Weird History

Just How Poor Was People’s Hygiene During The French Revolution?  

Jim Rowley
41.1k views 14 items

Today, we think of 1700s-era France as a period of unwashed and unparalleled squalor. While this is partially a misconception, it does contain some truth. During the 18th century, people's attitudes towards personal hygiene were laxer than they are today, for a variety of reasons.

In a world without the hundreds of modern conveniences we take for granted, personal hygiene was expensive and logistically difficult to maintain. Besides that, experts of the time believed that being too clean was unhealthy. Towards the end of the century, medical and scientific advances showed the benefits of cleanliness, and hygiene was gradually understood to be beneficial. Despite this, cleanliness was still a luxury reserved for the elite.

The French Revolution (1789-1799) was meant to secure more rights for all citizens, and it completely transformed the country's political landscape. However, it also changed the day-to-day aspects of French lives, including people's hygiene. For many living in the 21st century, bathing is little more than a mundane habit, but during the French Revolution, hygiene was very much a political issue.

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Photo: Victor Kühnen/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Bathing Was Considered Dangerous Due To Poor Water Quality

A popular misconception about France in the 1700s was that no one bathed. One story even claims that King Louis XIV only took three baths in his entire life. In fact, Louis was particularly invested in cleanliness and frequently employed his Turkish bath at the Palace of Versailles.

Most other people, however, did not bathe often. During much of the 18th century, most people had no access to clean water. Regardless, most people believed that bathing was unhealthy. Popular belief held that opening the pores with hot water invited all manner of diseases into the skin. Bodily filth served as a de facto protective layer against illness.

Most people simply took sponge or dry baths, rinsing their hands, faces, and nether regions, using as little water as possible.

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Bathing Eventually Became A Political Statement

The idea of bathing being a beneficial practice spread slowly. It was only in 1769 that Scottish doctor William Buchan published Domestic Medicine, an instructional book urging people to bathe regularly.

By the 1780s, bathing positivity was still new in France. Even if one did accept the health benefits of bathing, however, the practice was still only a realistic option for the rich. Running water did not yet exist, so collecting water required traveling to the closest available source - which was likely tainted - and carrying it back to the home to heat it.

Citizen access to bathing was so controversial that it became a motivator for the French Revolution. In 1793, the National Convention’s Committee on Salubrity declared that good hygiene was a fundamental right of all healthy citizens.

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People Doused Themselves With Perfume

As you can imagine, infrequent bathing meant that people were often quite ripe. Rather than accept persistent body odor, most people opted to mask their natural musk with perfume. 

Early in the 18th century, many believed that perfumes could contain a medicinal component, so a wide variety of ingredients were included. Some recipes included fox lungs, viper flesh, wolf liver, bear fat, salamander ashes, or something called “oil of worm.” Other recipes contained precious materials like gold, silver, and pearls, or even bodily fluids. These perfumes would be applied all over the body and even combed into the hair.

By the end of the century, perfumes were solely used for olfactory purposes. Perfumes would be dispersed with burners, and some wealthy homes featured perfume fountains. The French aristocracy loved their fragrances and spent lavishly on them. One of Marie Antoinette’s favorites contained 18 different ingredients, including orange blossom, petitgrain, bergamot, lavender, lemon, galbanum, iris, violet, narcissus, lily, tuberose, vanilla, cedar, sandalwood, amber, musk, and benzoin.

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Everyone Was Lousy With Lice, And So Were Their Wigs

Another side effect of infrequent bathing is lice. While today we think of lice as an itchy nuisance, lice have historically been responsible for spreading epidemics, such as typhus.

To combat lice, the French nobility began shaving their heads and wearing elaborate powdered wigs. This didn’t stop lice infestation, however - the lice simply migrated onto people's wigs. To make matters worse, recipes for hair products often contained ingredients lice love to eat. One recipe for hair pomade included a pound of sheep suet (fat), a pound of pig suet, sixteen rosewater-boiled apples and rosewood oil, bay leaves, bergamot orange, or Macassar oil. These lice-infested wigs would eventually be cleaned by boiling them or baking them in an oven. 

But powdered wigs were expensive and, like baths, weren’t an option for most of the population. During the French Revolution, elaborate powdered wigs were seen as a status symbol of the bourgeois and fell out of favor. Instead, members of the new regime adopted much simpler haircuts.