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Folk Friday: Down and Dirty

Surfing Amazon discussion boards the other day, I came across a comment from a reader who said she didn’t care for historical romance because ‘let’s face it – the women back then were hairy and the men stinky.’ She was actually praising a historical that she’d picked up against her inclination, but she started me thinking. Just how bad was hygiene in ‘the good old days’, meaning the mid-Victorian era where I set my stories?

There’s no denying that in some places and situations, it was awful. I’ve read of discussions in the U.S. Cavalry about allowing soldiers water to bathe once a week. For troops on the march or cowboys on cattle drives, washing would not have been a priority, nor would doing laundry. Eww! But what about the ordinary folks leading settled lives?

The wood stove was the heart of a rural home, and those old ranges really were an example of appropriate technology. We used to have one at our cottage, and I loved it. The first person up started the fire, and it burned all day, winter or summer. The stove’s boiler provided hot water for cooking, cleaning and bathing.
While getting out the wash tub and filling it for a full bath would have been a production, there were basins and ewers. I imagine most people washed at least once a day.

By the end of the Civil War, doctors had made the connection between cleanliness and health and it had started to filter down to the general population. If a man had done his time in the Army and experienced the discomfort of being truly filthy, I think he’d welcome cleanliness. So, stinky heroes? Maybe at times, but I make my guys wash!

Hairy women? Perhaps, but back then armpit and leg hair was taken for granted. It wasn’t until the advent of shorter skirts, sleeveless blouses and sheer stockings in the early to mid 20th century that advertisers set to work convincing North American women that body hair was unsightly. To this day, many European women don’t shave. I’ve also read that, due to the smaller proportion of fat in people’s diets back then, women in general had lower testosterone levels and therefore less body hair in earlier times. For facial hair, there were tweezers and, after 1903, safety razors.

The same advertisers have convinced us that all natural scent is a social crime, that we should be scentless or perfumed. We forget what a natural clean smells like. So, I’m not surprised that some readers find the thought of a hero who doesn’t use deodorant revolting, but to me the thought of a man who uses aluminum chloride as a substitute for soap and water is worse, and they’re out there.

So, when I read historicals, I don’t think too much about these things. How about you? Do considerations of cleanliness affect your choice of reading material? Inquiring minds want to know.

And for Folk Friday, here’s some classic Willie Nelson with wonderful photos to match. Enjoy!


  1. Ann Stewart
    March 18, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Very interesting topic, Jennie and one I think of often. I kinda have a thing about smells, especially body odors, and I work around people who don’t always have the necessities to keep themselves as clean as they should.

    I also wonder, at the end of the big fight scene when the hero is covered in dirt, sweat, and blood and been out on dusty roads riding sweating animals, how exactly his breath smells when he leans in for the final kiss.

  2. Janet
    March 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    LOL, Ann – I have that same thought when I read about the morning lovemaking in some romance novels!!

    But if I let that get to me, I know I'll never read another historical romance – and I love historical romance. Great topic, Jennie – one I pondered when I was writing my medieval romance. I think that for some things, readers need to 'let it go' or take it with a grain of salt. We are reading/writing fiction!

  3. Jennie Marsland
    March 18, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Hi Ann and Janet,

    Considering the state of dentistry and oral hygiene in the nineteenth century, bad breath must have been epidemic – another ewww. People were advised to brush their teeth regularly, but who knows how many did?

    Like Janet, I prefer to remember that I'm reading and writing about the past the way I'd like it to be. My heroes might not smell like roses after a hard day of heroing, but I can forgive them. As for morning breath, I just won't go there.

  4. Theanne and Baron
    March 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    What a hoot…it never occurred to me to not read something because of the hygiene of the characters! Bathing wasn't as easy a hundred or more years ago…as you noted. The privileged managed it but the poorer folk bathed when they could. I think about it sometimes but realize that we're talking fiction not reality! *smile*

  5. Anne MacFarlane
    March 21, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I never think about hygiene or smells when reading an historical. Why let reality intrude on a good romance? LOL

  6. Zosia
    March 22, 2011 at 9:38 am

    LOL that was my review! (I go by a different name on Amazon.)

    I came across your blog by accident, and did a double-take!

    I do actually read quite a bit of historical romance, but I don't like how sanitised it is. I'm a huge history nerd, so I can't help myself! Englishmen aren't as perfect as Lisa Kleypas wants us to believe, and the thought of being constantly pregnant makes me shudder.

  7. Jennie Marsland
    March 22, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Hi Zosia! Thanks for dropping by! Like you, I can only handle so many perfectly-turned-out dukes and earls. And yes, having a dozen kids – and a dozen medication-free labours – wouldn't be high on my wishlist either. In my own writing, I try to settle for a realistic best-case scenario. I'm sure some people washed every day. I'm sure some people brushed their teeth. And not everyone had swarms of children. Thank heavens!