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.
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.
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.
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.
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.