Those sexy, smelly Victorians  TIM CARMODY  ·  MAY 04 2011

Here is my third installment in pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet.

Eugen Weber is a wonderful, sassy cultural historian. His best-known book is probably Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1880-1914.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, one of my favorite things about staying up too late was catching episodes of his documentary series The Western Tradition on PBS at 3 AM. (Now you can stream the whole series free at Learner.org, which I just found out today.)

This is a passage from France Fin de Siecle, a really terrific book about art, culture, and literature in mid-to-late 19th-century France. And I swear to God, I think about this particular section all the time.

If one considers the scarceness of water and of facilities for its evacuation, it is not surprising that washing was rare and bathing rarer. Clean linen long remained an exceptional luxury, even among the middle classes. Better-off buildings enjoyed a single pump or tap in the courtyard. Getting water above the ground floor was rare and costly; in Nevers it became available on upper floors in the 1930s. Those who enjoyed it sooner, as in Paris, fared little better.

Baths especially were reserved for those with enough servants to bring the tub and fill it, then carry away the tub and dirty water. Balzac had referred to the charm of rich young women when they came out of their bath. Manuals of civility suggest that this would take place once a month, and it seems that ladies who actually took the plunge might soak for hours: an 1867 painting by Alfred Stevens shows a plump young blonde in a camisole dreaming in her bathtub, equipped with book, flowers, bracelet, and a jeweled watch in the soap-dish. Symbols of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

In a public lecture course Vacher de Lapouge affirmed that in France most women die without having once taken a bath. The same could be said of men, except for those exposed to military service. No wonder pretty ladies carried posies: everyone smelled and, often, so did they.

Teeth were seldom brushed and often bad. Only a few people in the 1890s used toothpowder, and toothbrushes were rarer than watches. Dentists too were rare: largely an American import, and one of the few such things the French never complained about. Because dentists were few and expensive, one would find lots of caries, with their train of infections and stomach troubles, it is likely that most heroes and heroines of nineteenth-century fiction had bad breath, like their real-life models.

Yep. That's why we call them "the unwashed masses."

It wasn't until the twentieth century that most people took a bath, washed their underwear, flushed a toilet, saw their own reflection in a mirror, or stopped dying at atrocious rates every time they gave birth to a child. How's that mistake looking now, Werner?

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