Readers in the Northern Hemisphere will be looking forward to warmer days, but here in the Southern Hemisphere, winter’s nipping at our heels. On a chillier-than-usual morning this week, I spent far longer in the shower than I should have. I did consider the electricity bill climbing as I enjoyed hot water splashing over my shoulders, but decided I could call my shower research, as I thought about bathing before we had hot water on tap. I could also call it therapy because the needles of hot water were doing wonders for my computer-cricked neck!
I lived in a rural area for 20-odd years, where we relied on rain for our water supply. At the end of most summers, we had to buy water in by the tank-load – and it wasn’t cheap. Not to mention the nine months or so I lived in a caravan near a forest where water had to be bucketed up from a nearby creek and carefully rationed. The water was heated on a small gas stove and we washed all over using a plastic basin set in the awning attached to the caravan. With those experiences behind me, I still see running water as a luxury and have never lost my appreciation for fresh, clean water arriving at the turn of a tap.
By the early 19th Century, bathing was on the cusp of change. Washing oneself all over regularly as opposed to once every few weeks (or months) gained credit not only for hygiene (a relatively new concept), but also as an activity that was beneficial for one’s health. I was surprised to discover quite sophisticated bathing apparatus had been invented by the early 1800s. The third Earl of Hardwicke enjoyed a plunge pool designed by Sir John Sloane, which held 2,199 gallons of water heated by a boiler in the basement. A Regency shower featured a pump that lifted water from a tank at the bottom of the structure to a basin at the top. The bather pulled a chain to pour water over her/himself.
Ladies and gentlemen of means during the Regency and before would have enjoyed bathing in water brought to them by servants. Their bath may have been scented with flowers, oils, perfumes or herbs. It sounds romantic, and perhaps it was for the bathers, but hard work for the people who had to lug all that water upstairs and then dispose of it when the bath was over. Poorer people were more likely to have washed in the kitchen and the water used by the whole family before being poured away – most likely directly into the street.
Artists throughout history have depicted bathers in both private, intimate surroundings and in public baths. The Impressionists often featured Eastern, harem and Turkish bath scenes, painted from imagination because men would not generally have been allowed access to Islamic women.
I’m afraid it’s just not possible to include all available information about bathing through the ages in this post but do explore some of the online links for greater insight.
I discovered soap-making a few years ago. I love whipping up a batch using lye (caustic soda), natural oils and essences but I’m certain it’s much easier for me than it was for people earlier in history. Soap-making has been around for a long time. The Babylonians were making soap with ashes mixed with fats way back around 2,800BC while the Phoenicians used goats tallow and wood ashes and soap was widely known in the Roman Empire.
By Victorian times, soap was being mass-produced, with bathing soap manufactured as a separate product from laundry soap. In today’s world, soap is made for a multitude of purposes including washing carpets, pets, cars, and children. I make it because it gives me pleasure and a rough-cut bar or two makes a special gift for friends or family. I use lavender oil for scent and haven’t experimented or veered from this recipe because it gives me a good result every time.
I’m not sure if this blog post turned out as I intended. I may have to explore this fascinating subject again before too long!