One of the important pieces of research I must do for my books is to look at the differences between how we live today and how we lived in the early 1900s. In writing book one of The Nora White Story, for instance, I found myself researching some strange things, such as how the people bathed back then. It may sound funny but such details can make or break a work of Historical Fiction. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself doing weeks of research just for a single scene. Here’s an excerpt from The Nora White Story:
“Sunday night baths were the norm but the boys got so dirty in the field that mom was bathing them every night. Nora and Walter would take turns drawing the water up from the well on the land, Nora would set it to boil on the stove and let sit for cooling. Nobody wanted to hear the boys complain the water was too hot. They’d give any excuse not to get in. Then, Nora and mother would haul the large round tub into the kitchen—the warmest room in the house—and fill it with the now warm water.”
At first, this scene didn’t exist. I pretty much stopped at when the boys would need bathing. Then a thought struck me “They didn’t have bathtubs like we do today”. That is when I went on a quest to understand how it was done.
First, people didn’t necessarily bathe daily. That is because to bathe wasn’t as simple as walking into the bathroom and turning on the shower. Without indoor plumbing, bathing was a lot of work and required carrying buckets of water from a lake, river, or well into the kitchen.
Then, the water had to be heated after which it would be poured into the bathtub.
The bathtub was literally that: a tub that you could carry from room to room. It was not rooted to the floor like our bathtubs today but portable. You also did not necessarily have the same kind of privacy. The tub could sit in the middle of the floor in the living room if you wanted it to which is why some families dedicated a room to the bath for more privacy. This was the bath room where the tub sat in the middle of the floor and people would come into this room to bathe. There was nothing in this room but the tub (Think “The Color Purple” when Celie helped to bathe Shug Avery.)
Because of the work it took to gather the water and heat it for the bath, everyone used the same water. You may scrunch your face now but back then you would have been delighted. Imagine, you just walked a few miles (back and forth) for a bucket of water just to take a bath.
The order was usually as follows: The father, as the head of the household, bathed first. The mother would bathe next followed by the children.
The children would bathe in order of the oldest to the youngest. So, as Nora is the oldest, she would bathe after Molly, her mother.
If you think that’s disgusting then maybe you haven’t heard how they did it in Europe…
While baths go back centuries and were in many ways as common as they are today, it was believed in many parts of Europe that water could carry disease into the body through the pores in the skin. According to one medical treaty of the 16th century, “Water baths warm the body, but weaken the organism and widen pores. That’s why they can be dangerous and cause different diseases, even death.” They also felt with the pores opening after a bath, that this caused infections of the air having easier access to the body. Because of such belief (bathing becoming associated with disease), lots of people refused baths, some going so far as to only take a bath once a year. The time of year was during the summer, particularly around the month of June. This became the ideal time of the year to be married since it was also when most people bathed.
It got so bad that for people who were poorer, particularly men, they largely neglected bathing whenever possible. In fact, people tended to restrict their hygiene to just washing hands, parts of the face, and rinsing their mouths. Washing one’s entire face was thought to be dangerous as it was believed to cause catarrh (excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane) and weaken the eyesight.
What about showers?
Showers existed on some level in the early 1900s but it was for rich people who bought them for supposed health benefits (my first draft of Nora mentioned she was freshly “showered” lol. When I went back over it I was like wait, showers didn’t exist back then!) Well, they did, just not how I’d imagined….
The Nora White Story is set in 1923 and showers began to appear in the 1880s and appear in “normal” (not rich) homes in the 1920s. Although, these showers were much different than the showers we use today.
“The earliest showers were rather like having a pail of water tipped over you from a height. By the 1880s there were some more sophisticated contraptions available. They could be fully integrated with indoor plumbing and came complete with an array of taps and valves to adjust temperature, water flow, and more. Patent mixers were invented to make sure the water could never be scalding hot. One manufacturer promised their needle shower would not let water go over 98 degrees F (body temperature). Showers were supposed to be invigorating and health-giving, so cool or lukewarm water was considered beneficial.” – Vintage Antique Showers (This site will go on to explain how the shower evolved over the centuries).
Writing Historical / Literary Fiction is definitely an adventure and has to it more than an opportunity to be informed but also an element of humility. To think we can walk into the bathroom today and turn on the shower or run a bath whenever we want without the added labor of filling buckets of water.
As you prepare your bath or shower tonight, take a moment to think about how privileged you are to be able to turn on a faucet. In certain parts of Africa for instance, they continue the ritual of gathering water from rivers each day, liters of water for drinking, cooking, washing and feeding cattle because they do not have access to clean drinking water.
“How blessed are we to have complaints so small they can fit on the tips of our tongues.” Rudy Francisco.