Saturday, May 07, 2011

Hygiene and cleanliness in 19th century France

I had the general idea that the level of cleanliness among the general populace was rather low in the middle ages and afterwards. But I always had the impression that this had improved by the Victorian age. Reckon I was mistaken. The following piece I quote from a post by Tim Carmody, and thanks to KC for putting the link to the post up in Reader. [This passage was taken from France Fin de Siecle, meaning "France, at the Turn of the Century". It is a book about art, culture, and literature in mid-to-late 19th-century France.]

If one considers the scarceness of water and of facilities for its evacuation, it is not surprising that washing was rare and bathing rarer. Clean linen long remained an exceptional luxury, even among the middle classes. Better-off buildings enjoyed a single pump or tap in the courtyard. Getting water above the ground floor was rare and costly; in Nevers it became available on upper floors in the 1930s. Those who enjoyed it sooner, as in Paris, fared little better.

Baths especially were reserved for those with enough servants to bring the tub and fill it, then carry away the tub and dirty water. Balzac had referred to the charm of rich young women when they came out of their bath. Manuals of civility suggest that this would take place once a month, and it seems that ladies who actually took the plunge might soak for hours: an 1867 painting by Alfred Stevens shows a plump young blonde in a camisole dreaming in her bathtub, equipped with book, flowers, bracelet, and a jeweled watch in the soap-dish. Symbols of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

In a public lecture course Vacher de Lapouge affirmed that in France most women die without having once taken a bath. The same could be said of men, except for those exposed to military service. No wonder pretty ladies carried posies: everyone smelled and, often, so did they.

Teeth were seldom brushed and often bad. Only a few people in the 1890s used toothpowder, and toothbrushes were rarer than watches. Dentists too were rare: largely an American import, and one of the few such things the French never complained about. Because dentists were few and expensive, one would find lots of caries, with their train of infections and stomach troubles, it is likely that most heroes and heroines of nineteenth-century fiction had bad breath, like their real-life models.

Carmody goes on to make the following comment: 'Yep. That's why we call them "the unwashed masses." '

To be quite fair, I was somewhat taken aback (read: shocked) at this. History never ceases to fascinate.

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