Hot water, soap and shampoo; for most of us this is the start of our day. A shower or bath each morning is a habitual part of modern life that the majority of us couldn’t go without. Since the Victorian era, the British have been obsessed with being clean and the array of products with which we soak, soap and scrub. However, go further back into the Georgian and Stuart reigns and the picture is rather different. Up until the mid-eighteenth century, it was uncommon for people to wash the body with soap and water. The courtier and diarist, John Evelyn, wrote in 1653 that he was resolved to wash, but only once a year.
In contrast to most of her courtiers, Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, had an unusual penchant for washing with soap and water. A lively and intellectual woman, she promoted new ideas about bathing and the body that had begun to develop during the early eighteenth century. In 1724, an English physician could write with confidence that washing the body was beneficial because it freed the pores of sweat, ‘that glutinous foulness’. Shortly after her arrival in England in 1714, Caroline had a bathroom installed in her private apartments at Hampton Court Palace. This had a wooden tub and a supply of cold running water. Hot water had to be bought up the backstairs by the Queen’s Necessary Woman. When Caroline wished to bathe, her tub was lined with linen sheets and fitted with a stool. Once seated in the tub on the stool, the Queen soaped herself down using a scented soap beaten into a small quantity of water in a bowl. Water from the tub was then scooped up and tipped over her from another bowl. All this was done while Caroline wore a bathing dress and cap to cover her head!
While novel for the time, Queen Caroline’s bathing practices were still very different to our own. Nevertheless, the Queen’s penchant for cleanliness was an important step towards modern attitudes towards soap and water. The Georgian age was the moment when our own fastidious practices of washing the body were born.