Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lucy Takes a Bath: A Night Routine in 1820

My family portraying the Stephensons.
     We've been making YouTube videos at the site over the past year. Actually, one of the site's interns had been filming and producing the videos, the rest of us were actors, supplied some of the historical contexts for the early videos, and provided the setting/props. It's was great fun. 
     I'm not one for being on camera let alone playing the lady of the house but due to COVID-19, I was drafted from laundress to lady. My husband in real life portrays Col. Stephenson, the man who built the house in 1820-21. He's featured in one of the first videos where we discuss how a gentleman of the early 19th century got dressed. Filming began in December 2020 but due to the pandemic, we couldn't bring in lots of outside reenactors. That's when I was promoted to playing his 1820 wife Lucy Stephenson. Our sixteen-year-old daughter got in on the fun too as Stephenson's oldest daughter Julia. It became a genuine family affair. 

     In my first independent video as Lucy Stephenson, I showed a possible scenario for a lady's nightly routine. Most of my friends have had quite a bit of fun telling me how risque it is since I do undress and take a bath on camera (all done with 1820 modesty in mind, of course...No Nudity! Lucy only undresses to her shift, even to bath). Regardless of the ribbing I've taken, it was a lot of fun to make. I'm amazed at the interest that's out there regarding something as mundane as taking a bath but I suppose it shows an aspect of daily life that many people are curious about. 

Lucy (aka me) in her bath.
     There is a common misconception that people in the early 19th century were filthy and rarely bathed. For some reason, we like to believe that our ancestors were dirty and ignorant when in reality, they were far from either. It's true, a full-bodied bath, where one got into a tub to wash, was not something that was done every day; maybe every couple of weeks. There was a fair amount of work involved in preparing, taking, and emptying a bath before the convenience of indoor plumbing. Most people washed up in some way each day either in the morning, evening, or both. A simple washbasin, water pitcher, bar of soap, and a washcloth/sponge were sufficient to remove the dirt of the day. We'd call this a sponge bath today. Another alternative to the bathtub would have been to visit a local watering hole such as a creek, river, or pond. As modern Americans, we tend to be obsessive about bathing and showering but that just wasn't an option in the early 19th century. Another thing to consider would have been a readily available supply of water. Where did your water come from and how was it stored? Rain barrels? A well?  If you were experiencing a drought, priorities changed. What is more important bathing or water for the household and livestock?  Yes, if you traveled back in time you'd probably be overwhelmed with a plethora of smells we do not have to deal with today but that isn't necessarily an indication of uncleanliness. 

A small bowl, sponge, and pitcher were often used daily to clean the body.

     The tub I used in the video is called a hip bath. It is just one type of tub that was available to our forefathers and mothers. There were much larger tubs where you could be submerged similar to our modern full bathtubs but this small tub was easily portable and didn't require tons of water. Our tub is made of tin and can be lifted easily with one hand. In the photo below, the tub is lined with a linen bathing sheet. This sheet helps to protect your delicate parts and skin from metal that would get quite warm when hot water was added or even rust depending on the type of metal used; ours is tin so it would tend to rust if not dried properly after use. Wooden tubs had a tendency to splinter after repeated use so a bathing sheet was standard equipment on bath night regardless of what type of tub you were using.

The Stephenson House's tin hip bath is lined with a linen bathing sheet.

     Obviously, a hip bath is not going to require a lot of water which was definitely more convenient for whoever was going to be hauling the water, heating it, or emptying the bath. In many ways, it's just a step up from a bowl and pitcher sponge bath. In our video, I have someone helping me bathe which was a common practice for someone of Lucy Stephenson's economic standing. Altogether, we used only three pitchers of water to complete the bath; any more and the tub would have overflowed. Once an adult-sized body sits in the tub there is very little room for excess water. Bathing next to a hearth (with a fire) allowed for kettles of water to be heated and kept warm for use.  Most likely a pitcher of warm water was poured over the seated (or standing in the tub) bather who then soaped up a sponge or cloth for washing their wettened body. Once all areas were cleaned then another pitcher may have been poured over the bather to rinse or the water from the tub reused.

        Many viewers asked why I wore a shift to bathe in during the video. Well, firstly I was not going to strip down to my birthday suit to be filmed bathing then have it posted on the internet for all creation to see. I love history but there's not enough money in the world to convince me to do that on camera.  Secondly, and most importantly, it was a common practice in the early 19th century for a lady to wear what was called a bathing dress, bathing gown, or bathing shift to maintain her modesty. Historical images depict women of various social classes bathing all-natural as well as covered, so either is correct. I chose to interpret a more modest Lucy and wear a bathing shift while being assisted by another member of the household.  Once the bath was complete a fresh clean, dry shift was donned before finishing the nightly routine and retiring to bed.

