Wash yourself cleverly – Time travel in hygiene I.

‘Have you washed your hands?’ – a familiar motherly warning from our childhood often comes to our minds before meals, especially, when we transmit this wisdom already as parents. In the recent decades, nobody disputes the importance of personal hygiene any more or puts the question if our flat has a bathroom. Washing your body is a basic part of the body culture including both cleaning your body and your clothes.

It is a social expectation and an inner demand that you wash away the impurities of everyday life, and during the process, you are renewed not only physically but also mentally. Our ancestors did not think similarly in every era, regarding cleaning the body. Besides physical possibilities, the frequency and methods of washing oneself depended largely on the actual definition of cleanliness and the different beliefs related to water.


Antique wellness versus morally legitimated medieval dirt

According to the earliest archaeological finds, there were public baths in Uruk in Mesopotamia. In parallel with the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Cretan civilisations, the findings in the settlements of Harappa (2600 B.C.) were so surprising that they proved a high degree of personal hygiene. The rich had hot water in the bathrooms and they took care of the proper sewage-water disposal.

244384.jpgIn Hungary, the oldest relics related to body washing give an insight into the thriving bathing culture of the Roman Empire. Every layers of the society had a demand for body care and cleanliness. The proper infrastructure was provided as well – just think about the highly developed water-pipe system and baths that functioned as contemporary wellness centres. Visiting the most important cities of the former Pannonia province, you can still see the remains of public baths and ‘bathrooms’ of citizens’ houses that give evidence of the everyday life of this civilisation, including possibilities and habits of personal hygiene. You can read about the Hungarians’ washing habits in the service-book of Imperator Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. It says that Hungarians washed themselves in bath tents; persons of high rank had their own leather pouches, which can be regarded as an early version of showers.

383445.jpg The remaining documents on this topic about the medieval Hungary preserve the memories of medicinal and thermal baths primarily. As of the 11th century, there were public baths built on those. Later during the Ottoman occupation, the Turks also exploited the excellent hydrographic faculties of our country, and they built hammams. The harmony of cleanliness, beauty and health was an important part of Moslem thinking. By the 16thcentury, there were bathing houses in every larger town, which were open during a certain period of the day – signalled by a bugle call or tolling. Bathers could clean themselves in large wooden tubs that were lined by strong canvas sheets. Basically, they did not have a bath for purity, but for the beneficial effects of soaking on the health. The rich had their own bathrooms, but carrying in and heating large amounts of water was rather long and hard work, thus usually a whole family and their servants had a bath in the same tub of water. The master of the house came first, then other male members of the family, then the male servants. They were followed by women and children and finally the babies. According to certain theories, the catchphrase ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ comes from that habit.

When researching the reasons for worldwide epidemics in the 16th century, contemporary scientists found that different infections got into the human body through enlarged pores during bathing. Thus, both the rich and the poor refrained from regular bathing – listening to the doctors’ advice – and washing was confined to the visible parts of the body (hands and face) and washing their clothes. According to period sources, they did not wash hair for several month and 3 or 4 weeks passed between bathings. Compared to European conditions, Hungarian lords, citizens and peasants could seem to be clean, even at the sanitary hollow point of the 17th century.

396206.jpgThe Church condemned the attendance of public baths due to moral reasons, because bathers were naked there or wore only a piece of underwear and also because these places gave shelter to prostitution. Refraining from washing the body became a proof of leading a virtuous life. An extreme example was Saint Margaret of Hungary, whom you can read about in the Margaret Legend that she did not wash herself until the age of 18, except for her feet and hands.

Cleanliness is half your health

Ideas about the positive effects of water came into the limelight again at the end of the 18th century. The representatives of medical science also stood up for this as of the 19th century. The notions of cleanliness and health went together hand in hand again, at least in theory: to bathe weekly and wash hair fortnightly were considered sufficient.

Using a washstand, a washbasin and a water-can started spreading at the end of the 18th century. A bath corner was arranged in a heated room or in the kitchen with a washstand, a towel-rack with a towel and a mirror and comb holder on the wall above. Towels were woven by women from flax or hemp and they were important parts of young girls’ trousseau. Using one towel and a comb per person became typical as of the second half of the 20th century. Bath corners were mainly used by women, while men went out of the house and washed themselves at the well or the watering-trough. Although hygienic aspects were more and more important, people did not carry these things too far. The main bathing and washing possibilities were still provided by natural waters.

385409.jpgIn spring and summer, people had a bath once or twice a week in rivers, creeks and lakes, or in a tub of water that was carried in by water-cans. Sometimes in collected rainwater, which was warmed up by heated pieces of iron or stone thrown into the water. From autumn to spring, they omitted the ‘big bath’ due to cold weather; warmed up snow-water was used only for wiping off the visible parts quickly. Vats or tubs were suitable for washing themselves and their clothes. The aim of everyday cleaning was to wash the face and hands and to guard against parasites (lice and scabies). Washing the whole body had a ritual significance: before important life events and turning points, an intensive washing of the body meant a kind of spiritual preparation as well. Until the end of the fifties, people washed their hair in every two or three weeks, even less frequently in winter. Girls and women used unsalted lard to their skin against dryness and to make their hair brighter.

246352.jpgNew ideas related to cleaning during this period had more impact on middle-class people. Most of all, female members of a family could study the topic; they could read about hygiene in magazines and different informing leaflets. Servant-maids, who went serving to middle-class households of big cities from rural areas, took over the new mentality, which shocked their rural families, because they still thought that it is immoral to wash the body or care about it too much. We must also mention that though 70 percent of middle-class homes had been supplied with water in the capital by the last decade of the 19th century, if a bathroom was built at all, it was rather a status symbol and was used as a lumber-room mostly. Public baths in cities were frequented by people from poorer social layers in order to wash themselves. Spa therapies became fashionable among middle-class people, while they visited natural waters with the purpose to go on holiday and to relax.

161009.jpgIn the 20th century, the use of a bathroom was already widespread; washing the body in cold water in the morning became part of parenting by this time, because they attributed a character training power to it. In the evening, cleaning the upper body meant hygiene. A ‘big bath’ was available once a week, and having a bath in the same water one after the other was still a custom. The difference between urban and rural habits ceased as of the middle of the eighties, when bathrooms were built in rural houses too, the water-pipe system was installed and the mass production of body washes started.



Fónagy Zoltán: "Kitört a tisztaság rögeszméje" - A test és a lakás higiéniája a századfordulón
Gábor Gina: Amikor a fürdőszoba luxusnak számított – Dédanyáink mosdótálja, avagy hányszor fürdött egy úri dáma?
Juhász Katalin: Meg is mosakodjál. Magyar népi tisztálkodás a 20 században
Töri másképp: Így mosakodtak régen


More thematic virtual exhibitions