When did personal hygiene become important?



Ad Honorem
Apr 2008
Even as recently as the 1960s and 70s, people only washed their hair once or twice a week. If someone's hair was greasy, it wasn't really noticed but altogether accepted. So, I suppose hygiene is all relative;
This is true on two counts. In cold countries hot water wasn't common unitl the 70's so washing a rare thing in winter due to cold. In the Uk people right up to the 70's bathed only once per week.

When I grew up in the UK in the 70's we had no bathroom but an outside toilet. We strip washed at the kitchen sink once per week. At thirteen in the seventies in a hotel in Majorca I had my first ever bath in a tub.

30 years a later I shower every morning and if have a tought day at work have a extremely hot bath when I get home.

Secondly when the first Europeans arrived in India, the Moguls refused to speak with them because to the bathing perfuming Moguls they smelt too disgusting.
Both India and China had cleaniliness traditions that strtched back millinia.

In the late 19th century, courted by the French, British, Germans, Americans and Russians. Japan chose the British, in documents at the time they quote one reason they liked the Victorians was beacause of all the candidates only the British maintained addiquate enough personal hygene not to disgust the Japanese..
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Likes: royal744
Jul 2007
Mass sanitation systems like running water and sewers are quite old, with examples being found as far back as Minoa and the cities of the Indus civilization. Bernal Diaz, with some amazement, reports that the citizens of Tenochtitlan were using overhead showers (which he had never seen before) daily, and the quarters of the nobility featured some system of running water for drinking. And of course, we are all familiar with Rome's famous sewer and water systems, which even featured hot running water.

Some form of sewer system and often running water were features of most really large cities in human history, probably a prerequisite for cities of any size. In the tiny cities of medieval and early modern Europe, however, public sanitation systems were unknown and there was no running water or sewage systems until the 19th century. Before that, commoners bathed in freshwater bodies (rarely) and the wealthy would have tubs or baths that would be hand-filled by servants.

As a concept, Westerners did not really have much notion of hygiene before the miasma theory of disease became popular in the mid-1800s. Of course, with their low population and cool climate, they probably nonetheless experienced less disease than contemporaries in places like China and India.

Was this purely pertaining to washing of the hands? What about brushing thy teeth? Bathing? I mean if people truly rarely bathed then why would you even want to get close to a beautiful girl back in the day? She would probably stink... that is a horrible thought. I would think they would have some hygiene!
Life was rough ... people just dealt with it. I don't know how, either. Commoners in Saxon England were wearing coarse, scratchy wool underwear right next to their privates, how they ever got the urge with that kind of discomfort, not to mention the smell, beggars the imagination. I would say that they took a purely utilitarian view of the act, in order to produce offspring, but apparently they did not - there are heaps of raunchy, limerick-style poeticisms from the period. Highly graphical, innuendo-filled verses about butter churning and such.

I guess we are just spoiled, and they didn't know any different.
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Historum Emeritas
Jul 2006
Another interesting fact: during the medieval period people would share a bath as it took a lot of effort to draw water from the well and heat it. Later the bath water would be re-used for washing dishes.

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
Damned England
There's not really a simple answer to this one.

This depends on what culture we're talking about, but lets assume we mean Europe:

It is curious, because although most people weren't very clean, nevertheless, they appreciated cleanliness in others: Chaucer would mention this, along with good table manners, (the Nun in the "Canterbury Tales" prologue was praised for her table manners, and not dribbling wine or gravy when she ate), whilst monastic houses laid great store by the washing of hands and face. In the Tudor period, Elizabeth I was praised for having a bath once a month, "whether she need it or not".

Erasmus was an early pioneer of good cleanliness, and he recognised the health benefits of this, however, most of society found it too much trouble, and in any case, bacteria and viruses etc were unknown: disease more deemed more likely to to be the cause of curses, God, or an imbalance of "humours", which owes more to astrology than medical science.

The British habit of May weddings stems from the "hiring fairs", which was when labourers etc would attend hiring fairs to try and attract new employers: they'd have a bath or good wash, and try to make themselves as presentable as possible: they almost certainly smell better, so what better time to marry? Both man and woman would be at their cleanest. Which shows that although cleanliness was not always possible, nevertheless, it was at least what some aspired to and admired in others.

This is perhaps exemplified by a socialite in 18th century England, (can't remember his name, sorry), who was at a high society party when the ladies complained that the lice were jumping from his hair onto theirs: he remarked, "fear not, ladies, for I have enough to stock a parish". Which just shows that whilst the women found his lack of hygiene repellent, he was not at all perturbed.

The greatest contribution to personal hygiene was the mass production and availability of cotton clothes. Light, airy, easy to wash and cheap (compared to woollen, leather, silk or linen etc), cotton was revolutionary. It allowed people to own more clothes, and hence to wash and change them clothes. The discovery and treatment of bacteria and viruses, and their common link with bad hygiene, came later.

I'd like to point out that whilst dental hygiene was not quite as it is today, nevertheless, the "black toothed" representation so beloved by modern documentary makers of the middle ages until the 20th century are inaccurate: sugar, the main villain for dental decay, was rare in ordinary people's diets, whilst coarse bread contained a fair bit of grit, hence actual wear was more common than rot in teeth.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2007
Erasmus was an early pioneer of good cleanliness, and he recognised the health benefits of this, however, most of society found it too much trouble
Well, also there was religious division over the issue of cleanliness (just as there was over the question of ornamentation - was it better to have a plain church and a plain wooden cross, or would lots of jewels and fancy stonework glory God more?)

Erasmus represents one viewpoint, but there were others, particularly in the early medieval period, who viewed bathing as debauchery, part of the culture of "monstrous sensuality" that the early Christians associated with Classical civilization. Generally the same group that held poverty in high regard.
Nov 2010
We've had these debates before and some quite sensible people just wont believe how unclean people were at times. In Tudor times of course they used perfume sprays to mask the smell. Meanwhile over in Spain, in the post muslim-morisco hysteria washing was seen as a clear sign of sometbody practising 'muslim practices'. Then there's the whole Versaille thing. Thousands of people and not a toilet in the place

Dickensian London - don't even go there.

It's all about perceptions and what people get used to. When I was a kid in the 60s standards were slightly slower than now - no auto washing machines, you might wear the same shirt a couple of days. Wouldn't even dream of it now. Used to upset my dad by demanding the immersion for a bath every night - he thought I was odd. Mum still does -'dont know when people got thie idea you need to shower every day' - her and my grandparents had something horrific called an 'all over wash'. Me I have s hower or bath at least once a day, two or three if ai get sweaty.

People in the past would think we were insane.


Forum Staff
Feb 2009
Eastern PA
In the context of Senior Citizens personal hygiene becomes even more important.
Here's an article as to why 'Personal Hygiene Care for the Elderly: Tips for the Caregiver'

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