The concept of personal hygiene has always been associated with issues as diverse as health, morality and beauty. Maybe that's why the history of the toilette is full of surprising advances and retreats. Understanding how hygiene evolved gives us insights into humanity and our current personal care practices.
1. Cleanliness is (next to) godliness. The ancient Egyptians attached great importance to bathing — and also to natural body odours, which were accentuated with special perfumes for the genitals. The first bathtub on record dates from around 1700 BCE in Ancient Greece, while the invention of the steam bath is attributed to refined sybarites of the 8th century BCE. The fact that the word “hygiene” comes from the Greek goddess Hygeia is hardly surprising, as this goddess — of healing and cleansing — was especially popular during the plagues that devastated Athens in the 5th century BCE and Rome in the 3rd century BCE.
2. Water for everyone. The Romans, with their extensive network of aqueducts, took the association between bathing and health and wellness to extremes. In the Roman Empire of the 1st century, being clean meant regularly immersing oneself for a couple of hours in public baths, in water at different temperatures, scraping the body with small rakes and finally applying body oils.
3. Dirty body, clean soul. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the advance of Christianity, bathing came to be associated with sin and pagan customs. Care of the body led to neglect of the soul — to the point where even punishment of the body was viewed as a way of coming near to God. In her book The Dirt on Clean, Canadian journalist Katherine Ashenburg explains that St Benedict, in defining the rules of monastic life in the 6th century, established that only older monks would bathe. In European medieval monasteries, the norm was for monks to only bathe twice a year, on the eve of the most important holidays.
4. The end of bathing. Puritan attitudes to the body largely ended the custom of regular bathing in medieval Europe. It would take centuries — and a number of epidemics — before bathing made a comeback. Bathing was only fashionable among certain social groups, like knights who had returned from the Crusades in Arab lands, where hot baths were a well-established custom. Economic progress in Europe from the 17th century on hardly improved the situation — quite the reverse, as the growth of cities created filthy conditions that were a recipe for health disasters.
5. A horror of water! During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, physicians believed that water was dangerous. Ambroise Paré wrote as follows in Paris in 1568:
“It is advisable to banish baths, as we leave them with the flesh and the body softer and the pores open, and contaminated steam rapidly entering therein may lead to sudden death.”
Layers of dirt were even considered protection against bad air outdoors, even though it was precisely the lack of hygiene that facilitated contagion during epidemics.
6. The “dry” toilette. In his book Concepts of Cleanliness, the French historian Georges Vigarello explains how the body was viewed as a permeable entity that had to be protected from bad air with proper attire — and the tighter the better. It was also believed that clothes, especially white textiles, absorbed dirt from the body, so being “clean” consisted of changing one’s shirt — if one had the money, of course. Anything rather than immersion in water! In Paris in 1516, in the middle of an epidemic, people were warned:
“Stay away from steam and water baths or you will die!”
7. Appearances are misleading. Vigarello writes that cleansing the body in the 17th century was about “feeling clean” and “smelling nice”, and was, furthermore, what distinguished the rich from the poor. Wigs, perfumes and powders acted as “cleansers” and the elites felt “protected” against disease when they hid dirt and covered up bad smells.
8. Saved by water! In the 19th century water systems began to be implemented throughout Europe. After John Snow discovered the cause of cholera in London in the mid-1800s, and most especially after Louis Pasteur's research pointed to germs as responsible for disease, sewage and clean water systems became priorities in cities. Contrary to what had been believed for centuries, bathing was now promoted as protection against disease.
9. The toiletries industry. A hygiene industry began to develop, starting with soap. Already used in antiquity, soap returned as a mass-produced product, which facilitated its popularization. As Ashenburg explains in her book,
“soap and advertising developed together,”
first in newspapers and then on radio. The term “soap opera”, actually, reflects the fact that early US series were sponsored by soap manufacturers. Thus began a new era when the market became flooded with all kinds of personal care products.
10. From one extreme to another. The search for asepsis — absolute cleanliness — is perhaps the notion that best summarizes current personal hygiene habits. While hygiene is healthy, experts also warn that being too clean can also lead to allergies and disease. The body needs to some extent to be exposed to dirt so it can develop immunological resistance. We also live in a society where any artificial fragrance seems to be more desirable than our natural smells. Are we overdoing it?
(Pictures: 1. Greek vase (showers detail), 600 BCE, unknown artist, uploaded by Milartino. 2. Turkish bath or hammam in Cairo by Sari, 2011. 3. Jean-Baptiste Colbert by Villacerf, 1683, public domain. 4. Ivory Soap, advertisement restored by Adam Cuerden, public domain. All Wikimedia Commons.).