17th century

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Hygiene, 17th century

Most historians agree that the 17th and 18th centuries were among the worst periods in terms of physical hygiene. The poor hygiene of the time left people susceptible to a raft of illnesses. At the top of the list were the respiratory diseases, then weather-related problems such as chilblains were regular issues in the winter. Poor water quality meant that dysentery and intestinal worms were prevalent. Small rivers in cities became open sewers, yet, even in the country, the manure pile was often located close to the well. For peasants, the strain and difficulty of their daily work often led to back pain, hernias and rheumatism. Mange, toothaches, abscesses, cancers and venereal diseases combined to create a bleak health forecast.

Bad teeth
Image source: newsweek.com

Everyone had poor dental hygiene. Since there were no toothbrushes, people settled for rubbing their gums and teeth with a cloth. They would then scrape the remains of food from their teeth with toothpicks.

People used ‘home remedies’ to treat most problems since they could not afford the services of a doctor or surgeon. Besides, all too often, the intervention of a doctor or a surgeon made the situation worse because most treatments involved bleeding, enemas or purging. Medical theory of the time was that germs (then called miasmas) floated about in the air and entered the body though the skin, contaminating it. ‘Home remedies’ were generally somewhat gentler since most were based on plants.

Unfortunately, some ‘home remedies’ were based more on superstition and witchcraft than on actual cures. For example, a mixture of maple syrup, urine and sheep excrement was used to cure coughing, lead grains removed corns, and crushed lice treated jaundice.

Therapeutic values were attributed to dirtiness. For example, urine-soaked diapers were merely dried before using them again, they were not washed. Urine was used as a beauty product to treat acne, among other things.

St Lucy
Image source: pinterest

Finally, if all treatment failed, divine intercession remained the last recourse. People were encouraged to pray to St. Lucy for help with eye problems, or to St. Blaise for throat problems. Each saint was attributed with the ability to heal one or more diseases. The belief that diseases were a form of divine punishment encouraged these practices.

French habits

The French regime of the time applauded extreme modesty and, as a result, nudity was frowned upon. It was for this reason that people when washing did not disrobe. Into the 18th century, filth was considered beneficial thus causing people to wash even less.

King Louis XIII of France
Image source: thefamouspeople.com

King Louis XIII went unbathed until his seventh birthday. But, before sounding too xenophobic in describing French habits below, we should recall that King James I of England never went near water except when wiping his fingertips with a moist napkin.

The thought of a daily shower would have filled the 17th century Frenchman with fear. They would never wash the body with hot water or soap since it opened the pores of the skin and this would leave the individual more vulnerable to disease. A bath was almost asking to get sick.

The French nobility concealed their lack of cleanliness by using perfume and cologne to conceal bad odours, and powders to dry greasy hair, or else wigs were used to provide some semblance of cleanliness. People avoided washing their hair since scalp oil was considered excellent for healthy hair, yet most people had head lice. If you could manage to endure the stench of a person, then his house would finish you off, because you would be assaulted by the smell of several chamber pots.

Scent bottle, 17th century
Image source: the jewelleryeditor.com

Fragrances were therefore used in great quantities and the containers for them were an important part of early toilet sets. Most scents were heavy and sweet and these were kept in glass or crystal bottles with glass stoppers ornamented with silver, gold and other metals.

Peasants, on the other hand, settled for changing their shirt and underclothing a few times each month. They only washed the parts of their body not covered by clothing (face, neck, hands, arms), and this was done quickly with cold water.

Cosmetics helped, saffron and flower pollens were used to give faces more colour. Black silk beauty spots were used to conceal blemishes and smallpox scars and sometimes reached astonishing sizes. Many were in the shape of stars or crescent moons and an evolved significance became associated with their placement. Flaw concealment also used lead or mercury-based products, but regular use meant these penetrated the skin and created dark, permanent blemishes. The French solved this by melting bee’s wax and rubbing it over the affected spots, then covering this with make-up. But, if they went too close to the fireplace their face would literally melt.

The use of cosmetics, particularly the use of rouge, became a class indicator. Good girls didn’t; bad girls did. Prostitutes placed rouge on their lips and cheeks to mimic the effects of sexual arousal. The body undergoes a natural flush during arousal, the skin glows and the lips engorge with blood. Red lipstick and pink face powder imitated these natural effects.

