Posted by Caroline on July 11, 1997 at 00:15:01:
What I know about keeping clean.
I'm going to start by asking you to use your imagination a little. If you were a traveller, writing home, or filling a diary of all the wonders you have seen, what is the chance of you recording the run of the mill, boring occurrences and not the unusual ,mindboggling ones?If you were on a trip through Europe, would you fill your diary with things like, "I brushed my teeth and combed my hair this morning" or would you fill it with "Wow! Saw this amazing sight today! It was......."My point is, that people don't usually write home about things that are so usual that it would turn off the reader. Washing and personal cleanliness is something we take for granted, and probably wouldn't write about, unless we found ourselves in situationswhere we, or other people were a) much dirtier than we were used to, or b)much cleaner than we were used to. Am right? So when I read comments in 19th century letters, about cleanliness or otherwise, I take notice.
Now, another excercise in imagination. Suppose you were, say , camping, or in a third world country, a place where there was no running water, and you knew you were going to be there for the rest of your life. Would you not try to rig up some kind of washing facility? Would you deliberately stop trying to keep clean? Would you allow yourself to get covered in mud and stay that way? Probably not. If you stepped in a pile of Rhino droppings, would you not try to clean yourself up? Of course you would. Anyone would. It's not a matter of germs, it's a matter of comfort. People like to keep themselves clean. Even ten year old boys, who are notorious for being allergic to soap, still enjoy getting wet. Washing is a pleasant activity, and every human being in the world does it, whatever their technological state, and wherever they live. They may not have a bath or shower every day, but they do wash. All those portraits hanging in museums are of clean people, not dirty ones. If they never noticed dirt, why is their linen so white, their hair so shiny?And why did they spend all that time and effort, and money on laundry, if they themselves were never clean? How would they keep clean if it was too difficult to run a bath? My guess is that they would strip-wash- using a bowl of water and a sponge (yes, they did have sponges)and wipe themselves all over. Not quite as satisfying as a good soak in the tub, but just as effective, as any Army Sargeant will inform you.Am I right?
So when you put these two suppositions together, and then come across a statement in a book like this one below, certain thoughts spring to mind.
It's from a book called "Fabric of Society" by J. Tozer and S. Levitt.
Many foreign travellers noticed the charm and picturesque appearance of the red cloak, and the
cleanliness of countrywomen's linen
What sprang into my mind when I read this was "Were they so exceptionally clean that it was worth noting, then? Were they So much cleaner than what the traveller was used to?" I began to look for other instances of cleanliness as being something to write home about. I found a quote from a traveller in the early 1800's which said something about how it was the custom to wash a house from top to bottom,inside and out, every Saturday. Wash, mind you , not sweep. Outside, as well as in. Right this second, I'm not sure where that came from, but I'll keep looking. But if people took such care over their clothes, house, etc, would you expect them to be less pernickety about their own bodies?
What did they use to keep clean? Well, soap. The simplest form of soap is made with hot fat and wood ash. It's grey, gooey, and pretty revolting, but it is easy to make, and surprisingly effective at cleaning humans and their clothes. Try it out, next time you are roasting bear meat over an open fire. An even simpler cleaner is Lye. That's wood ash and water. Not very elegant,but it works, even cleans clothes. (Other things clean clothes , too, but we are talking about humans here and I'm trying to stick to the point.)
By the end of the 18th century, "Hard" soap had been invented and was manufactured in sufficient quatities as to be fairly cheap. The Austen family recipes include concoctions for cleaning and healing that include soft soap and Castile soap as ingredients. My little dandy that I mentioned in the post about fake tans has a big bar of Palm soap on his dresser.They were importing sponges, too
There are not many contemporary accounts in my experience(but I am not an expert) that complain of British houses of the time being flearidden, or full of other diseases caused by lack of cleanliness.I presume this is because either fleas were such a regular occurrence as to be not worth writing home about, or because there weren't too many occurrences of the little beasties. There were, however, some remedies listed which may have been used to deal with the situation. We have been talking about perfume as a method of disguising body odours. Rita has pointed out that many of the "essences" used in perfumes have healing properties, or antiseptic tendancies, and are far more useful than mere smell-coverers. I found this interesting recipe in a book given me by a friend. It's from an old family book, dated 1775, a family heirloom, and written by hand, not printed. I have never tried making it up(but just might have a go some day-these days it would be hard to get all the ingredients together at the same time)
Take Rue, Wormwood,Sage, the tops of Lavender,Mint, and Rosemary,of each a handful.Put these with a gallon of best vinegar into a stone pan covered over with paste (i.e. sealed)......and let them stand within the warmth of a fire to infuse eight days.Then strain them off,and to every great quartput three quarters oz.of Camphire. Let the Camphire be dissolved in spirits of Wine(i.e homemade brandy) before it is put in.Rub the temples and the loins with this preparation before going out in the morning,wash the mouth and snuff up some of it into the nostrils, and carry a piece of spunge that has been dipped in it, in order to smell it pretty often.
Any herballist or aromatherapist could tell you that Lavender, mint, and rosemary are strong-smelling.Wormwood is an antiseptic and an insecticide, also an emmenagogue (regulates and alleviates "women's troubles". Rue is an emmenagogue and an anti-inflammatory. Sage is antiseptic, an emmenagogue,cicatrizing (heals scars) Lavender is an antiseptic and cicatrizing,also insecticidal. Mint is antiseptic. Rosemary is antiseptic and soothing. I presume "Camphire" is the modern camphor, an antiseptic, pest repellant and a component of many modern "rubs" like Vick's , Bengay, and Tiger Balm. Many of these ingredients are actually antispasmodics, also, i.e, they alleviate cramps and spasms.
What do you think it was for? It comes with no other instructions. If I made it up, it would certainly be aromatic, but was it meant as a cleanser, a comforter for monthly cramps, a treatment for infestations or what?? I'd love to know what you think of it!!!!!And I must warn you, in case you get tempted, that some of these herbs, taken in large doses, can be toxic.
I have also got three different recipes for tooth powder from the period, too.But this post is long enough already.
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