Cleanliness is half health

From Sándor Márai's Confessions of a Citizen, we know that "The bourgeoisie of the end of the century usually bathed only when they were ill or got married." The notion of cleanliness focused on something quite different, largely on the visible parts of the body, primarily clothing and the living environment. What was clean petticoats for women was clean collars and cuffs for men. The efforts our ancestors made to achieve the coveted cleanliness that was often synonymous with health are revealed in our latest selection.

The idea of cleanliness at the turn of the century, from having a wash to washing clothes

VF_15555.jpgIn contrast to clean, tidy clothing, there was less attention paid to underwear, and although Vilma Hugonnai, the first Hungarian female doctor, recommended changing underwear at least twice a week, we know that even wealthy people often wore the same underwear for a week. The fact that even in Budapest, there were hardly any apartments with bathrooms, and even if there were, they were not used for their intended purpose. The number of apartments with bathrooms increased significantly only in the 1930s. Bathing and washing hair required a warm apartment and some logistics, and without a hairdryer, a very long process was needed to achieve the desired clean hairdressing. At the dawn of the century, even our Queen Elisabeth waited in a waterproof cloak for her hair to dry, although she passed the time by learning languages, something that a servant had little chance to do. Otherwise, it was generally considered appropriate to wash hair and head a few times a year, so washing hair rarely was not at all flagrant.

The hygiene of the servants was characterised by the fact that some of them cleaned themselves every week or two, mostly in the public baths, but some of them were allowed to have a bath in the bathroom of the family they served. Interestingly, servants were not told exactly when to have a wash, they washed when they could, usually early in the morning or late at night.

"Pest paints you black"

cseledkonyv.jpgThe perception of 'cleanliness' of the period did not only extend to hygiene in the narrow sense of the word, for example, women of the lower classes were considered unclean. Of course, prostitutes were blamed for the spread of syphilis, while the initiation of young gentlemen by maids was considered acceptable. Often, even the mistress of the house turned a blind eye until there was no visible sign of immoral deeds. "Pest paints you black", they thought, because the girls who had fallen were not welcomed with open arms at home either, and had little choice but to become wet nurses when they had their children, while their own children languished somewhere in the countryside. But often, in desperation, they drank lye, or 'cock matches' - in those days, the match cover was still sulphurous, phosphorous, and therefore poisonous. Later, poisoning with matches pullulated so much that they were banned from sale - the name 'cock match' came from the cock on the matchboxes.

KD_1988_641_1.jpgBy the turn of the century, regular daily tooth brushing was expected - previously, rinsing with water would do - preferably using toothpowder or paste. Toothpaste already existed; the most popular brand in the 19th century was available under the name Kalodont. The toothpaste containing potassium, magnesium, glycerine and medical soap was usually flavoured with menthol and cinnamon oil. The original product was pink because it contained carmine dye, but the version made by pharmacists was blue because the blue colour whitened optically as well. However, there were universal products, such as Brázay's Diana rubbing alcohol, which worked as a throat rinse, wound disinfectant and hair tonic.

The establishment of dentistry also dates back to the turn of the century; the Hungarian facial-, maxillofacial- and oral surgery grew out of military surgery. The University Dental Institute was opened in 1890, headed by József Árkövy, who had worked as a surgeon, then went to London to study dentistry. After returning home, he founded first the private and then the university dental school, which was officially included in the medical curriculum in the early 1900s (at that time there was no independent dental training).

VF_2003_7_1.jpgThe need for personal hygiene, however, was dwarfed by the desire for purity in cleaning or washing, which was a matter of prestige. Washing clothes, especially the washday, meant a major headache for housewives. Where there was the opportunity, help came to the house, and there is no better proof of this than keeping a washerwoman. Although dirty linen was taken to laundry and ironing shops in big towns. In town tenement houses, there was often a separate laundry room in the cellar or attic, where there was none, washing was done in the kitchens. The washing caused a commotion, and that was the reason why a whole day was devoted to it. Besides requiring considerable fitness, the washerwoman usually arrived once a month or took the laundry and returned the clean clothes with a family member.

Household appliances in the service of cleanliness

163722.jpgBehind the 'hygiene movement' was the realisation that contagious diseases were in connection with hygiene. Modernisation and the emergence of household appliances such as vacuum cleaners had a particularly strong impact on women living in households without maids. The prevailing expectation of the era, the dustless home, placed a heavy burden on middle-class housewives. Usually, washing machines had been a status symbol before the Second World War. Although washing powders appeared on the market already at the end of the century, the traditional detergents remained in use, even though they were known to be highly toxic.
The ladies of the family became the customers for new body care novelties. They could read about hygiene advice in magazines and in various brochures, but also received up-to-date information on new products, from sanitary napkins to slimming powder and face whitening cream. Of course, the really exclusive intimate hygiene products, like condoms, still had to be ordered from abroad.
Maids who moved from the countryside to urban households adopted this new way of thinking, which often caused consternation among family members who stayed at home. In rural areas, it was considered immoral to bathe too much or to take too much care of one's body.

Hygiene and beauty care slowly became a social expectation. The emergence of the familiar cosmetics brands Nivea, Kalodont and Odol show that the foundations of modern beauty care were laid during this period, as were the drugstore chains, not to mention the rise of hairdressers, beauticians and manicurists.

The idea for the exhibition was inspired by Noémi Szécsi's book, The Golden Book of Girls and Women!

Translated by Zita Aknai


Szécsi Noémi: Lányok és asszonyok aranykönyve, Szépség, egészség, termékenység és szexualitás a 19-20. század fordulóján, Park, Budapest, 2019.


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