“In the beginning of the present century (19th), it was thought proper for a gentleman to change his undergarment three times a day, and the washing bill of a beau comprised seventy shirts, thirty cravats, and pocket handkerchiefs à discretion.” (The Habits of Good Society 1872)
This chapter has been of particular interest to me mostly because of the stories I’ve read about the poor hygiene in centuries past. However, when it came to the Regency and Victorian era, the upper class deemed it important as a sign of good character. Not only cleanliness was a duty for the sake of health and being agreeable to one’s neighbor, but it also went hand-in-hand with obeying the scriptures as a means of exemplifying purity. Poor personal habits by an individual who neglected his body was a sure sign of weak character.
The Victorians in 1872, however, thought Beau Brummell’s idea of taking two hours to dress was a bit ludicrous. However, if you dressed in ten minutes time, surely you’ve neglected the important matters of the toilet through your speedy actions.
The bath, recommended after waking in the morning, focused on the type one took. There were a variety of baths at varying temperatures. The most cleansing bath came from warm water of 96° to 100°. If you were filthy, 108° was better, as it expanded the pores, increased circulation, and did a better job. Then there was the cold bath of 60° to 70° that should be avoided by persons who cannot tolerate it and is extremely dangerous after eating. A tepid bath of 85° to 95° is the safest. Shower baths were frowned upon because they did not focus on the health of the individual. Then there is the sponge bath as the last means of cleansing that could adequately do the job if a regular bath was unavailable.
The next duty of the Victorian is to clean the teeth, as there is nothing so terrible as being near an individual with poor breath and black teeth – especially a woman. The usual recommendation of avoiding sweets and smoking were taught be dentists. The writer recommends hard bristle toothbrushes with tooth powder. A little water, with a good lather, will do the job. (I guess by this time, we’ve progressed beyond the twigs and chalk of the Regency era.) The mouth should be rinsed seven times with cold water, and one should brush several times a day. After all, a woman can tell when a man has been drinking and smoking, which was deemed offensive in the opposite sex. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how attractive the man appears — if he has foul breath it is unforgiving. At least now when you read historical romance in the Victorian era, you can be assured that the hero’s kiss upon the lips of the heroine didn’t include a mouthful of bad breath.
The advice continues with grooming for the nails, hair, beards, makeup, and other matters regarding the lady’s toilet. Stay tuned for the next installment of cleanliness in 1872.