At the 2018 Spring Meeting on June 2 at the UCLA Faculty Center, JASNA Southwest members Jan Fahey and Terry Ryan gave enlightening presentations on bathing, hygiene, housekeeping and home remedies on the topic “Spring Cleaning at Chawton.”
The event attracted a capacity crowd to the UCLA Faculty Center and concluded with a workshop led by Terry Ryan in which attendees made Captain Austen’s recipe for Milk of Roses lotion, which participants were able to take home.
Jan Fahey’s talk, “Clean and Decent: A History of Bathing and Hygiene,” provided a fascinating overview spanning ancient Greece to the modern-day bathroom, which is only about 100 years old (early 20th century).
As she was researching the topic, Fahey found, somewhat to her surprise, that bathing and hygiene for much of European history were considered completely unrelated, although the “early civilizations were great bathers and understood that bathing and hygiene went together,” she said. “The ancient Greeks loved to get naked. The word gymnasium means naked place. After a good workout, they’d jump into the bath and clean up as mainly a hygienic plunge.” She added that the ancient Roman baths were a daily refuge for people of all classes.
Early Christians, however, were uncomfortable with the idea of cleanliness — contrary to the later maxim of cleanliness being next to godliness (a phrase coined in the Victorian era).
As Western Europe became dirtier and dirtier, she said: “Everyone had lice, fleas. Skin and other infections were extremely common.”
Fahey recounted numerous famous historical figures who rarely bathed — from Queen Elizabeth I (“who bathed once a month, whether she needed to or not”) and French King Louis XIII (“the Sun King, who had his first bath at age 7) to King James I and American pamphleteer Thomas Payne.
She then explored the shift in attitude, led in part by English dandy George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, who not only created the idea of a man’s business suit but also promoted the concept of daily bathing.
In the Regency era, she explained, public spas became respectable again and were recommended for what ailed you (as mentioned, for instance, in Persuasion to heal Admiral Croft of gout and Mrs. Smith of the rheumatism that crippled her). Fahey noted, though, that bathing was only thought appropriate for medicinal purposes, not for hygiene.
She highlighted Dr. Richard Russell, who pioneered the idea of the “water cure” and along with the Prince Regent — who built a pavilion there — made Brighton the most fashionable seaside resort (the scene of Lydia’s “exposing herself in a public place” in Pride and Prejudice).
Fahey also regaled the audience with descriptions of the first shower, circa 1810, and the Mt. Vernon Hotel in Cape May, the first hotel to offer private bathrooms. “It was so ahead of its time that it would be 50 years before they became standard,” she explained.
She circled back to Austen’s era to conclude her talk: “Our Jane lived in a time when people were largely afraid of full immersion. Bathing was curative and medicinal. Daily hygiene was washing the face and hands, and changing underclothes several times a week. But she lived into the beginning of an era in which attitudes made a complete reversal and bathing became an obsession and a part of everyday life for respectable people. So it was clean and decent.”
In her presentation, “Jane Austen’s Domestic Economy: Housekeeping and Home Remedies in Regency Times,” Terry Ryan focused specifically on what housekeeping was like for the Austen family and their peers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
“Gentlewomen of their class did not do all of the housekeeping,” she explained. “But they needed to know how it was done because they had to supervise and train those who did the work.”
At Chawton Cottage, Mrs. Austen managed the poultry and gardens. Jane made breakfast daily and oversaw the stores of tea, sugar and wine. Cassandra did everything else.
Women like the Austens were very much responsible for managing the household budget and ensuring sufficient supplies were on hand. “That’s why Jane kept the keys to the expensive items so they wouldn’t be frittered away,” Ryan added.
The Austens appear to have been very lucky in their servants, she added. And even when they moved to Chawton, they maintained a manservant and two maids.
Ryan then explained why a clean house was so important. “It was considered a moral duty,” she said. “A clean house had a lot to do with your reputation and how you appeared to your neighbors. And there was some concern about health as well.”
Bedbugs were rampant in Regency England. Ryan recounted one of the favorite recipes she found for dealing with the pests: “Take white arsenic, boil in water and wash the bedstands and walls, and then go and sleep in the beds.”
The most common cleaning material well into the 19th century was sand, she added. Floors were dry rubbed once a week with hot sand, and sand was used to clean rugs and other household items. Sometimes the impression of cleanliness was more important than the reality, she noted. “They spent an enormous amount of time blackening their stoves and making the hearths look really, really white. None of it had to do with cleaning. It had to do with appearance.”
As for laundry, it was such an onerous task that not even the regular servants were charged with it. “You hired a washer woman,” Ryan said. “People dealt with hygiene by cleaning their clothes.”
People of Austen’s class washed their linens every few weeks because they had more clothing than poorer families.
One of the most popular laundry cleaning agents earlier in the 18th century was stale urine, also called “chamber lye.” Ryan explained: “They would save the urine from the chamber pots in a big barrel and use it to clean their clothes. They also sometimes used the stale urine for washing themselves. It actually worked pretty well. You did have to rinse very well afterward,” she quipped.
By Jane Austen’s time, laundry was cleaned with different alkaline agents. Soap was available during the era, and many families had their own recipes for it. However, it was time-consuming to make and costly to buy, as it was considered a luxury item and heavily taxed until 1853, so it would usually be mixed with another agent such as lye made from wood ash or soda.
Ryan also covered treating the sick at home. “Women were expected to know how to nurse people,” she explained. In the early 18th century, most people were treated at home, even for serious illness. In the Regency era, you might call in an apothecary or doctor. But lesser illnesses were treated with home remedies.
Ryan shared examples from Martha Lloyd’s book, and then led attendees in a workshop to make Captain Austen’s Milk of Roses after lunch.