     Before moving on to the rest of Lucy's nightly routine I want to dispel two bathing myths that historic sites often perpetuate. Let me be perfectly clear, the following are myths...lies...untruths, so please stop repeating them. My mini-rant shall begin in

  Myth #1 "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" deals with the bathing practices of ancestors.

     Oftentimes historic site docents state this myth as a historical fact when referring to the bathing practices of our forefathers; which often required family members to take turns bathing with the same bathwater being used by each. This was an easy way to conserve water and labor. The theory behind this saying is that by the time the last child bathed the water was so milky and dirty that mothers would throw out their babies because they didn't see them in the tub. Why is it assumed the baby was the last to be bathed? How on earth would a mother who had just finished bathing her child suddenly forget they were in the water? It's so far-fetched it's ridiculous! In truth, this saying is a very well-known German idiom first documented in the print Narrenbeschw√∂rung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512. Essentially it means, don’t throw out something valuable with something worthless. There is no documented historical reference to anyone throwing their baby out with the bathwater or of this even being a possibility. 

  Myth #2“People only bathed once a year.”

     First of all, YUK! And, no they did not! A daily bath was not as convenient as we find it today but that does not mean they were filthy. To only bathe once a year would have caused all kinds of health problems. Granted, a full-body bath (where everything was submerged in a tub of water) was done less frequently; typically every two weeks or so. Thanks to modern indoor plumbing, bathing or showering on a daily basis is typical for most of us; but preparing a bath in the 1820s would have been a major undertaking. Water had to be hauled up from the well and brought to the kitchen for heating then carried to where the tub was sitting. Once the bath was complete, the tub had to be emptied by hand and the water carried out of the house. The entire process was labor-intensive and time-consuming. It was more common for people to take a “sponge” bath at the end of the day, washing body parts that had been exposed such as the face, neck, and arms.

      Rant finished! Time to move on to skincare and the remainder of Lucy's possible nightly routine.

     When getting ready to film this video I thought very hard about how my modern nighttime routine might be similar to what Lucy may have done before bed. What types of skincare products might she have used to help smooth sun damage or stave off aging? In an effort to gain a better understanding of historical cosmetics available and those commonly used during the early 19th century, I contacted  Alicia Schult of LBCC Historical Apothecary. She thoroughly researches a variety of historical skincare receipts (the period term for recipe) then accurately recreates them to sell in her Etsy shop. Her expertise was invaluable in formulating what Lucy may have used on a regular basis.  Alicia recommended the following nighttime routine based on information from the 1811 publication Mirror of the Graces or the English Lady's Costume, as well as, her extensive research. 

Lucy's dresser shows a variety of skincare items used in the video.

     The first item I applied to my skin using a small natural sea sponge was Elder Flower Face Wash. This astringent wash according to Alicia  "helps fight wrinkles, acne, scars, sunburns, evens out and softens your skin." Mirror of the Graces refers to this type of wash on page 221.

Unction de Maintenon
The use of this is to remove freckles. The mode of application is this; - Wash the face at night with elder-water flower, then anoint it with unction. In the morning cleanse your skin from its old adhesion by washing it copiously in rose water.
Recipe: Take of Venice soap an ounce, dissolve it in half an ounce of lemon juice, to which add of oil of bitter almonds  and deliquidated oil of tarter each a quarter ounce. Let the mixture be placed in the sun until it acquires the consistency of ointment. When in this state add three drops of oil of rhodium and keep it for use.   

Pictured are several sea sponges, Elderflower Wash (tall bottle), Virgin's Milk (center), Lily Pomatum (short jar), and Milk of Roses (back right).

        An application of Virgin's Milk followed the elderflower wash and was also applied all over my face and neck with a clean sea sponge. This step was not included in the video but would have been part of many ladies' nightly routines. The receipt used to create this particular Virgin's Milk dates to 1825. It contains Balm of Gilead, (anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and analgesic), Storax (promotes healing and overall skin health), and Gum of Benjamin (anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, soothing). Virgins' Milk was used to combat acne, age spots and to keep the skin looking youthful. This item is currently not available through LBCC's Etsy shop but an alternative product would be Milk of Roses; which has similar properties and was very popular in the early 19th century.

