

I had a look through the letters book and here are some refs he makes to cleanliness/washing: (typed on home PC last night and uploaded via a disc in the library today)

From letters to Tom during the Scottish tour June/July 1818:


“All felt, on arising into the cold air, that same elevation which a cold bath gives one.”


I think he is making reference to the sea/river bathings he did. Rather him than me though- lucky us with running hot water! What a luxury Junkets would have found that! I bet he would have loved hot showers!


“The barefooted Girls look very much in keeping. I mean with the scenery about them. Brown praises their cleanliness and appearance of comfort, the neatness of their cottages, etc. It may be.”


Of the Scots he says- “They never laugh, but they are always comparatively neat and clean.”

This one although I feel sorry for him, makes me chuckle- “Now we had eaten nothing but Eggs all day, about ten apiece and they had become sickening.”


Would you have wanted to share a room with those two that night? :wink:


Of an inn he says- “The table I am writing on surprises me as being a nice flapped mahogany one; at the same time the place has no water closet nor anything like it.”


In case you didn’t know a water closet would have been a small room with either a chamber pot or earth toilet. There would have been some kind of hole/pipe leading down into the ground for the wastes. In middle class and upper class houses they had some kind of room/cupboard (in another letter John amusingly refers to the Pot in the Cupboard being full at a party he is at * see below) - but the poor probably just used a pot and threw the wastes into a pit in the garden/yard/woods/street (depending upon where they lived).

The house I live in (made into rooms we call bedsits here, where you get a bedroom and sitting room combined and a kitchenette and share a bathroom on each floor) is from around 1860/70. I think it might have had a bathroom and flushing toilet when it was built but interestingly one bedsit on my floor is such a small room in comparison to the others that I wonder if at first it had had just a water closet. I’d like to see where the ones in Keats House would have been.

He goes on to say-“The old Grandmother of the house seems intelligent, though not over clean.” Though he doesn’t mean to disparage her, he is being descriptive in his honest way, and he goes on to say she makes him some snuff!

To G and G Keats in Sept 1819 he writes:

“Whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt, brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoelaces neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out. Then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write. This I find the greatest relief.”

I cannot find right now the ref he makes to not being well enough to bathe in the sea in one of the letters; though I think he made refs to sea bathing in a few of them (the Grant edition is large- I’ve read it all through once and I’ve been going through it again before I take it back to the library). It seems this was an activity he greatly enjoyed…but naughty me for wondering…what did he wear to do it in?? if anything at all….

So he notices people’s hygiene, which leads me to surmise that he must have had a certain standard regarding himself (when he was able to do so- during his travels that might have been more difficult of course). If he noticed this in others he would hardly be the type to be lax over himself.

He strikes me as being someone who tried to keep clean ( and he wrote he liked feeling clean)- being middle class he probably had a hip bath at his disposal which would have been filled with hot water, and he would have owned a bar of soap, owned a hair brush and probably a toothbrush and some tooth powder. Tooth powders were made of ground up minerals, bicarbonate of soda and perhaps flavoured with herbs and mint. He would have had a razor too of course, as we can see from his portraits that he was clean shaven.

One thing, I’ve noticed from my own experience (when I stopped using anti perspirants as they started giving me a very sore rash) and found the rock crystal deodorant (which deodorises the bacteria but doesn’t stop the wetness) - when it failed to work (which it oddly does more so in the winter than the summer) is that you notice that sweating isn’t often consistent- some days one sweats more than others despite doing the same things! And on a day that one hasn’t exerted oneself much at all and in cold weather there is hardly any sweating going on at all ( unless one is in a hot room in a big great coat! ). Personally, I don’t think anti perspirants are good for the body. Unpleasant though we find it, sweating is natural and lets out toxins. So, I love my herbal deodorant. It’s a roll on made with crystal salts, aloe vera, vitamin E, witch hazel, chamomile, glycerine, lavender and cedarwood. It is free of aluminium, parabens and alcohol. It smells very very nice! It was quite costly- just under £7.00, but it’s all organic and made by a lovely lady who lives local. Excuse my rodomontade.

