French king Henri IV sent an emissary to the Paris home of his superintendent of finances, the Duc de Sully, in 1610 to request his presence at a meeting. On the arrival the messenger was shocked to find Sully taking a bath. The Duc prepared to leave his bath and attend the king but the messenger stalled him, alarmed. “Monsieur, do not quit your bath,” he said. “I fear that the king cares so much for your health,and so depends on it, that if he had known you were in such a situation, he would have come here himself.” With that emissary returned to Henri who, after taking medical advice, decided to reschedule the meeting at Sully’s house. The Duc received a note telling him to greet the king the following day” in your nightshirt, your leggings, your slippers and your nightcap, so that you come to no harm as a result of your recent bath.”
This antipathy to washing had begun with the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Prior to that bathing had been a popular activity, with thousands of Europeans flocking to public baths on a regular basis. The Romans famously loved to bath and despite a hiatus in the early Middle Ages, returning crusaders resurrected the idea of public baths, having experienced them in the east. However,when the plague arrived and begun to decimate populations across the continent, bodily washing was considered by some to be the culprit. It was believed that the disease was spread by water, entering the person through pores in the skin. Baths closed and the dirtiest ever period in the western world begun.
Health experts began to claim that diseases in general were spread through pores in the skin and that the solution was to plug them with dried sweat. In consequence, Europeans tended to reek. Smell was pretty much the ocean in which everybody was swimming. And it wasn’t just the poor who were dirty – the rich and powerful were equally neglectful of their personal hygiene. Queen Elizabeth I was known to take a bath monthly, while in France Louis XIII hadn’t bathed at all until he was seven. There truly was no social distinction when it came to dirtiness. The king’s body was the most precious body in the kingdom and because the best doctors of the day were telling him to wrap his body in the covering of sweat, to close up his pores, it is likely that the king took fewer baths than some of his subjects.
In the mid-19th century sanitary reformers went through France and tried to teach peasants that they could take more than one bath in their lifetime. But those peasants still believed that if they got into the water that they were going to die. Queen Victoria had no bathroom in Buckingham Palace when she acceded to the throne in 1837, and even as late as 1881, less then four percent of households in the German city of Cologne had one. The British had indoor plumbing more than half a century before the French did, even though the French knew all about it. In around 1830 when someone told the chief water engineer in Paris that in London a third of houses had piped water, he replied that it was a big mistake, it was never going to work.
With improvements of scientific knowledge, the health concerns relating to baths gradually receded and at the same time the benefits to the body of keeping clean were expounded. Florence Nightingale’s medical success were associated with washing her patients and in the American Civil War deaths from disease and injury were reduced the same way. The upper and middle classes took up bathing again and it was resulted in the strong class dividing. Suddenly upper class people noticed that the peasants, farmers and working people smelled differently, and to their mind not good.
These days the vast majority of people living in the west have the opportunity to wash as often as they like, and for many, cleanliness is little short of an obsession. As was in the beginning of 20th century, that was the interest of soap makers, deodorant makers, talcum powder and perfume makers to make us worried about how we smell.