So apparently it was not common in the US to shower more than once a week until the 1940s, around the same time people started using deodorant regularly. Are the regulars of Lackadaisy all radiating a personal funk that everyone is too polite to talk about?
Hmm. Interesting topic.
To start with: yep. People were probably dirtier and smellier in the past, on average. Everything was. Cigarette smoke permeated the walls and rugs and upholstery of every interior and surely clung to everyone’s clothing. Coal dust and smoke lingered in the air outside where businesses were beset with scant environmental regulation, and where industrial and residential zones were nestled in together. All sorts of noxious things were dumped into the rivers, and considerably more people did hard, manual labor and factory work in conditions we’d regard as deplorable now…but which probably seemed pretty normal to them. If the sweaty dock worker next to you hadn’t bathed since last Saturday, you probably didn’t notice or care, because you hadn’t either, and the body of water you were standing over smelled a whole lot worse.
Having opened with that, though, there are a lot of adages still floating around out there about how little people bathed in the past and how rank they must have been as a result, but there’s a fair amount of misunderstanding, untruth, and unaccounted for cultural change mixed into those ideas too. So, here are some things to consider about the early 20th century-
- If your criteria for ‘bathing’ is limited to being in a full size bathtub with running water, standing under a showerhead or soaking, then yes, bathing was comparatively infrequent. It is not generally true, however, that people didn’t wash and otherwise put effort into keeping themselves clean. This might involve jumping in a stream or spring, going at it sponge-bath style, ladling water over themselves in a small tub, or routinely cleaning up with the pitcher and bowl washstand found in most any bedroom where a sink was not within reach.
- Whether or not you bathed regularly in a bathtub or shower would depend a whole lot on where you lived. Bear in mind that extensive water/sewer systems, indoor plumbing and the convenience of a dedicated bathroom in one’s house containing a sink, toilet and tub were still new developments in the early 20th century. My house, for example, was built ~1910 in a place just outside the city. Originally, it had an outhouse in the yard and no bathrooms inside. Fitting it with bathrooms and plumbing would have been a big deal and a big expense - not everyone was able to hop on that modernity bandwagon right away. For many, submerging themselves in water still required filling up a copper basin with buckets lugged in from an outdoor pump and heated on a stove. It wouldn’t be very practical to do that more than once a week.
- It is certainly true that people didn’t wash their hair as often, but again, it doesn’t mean they didn’t take pains to care for their hair. Our modern idea of liquid shampoo didn’t come about until around 1927. Lye soaps in powder form that were previously available tended to be very harsh and conditioners as we know them weren’t around to mitigate the effects, so washings had to be infrequent if you didn’t want to chemically alleviate yourself of your locks. Washing with oils, vinegar and eggs (or some combination thereof) was a common approach too. Brushes and talc were used to control grease build-up between washes. Hairstyling in the 1920s also involved a lot of pomades and waxes. It’d generally stay put for a while and, as you might imagine, getting all of it out of your hair would be something of a chore. “I’m washing my hair that night” sounds like a sarcastic cop out on a social engagement, but it wasn’t always such a weak excuse.
Arguably, nowadays, we wash our hair a bit too often, though….which brings me to the next thing.
- Advertising holds enormous cultural sway, and in the 20’s and 30’s, the collective standard of what ‘clean’ is changed rather profoundly. As magazines flourished and radio became a staple of existence, people were pelted with ads for soaps, detergents, deodorants, antiperspirants and other hygiene products. Many of them were new revelations…and many of them were inventing problems to sell cures for, generating new levels of self-consciousness and cashing in on shame. Listerine, previously better known as a floor cleaning agent and treatment for certain sexually transmitted infections, famously launched a melodramatic crusade against halitosis - a plague the people had not even realized they were so ruinously afflicted with beforehand. The term ‘soap opera’ comes from soap and cleaner manufacturers buying up all of the daytime radio broadcast advertising space during which drama serials aired. People were newly expected to clean in certain ways at certain intervals with certain products.
Cleanliness is important, of course - there’s definitely an aspect of social courtesy to it, and scientifically based bar-raising on that front has done much to minimize death from infection, but to an extent, you might also say the 1920s marked the emergence of a sort of consumer driven, culturally normalized neurosis about it.