You probably haven’t spent too much time wondering about the history of bathing. One might possibly even think there couldn’t be too much to discuss on the topic. Surprisingly though, the history of bathing is a long, complex, and controversial one!
It’s hard to imagine a time before indoor plumbing and before the knowledge of germs and bacteria. Or, a time when being clean was based more on the smell of your perfume and not if you actually bathed recently. Let’s take a trip through time, way back before the hygienic comforts you know and love today even existed!
Imagine that you were alive in a time before private bathrooms and indoor plumbing existed inside of homes. Where would you go to bathe? In ancient times, people had to bathe together in large public baths when there wasn’t an ocean or lake nearby.
Archaeologists have found several sites and ruins from ancient civilizations where they had large public baths and bathhouses. Picture a huge public swimming pool, and you’ll get the idea. Bathing was a much different experience back then!
Even before knowing what germs and bacteria were, the ancient Greeks and Romans loved to bathe and socialize at these public bathhouses. They were a place focused on gathering with your friends rather than a place to get clean. There was even a Roman city named the City of Bath, which boasted many beautifully designed public baths (as it should, with a name like that).
Since bathing existed long before the understanding of germs, the reasons for bathing back then were speculated to be different than the reasons of today. Some civilizations, like the Egyptians, emphasized cleanliness because they thought it was closely related to spiritual purity or godliness.
Many ancient cultures had their own reasons and different rituals for bathing—whether that be religious, therapeutic, or social. Some cultures even thought that the temperature of the water you bathed in was related to your spiritual status.
The Middle Ages Hit Pause on Bathing
Even if you’re not the biggest history buff, you probably still think of the Middle Ages and immediately associate it with plagues and poor hygiene. It definitely wasn’t the cleanest of time periods. The fall of the Roman Empire marked the beginning of the Middle Ages, where diseases were rampant and many people began seeing a connection between sharing dirty water and getting sick.
Without the knowledge of bacteria and germs, the cultural norm was to avoid bathing altogether rather than clean yourself using soap and fresh water to stay healthy. In fact, it is said that it was even a common mindset to think that dirt could protect your skin from illness by keeping your pores covered. Many people believed that soaking in water opened your pores up and made you vulnerable to plagues.
The concept of bathing being associated with contracting diseases became a Western cultural mindset that would take generations to change after the end of the Middle Ages. The emphasis during that time period was instead put on using fragrance to cover up your body odors with perfumes and oils.
When the pilgrims came to America in the 17th century, they were reportedly known to still be against bathing regularly, and instead believed the focus should be put on cleaning your undergarments. This is thought to be the reason behind the white collar that many upper-class pilgrims had spouting out from under their shirts at the neckline. It was a way of showing the linens of your undergarments to be clean. It wouldn’t be until the 18th century that bathing would start to come “back in style” (thank goodness!).
Bathing Makes a Comeback During the Modern Era
Finally, after the Middle Ages, the idea of bathing regained acceptance in Western culture. Early scientific findings on germs popped up in the late 1800s, so bathing regularly to maintain good hygiene gained more traction. Health experts started to recommend the idea of washing with soap to fight off diseases. Since private plumbing was still not really a thing yet, this meant that public bathhouses reopened and private bathing was something only the wealthy or royal did.
In America, the concept of bathhouses was brought over from Europe. They were created to be aimed towards the poorer social classes, rather than be used by everyone. While the traditional concept of European public bathhouses was for socialization for all types of citizens, American bathhouses in New York in the late 1800s were set up with restrictions prohibiting long stays.
The time constraints were in place to prevent the poor from congregating in one place for too long. This added to the stigma that bathing was a luxury to be enjoyed only by the wealthy, especially because early bathtubs were expensive and difficult to make.
The Personal Bathtub
As bathing became more culturally accepted and the value of hygiene rose, so did the idea that one could have their own private bathtub. The concept was slow to spread to the masses since many people could not afford bathtubs, which were usually made out of expensive and heavy metals such as porcelain.
They also didn’t have the space to give the tub an entire room dedicated to holding it. As indoor plumbing became more available and science progressed, the notion of using soap to regularly wash germs off of your body in order to promote healthy hygiene and prevent diseases became the norm.
Soap As a Luxury
Right as people started to adopt and understand the importance of regular bathing, soap became a highly taxed item of luxury. This further strengthened the belief that being “clean” was for the upper class.
Soap was often a homemade item, but it still wasn’t seen as necessary and required a time-consuming process to make. The price of soap didn’t become more affordable until resources were more available and scientific advancements helped find quicker processes to bring the product to the masses.
Bathing today is, of course, a much different experience than that of our ancestors. Showers in our own private bathrooms offer the convenience of regularly washing our bodies. Opting for a soak in the tub in today’s world makes you think of relaxation and is often associated with modern therapeutic practices like bath bombs.
Bathing or showering is now offered almost everywhere that private bathrooms and bedrooms are and is no longer considered something that should only be enjoyed by the upper classes. Bathing is for everyone!
Bathe Like Royalty
Knowing the complicated past of soaking in a tub, why not have fun with it and pretend to bathe like royalty? Soap may no longer be priced as a high-end item of luxury reserved for the wealthy, but a well-made soap and a fun bath bomb can certainly make it feel that way. Try adding these elements to your next bath.
Bubbles and Soaps
Adding bubbles and using a great smelling soap bar is a one-way ticket to luxury. Take your time to lather it up and pretend you’re in ancient times. Scents like lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus are similar to the scents used back then and can provide the soothing aromatherapy benefits you’re looking for after a long day.
Skin Nourishing Ingredients
Basic hygiene is vital, of course. Now we have the luxury of finding products with ingredients that will moisturize and protect our skin from free radicals and toxins. Feel like a royal and opt for an antioxidant-rich soap that will leave you smelling and feeling great.
Light a Candle
Add to the ambiance by lighting a candle in your favorite scent. It’s a real mood setter! You can even pretend you’re in ancient times with no electricity to give yourself a good laugh.
Take Your Time
As we discussed, sometimes bathing was subject to strict time constraints in the days when bathhouses first opened in America. Appreciate the luxury of having your very own private bathtub and take your time soaking in the suds.
The history of bathing is probably different than you imagined (not that you’ve sat around studying its history like we have!). The lesson to be learned is this: appreciate the luxurious and private bathing routines that we are fortunate to be able to have in our day and age! Showers are cool too, but taking a second to hit pause and soak in a warm, relaxing bubble bath is an experience we could all use.