Junkets wouldn’t have had that of course; he probably used talcum powder if he used anything at all. In those days, women used talcum powder; I’m not sure about men though- maybe the Dandys did. Maybe Junkets would have seen that as a bit Dandyish who knows?! Maybe he had special cologne for when he went walking on the Heath with Fanny! He must have been clean enough for those times for them to have spent so much time kissing and petting (by the evidence of his letters it seems they kissed a lot)! I doubt he had rotten teeth- probably not sparkling white- few people have naturally pure white teeth, but nice enough teeth to make him kissable and have a nice smile. :D


Personal hygiene from earlier centuries is a subject that often people discuss here, those who like history I mean…we wonder if people didn’t notice the smell etc. Well noses being noses, I think of course they did. As I posted earlier, I mostly use natural hygiene and cleaning products- I mean soaps, deodorants, perfumes (essential oils), laundry items etc. I have found since using them (which is about 4 years now) I cannot bear the smell of disinfectants, chemical cleaners, synthetic perfumes and anti perspirants, soap powder (how sick that makes me feel!)- I find going past them on shop aisles very unpleasant. My sense of smell is stronger since I stopped using them. Again, sorry for the rodomontade! So, having only natural items at their disposal the people from times past must I assume also have had a proper sense of smell. But it was probably something one had to live with. There are references left by people in the past to the horrible smells of the streets, the Thames etc so they obviously didn’t like it! Queen Elizabeth I was said to be very offended by body odour and demanded people who were in her court to bathe frequently. From my reading of history books I get the impression people were a bit cleaner in the nineteenth century (in general) than earlier times.


We had a very interesting documentary on TV made here a few years ago in which a family had to live in an Edwardian house exactly as those times, with only the clothes and things available to them. However, they used bicarbonate and salt to brush their teeth and not the tooth powders they had then and the lady of the house complained that soap didn’t clean her hair properly. It was true in that whichever soap they had didn’t work well, for her hair got very lank and greasy. (She eventually cheated and went out and bought shampoo!)

But soap making is variable and there are many different recipes for it- the shampoo soap bar I have (from the same lady who made my deodorant) is brilliant. In the Edwardian experiment the lady of the house said coal dust got everywhere and it was hard to get it out of her hair. The boiler they had to heat the bath water never got hot enough. I think it was the fault of the design and them not knowing how to use it; they had problems with the range for cooking and the fires too. She said people didn’t smell bad as such, they just smelled differently (when they couldn’t get the bath water hot they boiled the kettle and washed from a bowl). She said the clothes smelt rather then the people themselves, as they were hard to wash using soap and salts. I cannot remember exactly what they used to wash the clothes- it was some kind of soap, with some kind of salts- like soda crystals. I remember them having a bit metal urn type thing and pushing the laundry around in it with a big wooden stick.

Although part of me wouldn’t mind living in the Regency period, I do like my modern comforts such as washing machines, gas fires, electricity, computers and CD players! Having said that though, I was living in another place a few years ago and we had a local power cut! So for 4 hours there was no electricity. So I had no heating or light (even the central heating wouldn’t work despite being gas because it had an electric pilot light). So I ate sandwiches for dinner, couldn’t make coffee (the cooker was electric too), no music, no TV. I didn’t miss the TV at all- in fact I got rid of TV awhile later after that. I always have tea lites in (the little round candles that you can put on a plate) so I lit loads. One of the other tenants came to sit with me and we had a laugh over it all and posed theories as to what had happened to the electricity. In the end I went out to a phone box and rang my mum- she had heard about it on the radio and said it’d be back on later. She lives miles away and wasn’t affected. I do like candle light though. At night I only have one lamp on by my bed, a lava lamp on the floor and the rest are tea lights. It’s a softer relaxing light- and yes I can read by it! I’m reading John’s poems and letters by mostly candle light!

Gosh, I went on there…hope that was of interest to you Broken Lyre! I almost rivalled Junkets for letter length there….

*“On proceeding to the Pot in the Cupboard it soon became full, on which the Court door was opened. Frank Floodgate bawls out, Hoolloo! Here’s an opposition pot. Ay, says Rice, in one you have a Yard for your pot and in the other a pot for your Yard.”

(To George and Tom, 5 Jan 1818)

Yard is a slang term for a certain part of a gentleman’s anatomy it says in the Grant edition! I’m not sure I get Rice’s joke.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby BrokenLyre » Thu Dec 31, 2009 7:52 am

Wow. Talk about getting information! Thanks Raphael for the detailed thoughts. I have a better sense of Keats's hygiene and yes, I was aware of his concern for cleanliness. Just not sure what that meant. All in all, Keats seems to have been concerned with his own dress and cleanliness. I appreciated your research and the quotes you found. Quite nice. Thanks for the effort - I know it takes time to research and I have little to no times these days. Your answer did give me some needed context to appreciate life in 1819.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Raphael » Thu Dec 31, 2009 3:43 pm

Wow. Talk about getting information! Thanks Raphael for the detailed thoughts. I have a better sense of Keats's hygiene and yes, I was aware of his concern for cleanliness. Just not sure what that meant. All in all, Keats seems to have been concerned with his own dress and cleanliness.



