Ladies Glowed But Did Not Smell

Joined
Jun 7, 2021
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According to great-grandma 😊 "Freshen up" was what ladies did before the invention of deodorant. Women used cotton pads, often homemade, that were tied with ribbons into the armpits of their dresses. They carried extra ones in their purses so when the ones they were using were soaked with sweat or started to smell, they excused themselves to wash their unshaved armpits and insert dry pads. Rose water, etc. was useful for splashing under your arm or on the pads to reduce stink. A lady could "freshen" throughout the day. Were dress shields, as these pads were called, used by ladies during the civil war? After all, you could not easily wash some of those elaborate dresses.
 
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Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Conventional wisdom seems to be that before deodorant everyone had body odor and they were ok with that. I don't think that was true. Everyone, including the men, washed up throughout the day, and they didn't just wash their hands and face, in my experience. (Rural Kentucky) Jokes about corncob husks aside, sometimes a rag with a little water was needed. The idea that you can wash in the morning, apply deodorant, and be good for the next 24 hours, is a new one. Washstands with wash bowls and water pitchers were in bedrooms and on back porches.

Even poor people had wash buckets in the kitchen. The problem was getting soap. I've watched my grandparents make lye soap (they made the lye with wood ashes) and you had to use up a considerable amount of lard, which a poor family might have a scant supply of. Various accounts of train or stagecoach travel I've read have references to the smell of low class people (too poor to have soap). But people tried hard to be clean. Like clothing, it was a way of signaling your status.
 

Wisteria

Cadet
Joined
Jun 17, 2021
Some 15 years ago I wrote a blog about Victorian homes. I learned a lot about them over the decades, read countless books, took notes of info I found interesting and didn't want to forget, and so used to answer questions from folks on a couple old house forums, and those working on Victorian doll houses. Eventually I just combined my notes into a readable website.
From my blog on the subject of bathing:
In 1799 Elizabeth Drinker wrote in her journal that she had taken a shower bath, and that it was the first time she had been wet all over in 28 years. By 1836 it was advised that a young lady should wash herself completely with soap and water every 24 hours so as not to offend. Godey’s Lady’s Book , was advising readers in 1860 that bathing at night was ill advised, while bathing briefly in the morning once a week was fine. Before the 19th century, and even well into it, people washed themselves with water and a sponge when they felt they needed it. This final point was a matter of personal choice. Some felt they needed a washing every day, some once a week, or once a month or once every few years or so. At that, they didn’t use soap. Soap was for laundry. Soap for bathing wasn’t commonly used till the second half of the 19th c.
Showers were generally used only by men. Elizabeth Drinker’s husband and sons had been using the shower for a year before she agreed to give it a try. Women were considered the weaker sex, delicate and fragile compared to men. The streams of water were widely felt to be harmful to women. Home décor authority Charles E. White wrote in 1914 that "……some constitutions cannot stand the rigors of shower bathing, a practice which should be resorted to only under the advice of a physician." Until well into the 1930’s few women showered, so there were few showers within the home. People bathed. Of course, there were households that didn’t mind paying extra to get a shower installed.

Also, for centuries, those who could afford changes of linen, meaning undergarments, would change their linen several times a day to avoid body odor. Modern day historians have tested this and found it true. British historian Lucy Worsley tried it for a week to see for herself. I recall seeing a you tube video about it.
 

Booklady

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Joined
Mar 19, 2017
Location
New England
Later in time, but I always loved the description of ladies in To Kill a Mockingbird:
Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

I went to a presentation once at an antebellum B&B in Vicksburg where it was claimed that nosegays were also used to avoid having to smell the body odor of others. True or not, I don't know.

 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
To be clear- "in 1836 ...a young lady should wash herself with soap and water every 24 hours..." ? Is that when it first became acceptable to use soap on your body instead of just laundry, etc.? I recall reading a diary of a Union soldier who mentions taking soap and a towel to a nearby creek where he had to "break the ice on the creek to have my morning wash."
Showers, before the advent of home water heaters, were cold showers, and I have seen them recommended for men in mid 19th century newspapers as being "bracing" and "strengthening. " 😲 I can see where the shock of a cold shower would be judged too much for a delicate woman!
 

Wisteria

Cadet
Joined
Jun 17, 2021
In one social class the young lady would use imported perfumed soap to wash herself. In another social class a young lady would respond with, are you kidding? I'm not putting soap on myself, soap's for washing clothes.
There was soap - and there was soap. Soap as we think of it today, was a luxury item in the early decades of the US. The soap that common people used and may have made themselves at home was rather rough on the skin, so who'd willingly want to use it on their hands and face? Imagine washing your face with a bar of Fels Naptha. I recall my mom used to pretreat my father's work clothes with it back in the 1950's & 60's. Soap manufacturing in the US got it's big start in the 1840'-50's, and even then, it was primarily for laundry, etc.
Life was very different compared to today. I recall some women who were shocked and appalled when they learned it was the norm to have your sons sleeping up in the attic, where snow would drift through openings in the roof and cover the kids' blankets by morning. One of the houses in Sturbridge Village, MA, has the parent's room and guestroom on the 2nd floor, the the girls are in a couple of simple beds in the attic, with the boys housed in an upper loft above them. Today that's child abuse, back then that was normal.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
In one social class the young lady would use imported perfumed soap to wash herself. In another social class a young lady would respond with, are you kidding? I'm not putting soap on myself, soap's for washing clothes.
There was soap - and there was soap. Soap as we think of it today, was a luxury item in the early decades of the US. The soap that common people used and may have made themselves at home was rather rough on the skin, so who'd willingly want to use it on their hands and face? Imagine washing your face with a bar of Fels Naptha. I recall my mom used to pretreat my father's work clothes with it back in the 1950's & 60's. Soap manufacturing in the US got it's big start in the 1840'-50's, and even then, it was primarily for laundry, etc.
Life was very different compared to today. I recall some women who were shocked and appalled when they learned it was the norm to have your sons sleeping up in the attic, where snow would drift through openings in the roof and cover the kids' blankets by morning. One of the houses in Sturbridge Village, MA, has the parent's room and guestroom on the 2nd floor, the the girls are in a couple of simple beds in the attic, with the boys housed in an upper loft above them. Today that's child abuse, back then that was normal.
LOL , well we used grandma's lye soap on body, face, hands and hair. It made your hair really shiny 😊 That said, it depended on the amount of lye that ended up in the finished product, and since it was all homemade, that could vary a lot. I recall some batches that were set aside and designated as "for laundry or cleaning only."
Also - if I'm remembering right -the quality depended on whether pure, white, newly rendered lard was used to make the soap, or you were using up bacon drippings that had gone rancid. Using fresh lard produced a rather fine soap. I liked the clean smell. No one I knew could afford imported soap though!
 
Was castile soap a thing? I seem to remember my mother and at least one of my grandmothers talking about and/or using castile soap. But we were Westerners, not Southerners.

ETA, I can't imagine bathing with something made from rancid bacon drippings. :sick:
For years I've used Kirk's Castile bar soap made with coconut oil. It can be difficult to find in local stores but I load up on it when my local Kroger or small grocery store has it in stock. It's more expensive than most bar soaps.
 

Pete Longstreet

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Mar 3, 2020
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Hartford, CT
I've always said us men have it easier than the ladies when it comes to appearance. I give them credit. We don't have to straighten our hair, put on makeup, get our nails done. I couldn't imagine having to change cotton pads underneath my armpits...
 
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