From Reality to Fantasy (Part 7): Hand Washing and Hygiene Before Indoor Plumbing

The idea for this post came to me during one of the Taipei Writers Group critique meetings. We were discussing a fascinating horror/fantasy novel project by Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. One of the settings conjured up images of cathedrals and monasteries and cloisters, and that struck a light in my brain. You know what a bloody world with that kind of architecture needs: more places to wash your hands.

Ah, the days before indoor plumbing. Chamber pots, outhouses, and wash basins. Think about what hands washing would be like with two dirty hands if you had to pour water from an ewer with one of them onto the other. This is same problem that airplane bathrooms have. How can you hold the faucet with one hand and scrub your hands? It’s baffling.

Well, enter the lavabo, and the lavatory it is kept in (hence the name). While mainly a religious invention, it saw secular use as well for the practicalities of washing dirty hands. The lavabo is an architectural feature of gardens and old religious buildings in Europe, which you have probably seen and not noticed. Before copper pipes and plumbing, a simple precursor existed.

Basically you just need some kind of container or reservoir in a high place and a basin to catch the falling water. Maybe the stream you use to wash your hands had a stone drain. Maybe it just was caught in a basin and carried off when full. Maybe they were operated by a spigot, maybe they flowed automatically like a fountain, or maybe you can to manually tip the water out.

What’s cool about these lavabos to me are that, instead of the modern sink, set on some kind of vanity in front of the wall, many lavabos were built into the thickness of garden and church walls. They came in many forms. Here are some examples I was able to find.


081 lawaterz1

 Sala delle udienze di vittoria della rovere (oggi refettorio), lavabo lorenese

Ferme-castrale-musee 08Puisette dans son lavabo 2

I personally love the idea of a sink built into the walls like this. They could do that in old castle-like chapels because the walls were so thick, whereas modern houses rest the sink on the top of cabinetry or a vanity because our walls are too thin for all that.

What about a shower?

Writers of medieval type fantasy, and even writers focused on the 1800s like me, may have wondered how people stayed clean without a daily shower. Days of hard manual work with no air conditioning surely left their mark on people’s aroma.

I saw the answer when I very little. When I was a kid, I loved playing at my Great Aunt Margie’s farmhouse. She had all sorts of interesting old stuff there. She even had an antique washstand, whose use I could not figure out at the time.


Sherlock Holmes Museum 006

Obermillstatt3Even as a kid, I figured it had something to do with hand washing. I never realized that this was how people took showers back in the day.

Ruth Goodman is probably the world’s foremost expert on the daily and family life of working class Victorians. Her latest book is a trove of information for writers. I’ve read it twice it was so good. Every page is packed with detail. She really pinpoints the practical realities of life in the past and explores them in depth.

victoriamechfinal.inddIn this excellent book, How to Be a Victorian, she writes this:

“All a person needed was a bowl, a slop pail, a flannel, some soap and a single jugful of hot water brought up from the kitchen … Victorian soap simply did not work in cold water — it neither dissolved nor lathered …”

Goodman goes on to explain the stand-up wash in great detail, of which I have excerpted just a little:

“With a single jug of water it is perfectly easy to wash and rinse the whole body. A little water is poured into the bowl and the flannel is dipped in and then wrung out. Some soap is applied and the scrubbing of the body can begin. When this first bowl of water begins to look murky it is emptied into the slop pail and freshly filled from the jug. And so it goes on until you are clean all over. Rather like scrubbing a floor, body washing could be done in sections, one bit scrubbed, rinsed and dried before moving on to the next. This allowed a person to remain mostly dressed throughout the operation … You could wash in this way without becoming severely chilled in a January bedroom, and with a great degree of modesty if you had to share accommodation (as most people did). … A loose nightgown or nightshirt could be worn throughout if necessary, while still allowing access to all parts of the body with a flannel.”

So there you go: the 19th century hygiene routine that crossed the classes. But before all that, there was another way to clean yourself, without using water at all.

Goodman also writes about the constant changing of cotton or linen underwear to take away the sweat and dirt from the body. She explains simply rubbing one’s skin with a linen towel that was dry and could be laundered thoroughly and often.

Then she writes, “A quick daily rub-down with a dry body cloth or a ‘flesh brush’ (a pad of suede leather on the back of a wooden brush) leaves the skin exfoliated, clean and comfortable. The longest I have been without washing with water is four months — and nobody noticed. … Many modern writers and historians like to revel in the opinion that people were dreadfully malodorous in the past, before modern washing with water took hold. My own experience makes me sceptical about their claims.”

I highly recommend the book for many reasons, but the first is that it has these types of descriptions. The author writes about many subjects with the complete knowledge of someone who has experimented authentically with Victorian living. As I learned as a newspaper reporter, there is no substitute for eyes on the ground, for checking things out hands-on.

Other Factors

I guess that most modern writers loathe the idea of life without hot showers, and I’m no exception, however, I hope this little glance into the washing contrivances of the past has been fun.

I could go on forever on this topic: the role of perfumes and colognes, hair oil, Roman baths, washtub bathing, the Victorian Turkish baths, how the San people of the Kalahari bathe in animal blood, and on and on.

Whatever time frame you are writing in, check into the hygiene of the time. It sounds like a boring topic, but most of what at first sounds boring about history turns out to be fascinating. Especially in fantasy, where there are monsters to dissect, poisons to handle, wounds to wash, and long wilderness journeys to be made, remember: give your characters a chance to wash up once in a while.

-Bradley Verdell


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