What can I say- I'm a history geek! I think he did the best he could with the things available to him at the time. I think if we went back in time to meet him we would find his company pleasant! I'm sure he'd be kissable to a modern lady.. :D
Even today people can still whiff of sweat- in fact where I live I encounter someone like this virtually every day. ( I'm not being sexist but it usually is a man, sorry guys...).


I appreciated your research and the quotes you found. Quite nice. Thanks for the effort - I know it takes time to research and I have little to no times these days. Your answer did give me some needed context to appreciate life in 1819.


I liked doing it- it's a subject that interests me- cosmetics, personal care, clothes etc in the past.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Malia » Fri Jan 01, 2010 4:11 pm

Raphael wrote:
Malia wrote:Hey BrokenLyre :)
I expect that Keats didn't smell like roses--especially if he had bad teeth (which seems to have been, according to some authors, what caused his chronic tonsilitis).


They had toothbrushes and tooth powders then. :D


Yes, but how many people actually used them? I can't imagine that many middle-class and poor people did at that time. Later in the century, I could see it spreading to the masses--but I have a feeling Keats didn't really practice good oral hygiene. Just a feeling, mind you! :lol:
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Raphael » Sat Jan 02, 2010 3:27 pm

[quote="Malia Yes, but how many people actually used them? I can't imagine that many middle-class and poor people did at that time. Later in the century, I could see it spreading to the masses--but I have a feeling Keats didn't really practice good oral hygiene. Just a feeling, mind you! :lol:[/quote]

The fact that there were many recipes for tooth powders and brushes made leads me to think why bother if they were not going to be used?

http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2 ... cy-period/


People would have wanted a clean mouth as much as they do today. I think you are wrong that he wasn't into oral hygiene- for someone who loved kissing as much as he did it makes sense that he wouldn't have had a mouthful of black teeth and rotten breath! And it seems Fanny enjoyed his kisses..and they kissed a lot which she couldn't have done otherwise... He also wrote about things tastting nice, so I think he was aware of these things much more than you think... :D One can keep the mouth fresh and clean with natural products, such as the toothpowders they had then, herbs, fresh mint, parsley, lemon etc. I think he could have tasted quite sweet with all the claret and fruits he liked... :D

Not all Brits have black teeth you know... :wink:
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Malia » Sat Jan 02, 2010 4:08 pm

I wasn't trying to make a comment about British teeth, believe me. I'm sure in America at the same time, our teeth were wretched. I mean, look at George Washington who had no teeth at all for much of his adulthood. My idea that Keats had bad teeth comes from his biographers and indeed his own letters--when he speaks of having toothache and constant trouble with his throat. I expect he had at least one rotten tooth that contributed to infection in his tonsils, causing chronic sore throat. I expect this was due--in part--to relatively poor oral hygiene. This is not to say that I think Keats disliked having fresh breath or clean teeth, by no means! Just that I doubt he was in the habit of brushing his teeth regularly with tooth powders. Or cleaning his teeth in the way we in the 21st C. are accustomed to.
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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Raphael » Sat Jan 02, 2010 4:26 pm

My idea that Keats had bad teeth comes from his biographers and indeed his own letters--when he speaks of having toothache and constant trouble with his throat. I expect he had at least one rotten tooth that contributed to infection in his tonsils, causing chronic sore throat.



One toothache doesn't mean rotten teeth though- I have had toothache many times and none of my teeth are rotten. :wink: And it's only in one letter he wrote about having toothache.I think he would have written about it more if he had persistent teeth problems.I don't think his teeth had anything to do with his tonsilitis/sore throat- I think that was due to being infected by Tom myself.


I expect this was due--in part--to relatively poor oral hygiene. This is not to say that I think Keats disliked having fresh breath or clean teeth, by no means! Just that I doubt he was in the habit of brushing his teeth regularly with tooth powders. Or cleaning his teeth in the way we in the 21st C. are accustomed to.



Oh I have to disagree with you there...for someone who liked kissing so much I bet he did brush his teeth every day...
Have you read the link on the tooth powders?
Not everyone was as dirty as modern people might think back then... :wink:


On a slightly different topic..I wonder what underwear and nightwear he would have had back then?
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what it is we are in what we make of you.

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Re: Hygiene in Keats's Day

Postby Malia » Sat Jan 02, 2010 4:47 pm

Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the oral hygiene issue :)

I don't believe anyone wore underwear in the early 19th c. (not regularly, anyway). Bloomers--the first real underwear for women--did not come into play until later in the century when hoop skirts came into vogue. Women mostly only wore shifts and corsets--no panties back then. I assume men didn't wear briefs, either ;)
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