The 18th Century Historical Innaccuracy I Can't Do Without

Like most historical novelists, I take great pains to ensure as much historical accuracy as possible. However, while I try not to idealize the past, I also strive not to hit the reader over the head with the many unsavory details of the day e.g. slavery, abuse of women, child labor practices, personal hygiene issues etc. Better to cover those in a blog than in the novel!

Bathing is one of those every day realities.
Le Bain, artist: Alfred Stevens
Source: Wikimedia Commons,
color version courtesy of the Art Renewal Center
This is image is in public domain in the US as the copyright has expired.
Please refer to the Wikimedia requirements for citation
if you wish to reuse it.

For some reason, and I am still researching this, bathing became immoral in the dark ages. Perhaps most things became immoral during the dark ages and bathing was just one of many. Here’s a really intersting post on bathing in the middle ages for those of you with an interest in this era.

The taboo against bathing didn’t wane until sometime during the Victorian era. You can see this in many of the historical romance novels set in anything from medieval Europe to the 20th century. Very little mention is made of bathing and only a cursory washing of the face and hands at a basin. The image included above is 19th century, but even so I find it interesting that she appears to be wearing some sort of chemise.

The Jefferson Monticello site has an excellent post that discusses the gradual increase in acceptance of bathing – from cold baths for health reasons (not hygiene) to the reemergence of public bathhouses at the turn of the 19th century.

Jefferson, evidently, wasn’t one of the more progressive bathers, mentioning only the bathing of his feet in cold water in the morning. No evidence of bathtubs has been found yet on the property. However, it seems he was far more progressive when it came to his toilet facilities. For those of you who want to know more about Jefferson’s bathrooms, here’s a post on that.

So far, my heroines end up taking at least one bath in each of my novels. Not every day, as that would be glaringly inaccurate, but I find I just can’t leave them too dirty. In the manuscript I just submitted to my publisher, my heroine had been serving aboard a ship for two months, and I simply had to give her a bath before her first intimate moment with the captain. After all, I had described her looking progressively grimier throughout the book, and I didn’t think the average reader was going to buy an intimate encounter unless she cleaned up a bit.

I know some of you are thinking, “now where did they get enough fresh water on a ship for  bath?” It was a luxury and a gift from the captain, the ship was never at sea for long since they patrolled the new England coast and  it was rainwater. Hopefully that appeases the skeptics!

In Le Chevalier, I have both the heroine and hero take baths. In the case of my hero, Le Chevalier de Mont Trignon, he is a Frenchman with an aversion to the perfumes so popular in his country. His penchant for bathing sets him apart from his countrymen. That said, I was surprised at the Monticello article on bathing citing:

The number of bathrooms installed in new, prestigious French residences increased from approximately 6% in 1750 to about one out of three, or 30%, in 1800.
Original source: Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness, 157
I recall the miniseries, John Adams, had a scene where a scandalized Adams has to talk with Ben Franklin as he shares a bath with a Frenchwoman. I always assumed that was a scene set to capture Franklin’s shocking behavior and Adam’s disapproving nature and that it never actually happened. However, if the number of bathrooms and, as the Monticello article implies, baths, was steadily increasing in fashionable French homes, perhaps it was more likely than I thought.

If you know more about the history of bathing, I’d love to hear from you. For readers of romance, is the hygiene of the characters something you think twice about? Or do you prefer to focus on the story and let love conquer all – including the gritty details of daily life?


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