Frequent hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is recommended by health experts to help prevent exposure to COVID-19. That is exactly what many people do these days. But while washing hands and bathing signifies personal hygiene in our time, it was not always the case.
Louis XIV of France, for example, is said to have taken only two baths in his adult lifetime — both times recommended by his doctors. The king had headaches, and his doctors thought bathing would help cure the condition. It did not, and he never bathed again.
The hygiene rituals of Louis XIV and other historical figures are recounted in the new book “The Clean Body: A Modern History” by Peter Ward. The history professor emeritus at the University of British Colombia explores the transformation of body care habits in the West over the past four centuries.
Cleanliness now and then
According to Ward, Louis XIV was not unique in his body care habits.
In the 1700s, most people in the upper class seldom, if ever, bathed. They occasionally washed their faces and hands, and kept themselves “clean” by changing the white linens under their clothing.
“The idea about cleanliness focused on their clothing, especially the clothes worn next to the skin,” Ward said. “The common view was that the white linen garments they wore below their outer clothes absorbed the body’s impurities, cleaning the skin in the process.”
Starched white collars and cuffs from the inner layer often extended beyond the outer clothes, signifying the cleanliness of the body underneath. They also implied the social superiority of those who wore such clothes, because most people in western societies lacked the wealth to dress this way.
Gradually, the concept of cleanliness changed, beginning with the upper class, and spreading to the emerging middle class.
“By the close of the 18th century, bathing was gaining acceptance among the wealthy as a new form of personal care. In upper-class circles everywhere, men and women began to see a new value in being clean, and bathing as a new pathway to cleanliness,” Ward explained.
What changed in the 19th century?
In the 19th century, body care became something people thought distinguished them from the lower classes. By the middle of the century, periodic bathing had become common.
Advancements in industry, plumbing, architecture and science helped spread the practice of bathing and hand-washing.
“The manufacturing of new bathing equipment and the appearance of the bathroom in the homes of the wealthy, and then over the course of about a century, down to the mass housing,” according to Ward.
The manufacture and promotion of soap played a huge role in promoting cleanliness as a desirable, appealing lifestyle. Clean bodies and hands came to represent social inclusion. In the late-19th century, people began to realize the relationship between cleanliness and good health.
Wash your hands
In the 1880s, French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered the link between microbes and the transmission of diseases.
“Pasteur’s ideas had profoundly influenced western medical thinking,” Ward said. “They had also permeated the public health movement, which became the most energetic promoter of clean hands for the masses. I suspect that washing hands was common in most western countries by the 1920s and 1930s, though generally speaking, the personal cleanliness ‘revolution’ came later in rural than in urban environments. And in those countries where rural ways persisted longer, hand-washing and other cleansing routines were adopted more slowly.”
These days, as frequent hand-washing has become a widespread practice against the spread of COVID-19, Ward hopes people will develop new personal hygiene practices.
But he is not optimistic.
History shows that people tend to care less about washing their hands once the pandemic ends, Ward said.