D'Artagnan in the bathroom
As a kid, I loved "The Three Musketeers" and D' Artagnan was definitely my idol. I had read the famous novel by Alexandre Dumas in an abridged version for children and I had grown a strong passion for that world in which friendship, comradeship, high ideals and chivalry led to adventurous and heroic stories.
My passion was so great that I recall my grandmother sowing me my own special musketeer costume one year for the Carnival celebrations, a strong tradition here in Italy where kids wear costumes to parade in streets. It was a beautiful musketeer outfit, made of precious red velvet, silk, lace and embroidery and came with a hat with a long feather, a real bird feather. I remember making a great impression and actually winning a prize in a school play while wearing that costume.
When I grew up, my compulsive reading obviously made me read the full version of Dumas’ novel, which revealed the twists and details that had been modestly edulcorated in the children's version.
The novel is set in the France of Louis XIII, who would then be succeeded by the famous King Sun, whose earthly star would have shone in the magnificent and equally celebrated palace of Versailles, one of the top destinations of international tourism.
I have recently seen an amateur documentary on the web about personal hygiene in the palace of Versailles at the time of the King Sun, which actually described no care whatsoever for hygiene.
The king used to give hospitality to around three thousand nobles in the Versailles palace (rather than conceding them the privilege of a life in the palace, the true intentions of the king were probably to keep the nobles under a tight control), which really was not a place of cleanliness and hygiene.
With the premise that each noble required around three servants to be properly attended - a bit like what happens on modern-time cruise ships, one can easily imagine the impact such a large number of residents had on managing the palace and all the tasks and services that had to be carried out on a daily basis – and the burden this meant in terms of waste produced to be disposed of and areas to be cleaned.
Though with some limitations, the documentary managed to get a few interesting considerations across on a subject – toilet needs – which no one has ever really enjoyed debating about, neither in our times nor in the past.
I recall a passage from the "Galateo: the Rules of Polite Behaviour", a guide to what one should do and avoid in ordinary social life written by Florentine Giovanni Della Casa in the sixteenth century, in which he warns about avoiding inappropriate behaviour and talk on personal care, like telling jokes about it and acting in a way that may be disturbing or disgusting to others.
I believe that many have read "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" by Patrick Süskind, a novel that also describes the creativity and work involved in making perfumes.
The first part of the novel gives a rather bleak picture of the hygienic habits of the time.
Though Süskind’s novel is set in 18th-century France, poor hygiene standards were a problem throughout Europe in those times.
Worthy of note is that there were a few praiseworthy exceptions, such as Holland for instance, which had adopted high cleanliness standards, yet the most of Europe was totally unaware of the importance of keeping certain cleanliness standards.
The documentary I had watched on the internet and Süskind encouraged me to investigate the matter further, with obviously no intention of this meaning to be any sort of historical research work, which I do happen to know quite well however (I passed an exam on Methodology of Historical Research in my university studies), but rather a kind of divertissement performed through internet searches and while enjoying a coffee break.
Nonetheless, I can assure you that I always double-check my sources of information, something of the utter importance when working in the news media sector.
I decided to start by simply searching for "hygiene in the 18th century”, which led to a great deal of information on the subject.
My analysis quickly drove me back in time, much back.
As an Italian, hence belonging to a culture that comes from the Ancient Romans, who were quite advanced in their hygiene routine and had the custom of going to the baths on a regular basis, my investigation led me to the ruins of Pompeii where excavations have unveiled the very strong culture the ancient Romans had for public baths, facilities that were accessible to everybody and suited all pockets.
Bathing was something the ancient Greeks had passed on to the Romans. In fact, the term "hygiene" comes from the Greek goddess Hygieia - deity of health - that went on to be worshipped by ancient Romans as well.
In those times, there was a certain attention for personal care. Dirt was removed with scrapers and water. Soap was not used, since it was yet to be invented by the Arabs (the famous Turkish baths tell us of the high hygiene standards, still in place today).
Moreover, public baths and meeting for doing the laundry were popular also because they represented important moments of social life.
