Terms of Use

Topic Options
#274155 - Tue Aug 09 2005 03:53 PM Hygiene in 18th Century France
vendome Offline

Registered: Sun May 21 2000
Posts: 1778
Loc: Body: PA USA Heart: Paris   
“The more a ram smells, the more the goat loves him.” - translation of a proverb from the French regime

(posted by Versailles1017 – 2/o3/05
(re-formatted by ax71489 – 2/03/05)

No roll-on anti-perspirant, no dandruff shampoo, no pads/tampons, no toothpaste nor toothbrush….. how did people function without what are considered (in the USA anyway) life necessities?

What a horrible thought…. the beautifully gowned and coiffed Marie Antoinette with head lice and b.o. I don’t know about the head lice, but chances are she did have b.o. that would bring tears to your eyes.

Attempts were made to deal with such problems, usually without much success. Compounding the problem were long-held beliefs that were untrue. One such belief was that water was not only bad for you, but could be lethal if one exposed their body to it.

Let’s look at some of the problems, the attempts to remedy them, and the beliefs that left vermin at Versailles, foul odors at Fontainebleau, cologne at St. Cloud and no tampons at Trianon.

Most historians agree that the 17th and 18th centuries were among the worst periods in terms of physical hygiene. Although hot baths and public baths of the Middle Ages still existed, the French regime sounded the death knell for this tradition. The French regime was a period of extreme modesty and, as a result, nudity was frowned upon. It was for this reason that people when washing did not disrobe. Into the 18th century, filth was considered beneficial thus causing people to wash even less. Medical theory of the time was that germs (then called miasmas) floated about in the air and entered the body though the skin, contaminating it. Water (particularly hot water) was harmful since it opened the pores of the skin, making the individual more vulnerable to disease. It is said that Louis XVI took one bath in his life; on his wedding day. Because of the limited use of water for bathing, soap did not make a major inroad in French culture until the late 1700s. In 1791, Nicholas Leblanc, a French chemist, patented a process for making sodium carbonate from common salt. Sodium carbonate is the alkali that combines with fat to form soap. In the 1700s, cleanliness and hygiene were sought in white linen. Because of this, until the end of the 18th century, most people bathed ‘dry’ or, in other words, using as little water as possible as a cleaning agent. Linen absorbed perspiration, sebum [skin oil], and purified the body, and hence became a sign of the wearer’s sophistication and cleanliness. (This is why Antoinette was so concerned about the lack of linen in the NARRATIVE OF ROSALIE LAMORLIERE).

Therapeutic values were attributed to dirtiness. For example, urine soaked diapers were just dried before using them again; they were not washed. Urine was used as a beauty product to treat acne, among other things. People avoided washing their hair since scalp oil was considered excellent for shiny, healthy hair. As a result, most people had head lice. If you could manage to endure the stench of a person, his house would finish you off. Chances are you would smell several chamber pots. Separate toilet rooms draining to a cesspool weren’t common until the 19th century. Courtiers have written that Versailles had a particular stench; since it was a long distance between chamber pots, one relieved oneself in a corner, any corner.

For the nobility, cleanliness was attempted through the use of cosmetics: perfume and cologne to chase away bad odors, powder to dry greasy hair, etc. Artificial means, predominately wigs, were used to provide the appearance of cleanliness. Fragrances were used in great quantity and containers for them were an important part of early toilet sets. Most scents were heavy and sweet and were kept in glass or crystal bottles with glass stoppers ornamented with silver, gold and other metals.

An increased awareness of the benefits of hygiene in the later 18th century brought a change of attitude toward an unpleasant aspect of life that had been accepted for generations---the prevalence of lice, bedbugs and fleas. Bedbugs were a particularly common nuisance even in royal palaces. Marie Antoinette introduced an innovative remedy when, in the late 1770s, she ordered beds of polished iron from the royal locksmith Courbin. Since the bugs could not nest in the iron bed frames as they could in wooden ones, the royal children were protected from bites. Iron beds then became the standard in hospitals, homes and dormitories.

The peasants, on the other hand, settled for changing the shirt they used as their underclothing a few times a month and washing the parts of their body not covered by clothing (face, neck, hands, arms) quickly with cold water.

Everyone had poor dental hygiene. Since there were no toothbrushes, people settled for rubbing their gums and teeth with a cloth. They would then scrape the remains of food from their teeth with toothpicks.

Make-up can cover a variety of flaws. Dry perfumes and powders were in abundance from the time of Louis XIV, when saffron and flower pollen were used to make faces colorful. In the 18th century, men and women alike went to great lengths in order to make themselves appear almost unnatural. Besides whitening their faces, they used blue coloring to touch up their blue vein lines. Black silk beauty spots were initially used to conceal blemishes and smallpox scars and sometimes reached astonishing sizes and had significance associated with their placement.

