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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Soapmaker's Tales of Bathing - Historicaly Speaking

The Baths & Bathing - Historically Speaking

I know - you are asking what the History of Bathing has to do with "The Artful Life of Maria."  All aspects of cleaning everyday objects, dwellings, animals and persons finally make a connection to soap.  That is where I, the soapmaker, comes into the picture.  And to this artisan, the history of almost everything is worth researching.

Inside the Colosseum

Having just been to Rome I can begin with the ancient Roman Baths. The Romans were famous for their baths and brought them to Gaul and Britain.  Roman manors had smaller private baths while other Romans used the public baths where there was a fee. At the peak of popularity there were hot and cold baths for different purposes, thermal baths, space and exercise rooms where personal training may have been offered. Food, wine and entertainment where sometimes offered while patrons lounged.  It is suggested bathing also became a social activity and not one for hygiene.  During different periods men and women bathed together.  Christianity did change that factor.  Common folk had more difficulty as they had to carry water from the aqueducts. Basically daily they would wash their arms and legs which were usually exposed.  For feast days they would wash the entire body.

Hunting Mosiac
Roman Circus Mosiac
Sea Creature Mosiac
Outdoor Scene = Villa Romana
del Casale
Restoring a Mosiac


Another example of baths were Thermal Baths as the unearthed  Villa Romana del Casale.  The Villa Romana del Casale is a Roman villa built in the first quarter of the 4th century and located about 3 km outside the town of Piazza Armerina, Sicily, southern Italy. Containing the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world, it is one of 44 World Heritage Sites in Italy.
   These thermal baths follow the common scheme for roman baths. Starting from the entrance to the baths, where people could undress, there is the exercise room, the cold bath with a pool, the warm bath and at last the steam baths. At the very end of the complex are the ovens, that were used to heat the baths.
   The normal procedure in the thermal baths would be to undress, and enter the steam bath. After the steam bath one would enter the warm bath, to wash, anoint with oil and scrape off sweat, oil and dirt. Once clean one would enter the cold bath.
The success of the bathhouses was short lived as many plagues, epidemics and diseases were quickly spread by water throughout the population of Europe and England.

Historic Turkish Bath
 Not only Europeans, but also many other cultures had a passion for the many pleasures bathhouses offered them. The Turks developed very hot baths, which to this day are still known as Turkish Bath or steam baths.
Historic Japanese Bath
The London Plague, 1665
Provisions for bathing were scant because there was not enough simple plumbing to make household consumption available. When the plagues hit England in the early 1800's, so many people became ill or died that, an immediate investigation was made as to how to connect the average home with water. It was found that water was not the cause of the problem but part of the cure. England spent a lot of time and money researching this and soon became a leader in bathroom technology.

A fear of bathing still lingered from the ravages of the Plague in Medieval Europe. Unfortunately, the knowledge that fleas transported plague, not clean water, was not known, so getting clean meant sponging off, usually just face and hands. A few of the finer homes furnished bedrooms with chinaware washbasins. Servants supplied the water, heated in the kitchen or laundry, and laid out clean dresses for the ladies and fresh dress shirts for the gentlemen. Traditionally, a shirt concealed the sweat that often flowed beneath it the top garment, and kept it from staining the elegant silk, or velvet waistcoat, or the frock coat that went over it. If you were a wealthy man, or woman, you might have many changes of clothes.

In America's colonial days...
If a Gentleman or Lady insisted on a thorough scrub...The servants would fill a wooden tub with hot water. But it required very hard work. The tub had to be lugged from wherever it was stored, and then filled with water, hoisted from the well. First, the water had to be heated over a fire in the hearth. That done, the colonial Americans didn’t have towels, so something had to be found to use as a towel. Also, at the time soap had to be made and cured in the household. Of course there was a shortage of homemade soap. With all this fuss, a good, soaking bath was a luxury of only the well served, and few of them tackled the job more than a couple of times a year. Everyone knew that too much bathing would destroy your natural oils. 

In the 1830’s approximately 33% of the homes in London, England had indoor plumbing. Paris hesitated fearing that it would cause their houses to become damp. With the Civil War in the United States, came an awareness through the Sanitation Commission (a forerunner of the Red Cross), headed by Frederick L. Olmstead, who designed Central Park in New York, that washing people, scrubbing walls, and changing linens created less illnesses and reduced infections among patients. By the end of the 1800’s, soap advertising started to become big business.

The weekly Saturday night bath was common in Christian industrialized lands in the 19th and early 20th century. A half day's work on Saturday was the norm for factory workers allowing them some leisure to prepare for the Sunday day of rest. The half day off allowed time for the considerable labor of drawing, carrying, and heating water, filling the bath and then afterward emptying it.  Indoor plumbing became more common in the 20th century and commercial advertising campaigns pushing new bath products began to influence public ideas about cleanliness, promoting the idea of a daily shower or bath.

For centuries, Japan has been another culture known for its bathing customs and obsession about cleanliness. Spiritual pursuits of purity, hygiene and ritual purification were an important part of Japanese culture and bathing was done communally without regard for division of the sexes.

The Muslims also erected bathhouses where one could meditate, pray to the Creator, or think. It 
was the custom to cleanse at a public bath before going to the mosque to worship and many mosques were therefore conveniently erected in the same streets as the bathhouses.

As time passed by, various citizens began to protest against the sins of the bathers. The new Christian trend was to become grubby because cleanliness was considered to be too sensuous and sexual. Dirt was a symbol of one's spiritual purity and indicated that the focus was outside one's self, rather than on personal hygiene. Refusing to bathe was proof one was beyond such things and thus not egotistical or self absorbed.  Dirt was thought a protection from germs due to the numerous plagues that had killed a large population of England and Europe. They engages the smell of body odour was thought to be magnetic and a turn on. Powders, perfumes, wigs, cosmetics, and layers of clothes hid the grime and body scent. If overwhelmed by a particularly potent smell, a bit of snuff to clear one's nostrils was all that was needed.

 "The order of the bath"; Pears soap advertisement.
Soap reached a mass market with the new middle class obsession with cleanliness.


 The growing middle class used sought gentility and upper-class status. The gospel of hygiene then trickled down to the lower classes and immigrants in the late 1800s, when reformers taught them the rudiments of cleanliness in order to improve their health and assimilate them into the American way of life.

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, large cities across America undertook public works projects to build municipal water and sewer lines. These improvements in plumbing and sanitation necessitated that fixtures be attached to a maze of pipes. A separate room was now required to house these fixtures, making portable containers and accessories obsolete. As bathrooms were gradually added to homes, new innovations and inventions also offered a wide range of options, including pumping one's own shower.

The ritual of personal hygiene was now entrenched in the routine of American life. 

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Maria Liberto Bessette
blog writer
The Artful Life of Maria

Now for a relaxing hot bath, with heavenly scented soaps!