We have all heard about baths in ancient Romans’ time, while not everyone might know that the Middle Ages, wrongly considered a dark period, had more than acceptable standards of personal hygiene.
Many paintings of the period often describe personal care and washing scenes.
I specifically mean an individual’s personal care routine, because hygiene of environments was a totally different business and not equally cared for. Rubbish was dumped onto the streets, with the inevitable consequences anyone can imagine as spread of infections and diseases is concerned.
Though it was a later time, the eighteenth century was definitely a time when personal hygiene had hit a low.
Back to the palace of Versailles, there were no bathrooms, no one washed, but rather just brushed off the dirt quickly without using any water and then used a lot of perfume to cover bad smells.
In the absence of toilet facilities and a sewer system, there were weird systems and technologies to cater for the bodily needs bowel movements triggered, which however had obvious collateral effects, such as a terribly unbearable stench.
Noteworthily, frequent washing was considered reprehensible in those times, with the king himself who proudly used to boast that he took a bath once or twice a year.
What are the reasons for such a radical change in personal hygiene customs through history, from a culture of going to the public baths and even having bathtubs in homes at the time of the ancient Romans to no washing at all in 18th century Europe?
As in the popular game of chutes and ladders, we need to slide back to the 17th century, the century of the great plague epidemics that devastated Europe – sadly, a situation similar to the pandemic we are experiencing in current times.
Well, one of the aspects that was most affected by the pestilence outbreak was the custom of washing oneself. In fact, it was believed that washing in hot water would open skin pores and let infectious diseases into the body, a belief which obviously was bound to put a stop to the routine of washing, be it in public baths or in the privacy of one’s home.
The culture of reducing personal hygiene to a minimum would linger for long and we need to reach the Enlightenment period to see some major change.
Luckily, in modern times, waste disposal and collection have gradually been regulated and are being improved all the time while.
Going back to our analysis of the history of personal hygiene, science started contributing to the matter in 1774, when the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered chlorine. Following that, it was learnt that mixing chlorine with water had a whitening effect (Claude-Louis Berthollet), while chlorine and lye formed a solution that worked as a disinfectant (Antoine Labarraque) - bleach had been invented!
As we approach modern times, people got increasingly aware of how cleanliness was an essential element of daily life, not only to preserve a person’s well-being but also for the implications hygiene had on individual and collective health.
Recurring infections and epidemics increasingly challenged medicine, whose development started to speed up, with major results beginning to be yielded.
The leap forward in improving hygiene occured in the 19th century, when the development of more complex urban environments introduced sewer systems, water draining systems and septic tanks.
Toilet systems started appearing in homes and, though they have gone through some obvious evolution, have basically remained the same up to our time.
History finally entered a period of breakthrough intuitions that would revolutionise the world of healthcare.
The first major medical congresses and healthcare events were organised.
People’s awareness of the importance of keeping personal hygiene, washing hands regularly and using soap and water grew rapidly.
In a previous article, we had already mentioned the Austrian physician Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis, who introduced hand washing between visiting patients in the maternity ward to put a stop to the deadly infections carried from one patient to the other by the doctors themselves.
Noteworthily, we should also mention the British surgeon Joseph Lister.
Applying Louis Pasteur's advances in microbiology, Lister successfully introduced the practice of sterilising surgical instruments and cleaning wounds, which dramatically reduced the number of patients that died following surgery.
Soon after, an unstoppable process of advances in medicine was triggered and that projects us into present time.
To mention a major milestone, in 1907 the World Health Organization (WHO) was created, an organisation we have got used to hearing of in recent times because of the Covid-19 emergency.
Our journey through the history of hygiene ends here (for the time being at least).
Another topic worth reporting on is the history of well-being, as we know it today, that is, with the awareness that today preserving health and well-being is not just a matter of using soap and water.
Indeed, France has played a major role in this sector as well.
In fact, while the palace of Versailles stands as an undignified example of poor cleanliness, France has the historical merit of being the undisputed cradle of personal care, cosmetics and perfumery, with brands that have become iconic and are always at the forefront of product innovation.
Still today, France stands as a benchmark we all respectfully look at in the personal care industry, something my childhood hero D'Artagnan would be very proud of!