Other methods of flaw concealment involved using make-up with a lead- or mercury base that would penetrate the skin and leave dark, permanent lines or blemishes. Yet the French found a way around this problem; they would melt down bee’s wax and rub it over the affected spots, then cover the spots with make-up. One had to steer clear of the fireplace, or the face would literally melt.

The use of cosmetics, particularly the use of rouge, became a class indicator. Good girls didn't; bad girls did. Prostitutes placed rouge on their lips and cheeks to mimic the effects of sexual arousal. (It is well known that the body undergoes a natural flush during arousal—the skin glows, the lips engorge with blood. Red lipstick and pink face powder imitated these natural effects.)

. Obviously, some of the more unusual practices regarding hygiene left one susceptible to illness and in need of health care. At the top of the list were respiratory diseases and weather-related problems such as chilblains caused by the cold of winter. These were followed by dysentery and intestinal worms, generally caused by poor water quality. The small rivers in the cities were used as open sewers and, in the country, the manure pile was often found close to the well. For peasants, the strain and difficulty of their daily work often led to back pain, hernias and rheumatism. Finally, mange, toothaches, abscesses and cancer as well as venereal diseases
rounded out a bleak health forecast.

People used various ‘home remedies’ to treat most problems since most could not afford the services of a doctor or surgeon. All too often the intervention of a doctor or a surgeon made the situation worse since, at the time, most treatments involved bleeding, enemas or purging. The ‘home remedies’ were generally gentler since most were based on plants. Unfortunately, some ‘home remedies’ were based more on superstition and witchcraft than on actual cures. For example, maple syrup, urine and sheep excrement was used to cure coughing; lead grains removed corns, and crushed lice treated jaundice.

Finally, if all treatment failed, divine intercession remained the last recourse. Thus people were encouraged to pray to St. Lucy for help with eye problems, or to St. Blaise for throat problems. Each saint was attributed with the ability to heal one or more diseases. The belief that diseases were a form of divine punishment encouraged these practices.
I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.
Yogi Berra

#274156 - Tue Aug 09 2005 05:38 PM Re: Hygiene in 18th Century France
ktstew Offline
Forum Champion

Registered: Tue Jan 18 2005
Posts: 8717
Loc: Arkansas USA
" Highly entertaining!" - Roger Ebert

"We're talking mini series here, long as we don't all lose our heads in over - producing the revolution scenes !" - Max. Robespierre

Edited by ktstew (Tue Aug 09 2005 09:33 PM)

#274157 - Sun Aug 21 2005 09:17 PM Re: Hygiene in 18th Century France
Paula Offline

Registered: Sun Aug 21 2005
Posts: 43
Loc: NYC
Vendome, I've read articles about those elaborate wigs they all wore, and there were literally WORMS and MAGGOTS crawling around inside when they finally removed them. Also read a quote by Napoleon to Josephine: "Coming home soon. Don't bathe!"


#274158 - Thu Jan 12 2006 10:31 AM Re: Hygiene in 18th Century France
OnimisiB Offline

Registered: Wed Dec 03 2003
Posts: 86
Loc: Abuja Nigeria
I wouldn't risk travelling back in time to 18th century france!

#274159 - Fri Jan 13 2006 08:22 AM Re: Hygiene in 18th Century France
DakotaNorth Offline
Forum Champion

Registered: Tue Jul 10 2001
Posts: 6168
Loc: Philadelphia Pennsylvania USA
The 18th century had bathtubs (not like we have now...I mean inside the home and all), and they had soap. People probably did get a bath at least once a month or once a week.

And even if they didn't have a bathtub or soap, if people lived near a lake or a pond and had saponan (? spelling) flowers, that when crushed, would froth up and could be used as soap, they could keep themselves clean.

While women didn't have tampons and pads for their menstrual cycle, there were different ways to handle it. Leather straps, padding of some sort, folded cloths, etc., were more likely used.

While they didn't have deodorant, they did have perfumes. They beat their clothes to get the dirt and dust out.

While they didn't have toothpaste and toothbrushes, there were different ways to keep your teeth clean. There are certain tree branches or flowers, that if rubbed against your teeth, helped to clean them and also freshen your breath.

So, while they didn't have today's standard of hygiene, they did have some kind of hygiene.
“In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.”

#274160 - Fri Jan 13 2006 08:47 AM Re: Hygiene in 18th Century France
OnimisiB Offline

Registered: Wed Dec 03 2003
Posts: 86
Loc: Abuja Nigeria
Well, they never had to pay water & electricity bills! I wouldn't be an expensive guest to accomodate. When improvisations become everyday necessities, it becomes hard to imagine life without them.


Moderator:  bloomsby