Toilet sets combine several grooming tools. This one is a gold trio of nail cleaner, ear scoop and toothpick, set in a pink enamel heart embedded with red stones. Such an item would have belonged to a wealthy lady in 17th-century France.

This picture shows a chatelaine, a type of toilet set worn on a belt, the various tools suspended from small chains. It is from the Tibetan border region and is made of filigree silver, turquoise and coral. It has tweezers, a toothpick, a nail cleaner, and also a small brush. The name ‘chatelaine’ derives from châtelaine, the term for a medieval female castellan, who carried a bunch of keys at her waist. Later, mistresses of large houses and housekeepers took to wearing chatelaines with additional items such as thimbles, scissors or corkscrews that would allow them to sort out any issue they encountered within the household.

USA Hotels, 1607

The first inn located in America was recorded in the year 1607 and led the way with many other firsts in the hospitality industry. The first publicly held hotel (the City Hotel) opened in New York in 1792. The first modern hotel (the Tremont) opened in Boston in 1809 and the first business hotel (the Buffalo Statler) opened in 1908.

The toilet definition #1, 1611

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) cites as its very first reference to the word ‘toilet’ as from 1611. It was used to describe a piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes, ‘the stuffe which Drapers lap about their clothes’. So toilet was a draper’s drape.

The OED lists ten main usages – with six sub-definitions – so sixteen in all, but only versions 14 and 15 are recognisable as today’s term. These are cited through the body of the book.

A series of studies today seem to agree that the average person will spend three years sat on a toilet over the course of their lifetime. If 75-years is taken as our expectation, then it means we spend 4% of our life in the loo!


It is unsurprising then that we have so many euphemisms for the room, the appliance and the act – here are more than fifty of them, you will of course know others:

  • Bathroom
  • Bogs, (the)
  • Boy’s (Girl’s) room
  • Chamber (pot)
  • Chemical Khazi
  • Closet
  • Closet of ease
  • Comfort room (Philippines)
  • Commode; Convenience
  • Cover your feet (Bible)
  • Crapper
  • Dunny (Australian)
  • Elson; Garderobe
  • Gentlemen’s (Ladies)
  • Gents (or Ladies)
  • Go for a tinkle
  • Guzunder
  • Have a crap
  • Have a poo
  • Heads (nautical)
  • House of Honour (Jewish)
  • House of the Morning (Egypt)
  • Jacks (Irish)
  • Jakes
  • John
  • Khazi (karzy, kharsie)
  • Latrine
  • Lav (Latin lavō I wash)
  • Lavatorium (Latin washbasin)
  • Lavatory
  • Little boy’s (girl’s) room
  • Loo (from garde l’eau?)
  • Mens’ room
  • Necessarium
  • Necessary stool
  • Netty (Geordie)
  • Night stool
  • On the throne
  • Outhouse
  • Pit
  • Pony and trap (Cockney)
  • Potty
  • Powder my nose
  • Privy (private house);
  • Reredorter (dormitory rear)
  • Restroom (American)
  • Room 100 (European)
  • Shithouse
  • Spend a penny
  • Thunderbox
  • Toilet
  • Toilet chair
  • Washroom
  • WC (water closet)

New River Company, 1613

Sir Hugh Myddleton undertook to deliver on an earlier concept that had run out of funding, he took over the royal charter to construct the New River, that would run from Ware in Hertfordshire to Clerkenwell and this included the creation of a reservoir in Islington. It was intended to bring freshwater from the River Lea to Londoners.

It was gravity-fed falling five inches each mile (8cms/kilometre), But Myddleton encountered perhaps the earliest NIMBYs (not in my back yard) who were disturbed by the thought of quagmires and road disruption. When the king provided half the funding for a half-share the complaints subsided. When London exceeded a million inhabitants the New River could no longer cope and other companies had to be formed. The Chelsea Waterworks was one such response.

Not that these water supplies were particularly safe, many were delivered by lead-lined pipes or stored in lead tanks, the latter often becoming stagnant. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, complained of catching a cold following washing his feet from water taken from a lead-lined tank.

