Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Note on Hygiene

Now there have been rumors forever about how many baths Marie Antoinette took a year and the amount of powder used to cover unpleasant scents. That leads me to believe the 18th century had a reputation for being quite stinky! And the truth is...yeah, it kind of was. But the reason we know that is because contemporaries of the time would describe, in detail, how bad certain individuals smelled. I suppose that means, not everyone smelled bad! Yes there was glitz and glam, but that came with the use of a lot of glitter and what lay underneath could be quite repulsive.

Peoples of a Notorious Stink
  • John Wilkes complained that women's "nobler parts are never in this island washed...they are left to be lathered by men."
  • The stuffy Charles Geville said he only took the future Emma Hamilton as his live-in mistress because she was "the only woman he slept with without offending his senses."
  • The Prince of Wales only slept with his wife one time because he couldn't get past her smell and the "marks of filth on the fore and hide of her."
  • Most people would only occasionally wash their hands, feet, and or faces.
  • Prince Leopold was forced to take a bath before his wedding to Princess Charlotte because his hygiene was so bad.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft stated women had no regard for cleanliness.
  • Charles James Fox and the Duke of Norfolk were known to not change their clothing often. Especially personal linens.
  • Toothpicks were the only form of dental hygiene; breath was putrid due to decaying teeth and gums. Women tended to loose teeth after pregnancies due to calcium deficiencies.
  • Some countries smelled better than others. A French proverb was, "The more a ram smells, the more the goat loves him.
Temporary Solutions
  • Lice would be killed with mercury. Safe!
  • Pock-marks were covered up with white makeup, which was made out of lead. Hmm also safe!
  • Perfume, essences, oils, and powders would be used as deodorants.
  • Marie Antoinette supposedly introduced polished iron bed frames to Versailles in order to cut down on bed bugs which tended to enjoy wooden bed frames.
  • Black silk beauty marks were used to cover up blemishes and pock marks.


  1. Everytime I think of the XVIII siecle I use to remember the wonderful Gainsborough and Fragonard´s paintings. It´s a little bit hard to realize it was not so glamorous. A very funny post anyway :)

  2. Niceeee.:)
    I'm waiting on the 18th century european currency changing post.

  3. Gross! But true! The royal palaces were also dreadfully smelly..and to think they were terrified of water and the germs it could bring! Great post Heather!

  4. I love this image, but then I AM more of an Anglophile.

    "...they are left to be lathered by men." Hehehe! (Sometimes it all goes back to Middle School.)

    If what I read about Versailles is half true, it was just awful. (And it makes me think of an episode of LTEC where Saunders was trapped in her room for days because her maid was out of town. She was unable to eat, bathe and do other things without help. She couldn't even turn a doorknob!) I didn't know that about Marie and the bed frames. Her bathroom at Versailles is one of the loveliest rooms I've ever been in. So simple and restful and calming.

  5. I'm not familiar with this rumor, how many baths a year was Marie Antoinette said to take?

  6. It was hearsay (what I would hear) so it always varied...once a week, few times a year, etc etc.

  7. So that's what those fake "beauty marks" were for!

  8. We all remember Patrick Süskind's Perfume...

  9. ok, gap in knowledge... what is LTEC?

  10. LTEC (or Let Them Eat Cake)is a hilarious French and Saunders series set at Versailles. You'll love it! Sadly, there were only six (I think) episodes and they aren't available in the US. They were pulled from YouTube, but there are still clips posted, however. I recommend taking a look. I hope you enjoy!

  11. One gets a sense of the stink of days of yore when one goes camping. After two or three days of strenuous hiking and sleeping in a tent, no amount of face washing and hand washing will disguise the need for perfume and a long hot shower.

  12. That's a good point; especially because whilst camping you don't notice the stench as much bc your companions smell just as bad!