Virgin's Milk (page 229, Mirror of the Graces)

The Tincture of Benjoin is obtained by taking a certain quantity of the gum, pouring spirits of wine upon it, and boiling it till it becomes a rich tincture. If you pour a few drops of this tincture into a glass of water, it will produce a mixture which will assume all the appearance of milk, and retain a very agreeable perfume. If the face is washed with this mixture, it will, by calling the purple stream of the blood to the external fibres of the epidermis, produce on the cheeks a beautiful rosy colour; and, if left on the face to dry, it will render it clear and brilliant. It also removes spots, freckles, pimples, erysipelatous eruption, &c. if they have not been of long standing on the skin.

     Lily Pomatum finished the administerings to my face cleansing and skincare routine. This particular receipt was created in 1772 as a wrinkle cream but it had many other benefits including treating dry skin, spider veins, scars, sensitive skin, and burns. It contains Lily oil which smells wonderful. Once applied it makes the skin appear shiny and was left on until morning then washed off. 

     The next step, and probably the most interesting part of reenacting this nightly routine, was to wash my eyes. Yes, you read that correctly, I washed my eyes. This was very much a thing done by ladies of the period. It was believed that bright clear eyes were an indication of good health. I did NOT however use an actual period eyewash since the one listed in Mirror of the Graces (and most receipts at the time) called for camphor as an ingredient. CAMPHOR SHOULD NEVER BE USED IN YOUR EYES!! EVER!!! IT IS POISONOUS! IF IT GETS INTO YOUR EYES OR BLOODSTREAM IT CAN CAUSE BLINDNESS, ILLNESS, OR DEATH. There are references to eyewashes containing blue tint to make the eyes appear brighter. For the video, I simply used an eye cup similar to what they used (and still available today) and a contact lens solution. Honestly, my eyes did feel great afterward so I can understand why they liked washing their eyes. But again, DO NOT USE A PERIOD EYE WASH RECEIPT! 

An excellent Eye-water (page 233, Mirror of the Graces)

Take 6 oz of rectified spirits of wine, dissolve it in one drachm of camphor, and half a pint of elderflower water. Wash the eyes night and morning with this liquid, it clears the vision and strengthens the eyes.

The eye washing cup I purchased online along with the bottle I filled with contact lens solution.

     Once my eyes were nice and clear I moved on to cleaning my teeth. The toothbrush I used was a simple brush that LBCC offers made of bamboo...even the bristles are soft bamboo and a type of nylon. Granted our ancestors didn't use bamboo or nylon but the final product is passable for a period wooden toothbrush with boar bristles, plus it is biodegradable and good for the environment. The toothpowder consisted of ground clove, rose, sage, nutmeg, and lemon. The receipt LBCC uses is documented to be much older than 1820; it actually first appeared in 1653. The basic receipt didn't change much over the years but some ingredients added in the early 19th century were less than healthy for you (of course, LBCC's receipt is safe and uses only healthy ingredients). It's definitely not like modern toothpaste. It's gritter and doesn't get sudsy but my teeth and gums felt clean and refreshed. 

My horn cup, toothbrush, and toothpowder. My mouth felt great after brushing with these.

The final step to recreating Lucy's nightly routine was to curl or set my hair for the morning. Curls surrounding a woman's face were very stylish at the time so it stands to reason Lucy curled her hair at night. One way to achieve these curls or ringlets was to put dampened or pomade slickened hair into multiple rag curlers to sleep on.  I sectioned off all the hair in front of my ears and braided everything behind. The front section was then separated into four equal parts which were coated with a lovely lemon-scented hair pomade made onsite the day of filming. It helped to condition the hair and set the curls created by the rags overnight. The rest of my hair was braided to keep it tangle-free during the night making styling it in the morning much easier. All of this was covered by a nightcap to keep it in place while sleeping.

Adding rag curls to the front of my hair.

Now, Lucy's night routine was complete. It was time to settle into bed with a good book; I was cleaned, moisturized, and curled.  One thing I took from this experience is that not much has changed over the years.  Ladies at the time were just as concerned with appearance, health, and aging, as we are today. We don't wake up looking our best, we have to put in an effort. Some of the things we do for beauty can look rather silly during the process (rag curlers, for instance, are pretty silly looking perched on top of one's head) but the final outcome is quite lovely. At first glace, it appears that many of the routines our female ancestors practiced were quite different than our own but when we take a closer look, we discover, they're very much the same.

Goodnight, Lucy! 

NOTE: I am not affiliated with LBCC nor do I receive a commission from LBCC. All of the products I've tried from the shop are wonderful. And I can attest that my skin felt great! 

1 comment:

  1. Great job, RoxAnn. I enjoyed this. Love the pictures of the period facial products and lotions.