Charles I, 1625

Charles I and Henrietta Maria

The well-off of this era followed the fashions worn by Charles I and his French wife, Henrietta Maria, who used extravagant materials like silk brocade and lace trimmings. Both men and women used make-up which often included poisons within their constituents.

They wanted to have a pale complexion which led to the use of chalk and white lead, often mixed in with the white albumen of an egg and vinegar. Mercury too was present in their cosmetics. Urine was often used, Pepys mentioning his wife had developed a penchant for puppy urine. A little colour was then added by applying a mixture of white lead with a red colourant. Lips were reddened with the juice of the cochineal insect.

In part because of these treatments their skins often became marked and scarred so that women were considered to be past their prime at 20 years old, positively over-the hill by 25 and past it by 30.

Yet this did not stop the interest in owning ornate hand mirrors. The Venetians first silvered glass with tin, silver and mercury (poisons again!) and sought to keep the process secret. However their secret was stolen and broadcast throughout Europe. With wooden, ivory or silver frames the well-off became rather vain, which became no longer considered a sin, and they developed a fetish for looking at themselves, though they could hardly have been encouraged by the ravaged reflection.

Japan, 17th century

Japanese chamber pot from the Edo Period.

Latrine, mid-17th century

The term latrine was first used in English in the mid-17th century. It comes from the Latin lavare meaning to wash.

Charles II reportedly always took two attendants into his toilet with him. Whether this was a reaction to his father’s execution or to have them wipe the royal backside is unclear.

Toilet definition #2, 1656

The OED cites as its second definition of the word toilet from this date to mean, ’A bag or cloth to put night clothes in’. By now toilet had become a receptacle to store nightwear.

Pepys and sewage, 1660

Samuel Pepys
Image source: en.wikipedia.org

Diarist Samuel Pepys noted his cellar problem on October 20, 1660:

‘Going down to my cellar…I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turners house of office [privy] is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me….’. One inspector visited two houses in St Giles and found their yards were three feet deep in excrement with bricks used as stepping stones to cross the loathsome lake.

In April of the same year Pepys complains one night of

‘Sir W Pens shying [throwing] of a shitten pot’.

‘…3rd September 1665. Up, and put my coloured suit on, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because of the plague and was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of infection, that is had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague…’

‘…27th March 1667 ‘I did go to the Swan; and there sent for Jervas my old periwig-maker and he did bring me a periwig; but it was full of nits, so as I was troubled to see it (it being his own fault) and did send him to make it clean…’

Samuel Pepys mentions his wife washing just once in 9.5 years of diarising.  In 1668 he also eschewed spa bathing

‘Methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water’

He also referred to his wife squatting in the road

‘to do her business’. 

The same year an edict was issued by the Police Commissioner of Paris ordering the construction of toilets in all houses.

Versailles, 1664

Palace of Versailles
Image source: en.wikipedia.org

King Louis XIV commissioned the construction of a cast-iron water pipe that ran 10km (15 miles) from a pumping station to serve Versailles and its fountains.

One Russian ambassador to France noted

‘His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal. King Louis XIV stench came from the fact that his physicians advised him to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health.  He also stated he found the act of bathing disturbing.  Because of this, he is said to have only bathed twice in his lifetime.’

Toilet definition #3, 1691

The OED cites from this period its third definition of the word toilet as, a shawl to cover the head or shoulders; spec. a cloth put over the shoulders during shaving or hairdressing. Quoting from 1691 ‘Barber, who after he had cast the Linnen Toylet about his Shoulders’ and from 1714 ‘Wives and Daughters wear a kind of Toilet on their Heads, with a long Fringe which covers their Faces, and drives away the Flies like Horse-trappings.’ So by this time the toilet had become some sort of tabard used during grooming.

Late 17th century

Madame de Montespan, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses, swathed herself in clouds of self-defensive perfume so that she wouldn’t smell the king’s halitosis. She didn’t like the way he smelled, and yet he hated the way she smelled because perfume gave him headaches. They had a big fight about it one day in his coach, where they were also accompanied by his queen, his legal wife, and this was recorded by one of his memoirists.

Toothbrush, 1680

People were now using toothbrushes in England.

© Bob Denton, 2016
Forward to 18th century   –   Advance to Britain’s Long Nineteenth Century
Back to Discovery, Enlightenment, Revolution
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