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!