What Was Hygiene Like In The Victorian Era?

Practically every book, movie, and TV show made in the last century that references the Victorian era romanticizes the time period. Beautiful gowns, lavish homes, and passionate romance are staples of the now bygone time. But in much of the media we consume about the seemingly sophisticated Victorians, no one talks about where they got their water or went to the bathroom, or when they last bathed.

When you peel back all the layers of silk and lace, you'll discover that the Victorians were actually pretty gross. People didn't always bathe weekly - let alone daily - and indoor plumbing was a distant dream for most. As such, the Victorian era's frequent bouts of disease are unsurprising. Overall, women caught the brunt of bizarre trends in hygiene. So let's open our eyes, hold our noses, and find out what was really going on with the supposedly immaculate Victorians.


  • They Bleached Their Clothes With Urine

    Where laundry was concerned, Victorians often used more than soap to "clean" their clothing. Grease and oil stains were regularly combated by rubbing chalk into clothing, while kerosene could remove grass stains and blood stains alike.

    Milk was a go-to cleaner for removing urine stains and odors. In a similar vein, Victorians used their own urine to bleach clothes, since urine contains ammonia.

  • They Made Homemade Toothpaste Out Of Cuttlefish
    Photo: Dupons Brüssel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    They Made Homemade Toothpaste Out Of Cuttlefish

    Middle- and upper-class Victorians could easily purchase toothbrushes and toothpaste, but most working-class folks had to make home concoctions. Makeshift toothpaste could be made at home using soot, chalk, or powdered cuttlefish, among other options.

    Toothbrushes usually had harsh bristles and wooden handles. For those who could not afford a toothbrush, celery was thought to be abrasive enough to clean one's teeth while eating. While their oral hygiene wasn't ideal, their dentistry was even worse. Dental care was often provided by local barbers or blacksmiths if there was no dentist in the area.

  • They Had Indoor Toilets, But Not Indoor Plumbing

    The first indoor toilets, or "water closets," were popular for their convenience, but since they predated indoor plumbing, waste often went directly into a large cesspool in the basement. While this seemed like an ideal alternative to outhouses or chamber pots, the cesspools eventually filled, and the smell often seeped into the house.

    Thus arose the cottage industry of "night soil men," who emptied cesspools and sold the waste to farmers as fertilizer. Laws of the time stipulated that cesspools could only be emptied at night, as the task was "too disturbing" to undertake during the day.

  • Books Instructed Them On How To Bathe Properly

    As semi-regular bathing came into fashion, books were published that let Victorians know just what they could expect from a bath. One particular book offered various "Toilet Recipes" for curious, un-bathed Victorians. Much like the urban legend about swimming, people were advised against bathing within four hours of eating a large meal.

    Victorians were also warned not to wash their faces when they traveled, unless they could purify the water with alcohol or ammonia beforehand. One of the more popular beauty regimens recommended a "Russian bath," which consisted of washing the face with extremely hot, then extremely cold water to help prevent wrinkles.

  • Vinegar And Eggs Were The Cutting Edge Of Hair Care

    Victorians were obsessed with hair, but modern shampoo was a distant notion at the time. Women often broke several eggs over their heads, worked them into their hair, and then washed the egg out with a pitcher of water. Vinegar diluted with water was another popular option.

    In fact, many cooking-related items were popular pre-shampoo alternatives. Rosemary, black tea, and rum were all considered perfectly normal as hair-washing substances.

  • They Thought Bad Smells Were Responsible For Disease

    Today, bad smells are considered unpleasant at most, but Victorians were convinced that foul odors were dangerous. The miasma theory, also known as "night air," claimed that a variety of conditions, including chlamydia and cholera, could be spread through unclean air.

    Victorians went as far as to blame the poor health in London's impoverished areas on the smells emenating through the streets. Even famous nurse Florence Nightingale believed in miasma and thought clean air meant healthy patients.

    In fact, the poor sanitation in industrial areas caused disease, which led to bad smells. Today, miasma is considered a false science in the medical community thanks to modern sanitation and medicine.