Regency Era Personal Hygiene

In my blog post on Tuesday, I established that our ancestors were not as filthy and smelly as often claimed. Long before the Regency, bathing (even showering) was a way of life. If you missed that post, be sure to read it too! Today I shall dig deeper into bathing and personal hygiene practices and products. Surprises await so read on!

A while back I wrote a blog on shaving practices and products for gentlemen. This falls into the hygiene arena, so to read that post, click here: A Close Shave


Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen (with a bar of soap) by Henry Robert Morland (1716–1797)

The word soap, from the Latin sapo, first appeared in Pliny the Elder’s A.D. 77 encyclopedia Historia Naturalis where he discussed the substance manufactured from tallow and ashes as a pomade for the hair. The earliest recorded formula for soap — consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil — was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 B.C. The Ebers papyrus indicates that the Egyptians of 1550 B.C. combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance. True soaps for cleansing were produced by Islamic chemists in the first century A.D. They combined animal and vegetable oils with lye, far more effective, and all soaps since are descendants of this basic formula. The bath-obsessed Romans preferring to scrap the skin after languishing in steamy water for hours. This is actually a very effective method of cleaning and was the normal technique in many cultures. The Greeks cleaned their bodies with blocks of clay, sand, pumice, and ashes. Like the Romans, the Greeks also spread oils over their skin and scraped the top layers off with a metal instrument known as a strigil.

The fact is, while soap has an ancient history, the purpose and use of soaps were primarily for cleaning cooking utensils, textiles, and medicinally to treat wounds. In the second century A.D., the Greek physician, Galen, recommended soap for both medicinal and personal cleansing purposes. Sadly, after the fall of Rome in 467 A.D. and the resulting decline in bathing habits, much of Europe felt the impact of filth upon public health. This lack of personal cleanliness and related unsanitary living conditions contributed heavily to the great plagues of the Middle Ages, and especially to the Black Death of the 14th century. Gradually these attitudes changed and with the renewed desire to keep the body clean, chemists and soap manufacturers worked overtime to improve soap efficiency and distribution.

The English began making soap during the 12th century. In 1633 King Charles I granted a 14-year monopoly to the Society of Soapmakers of Westminster. According to Alison Sim, in her book The Tudor Housewife, wealthy ladies of the Tudor period (1485-1603) used a scented toilet soap or “castill soap” for their daily washing. This soap, made with olive oil and imported, was very expensive. In 1791, the French chemist Nicolas Leblanc discovered how to extract soda from common salt, synthesizing a solution of sodium hydroxide to create the first man-made lye. The new lye became a standard for soap making, transforming soap into an affordable commodity for all. Around the same time, Louis Pasteur proclaimed that good personal hygiene would reduce the spread of diseases.

The soap making process underwent radical changes as the Industrial Revolution marched on, but during the early decades of the 19th century it was still a lengthy and involved process. This fact and the exorbitant taxes imposed on soap (not revoked until 1853) meant that soap was very expensive, especially for the highest quality, refined soaps needed for bathing. This article on The Regency Redingote is fascinating and comprehensive: Soap in the Regency

To sum up, soaps were in common use by the Regency. However, affordable soaps were soft (not in bars) and tended to be more caustic. Firm bar soaps and those refined to be gentle for genteel skin and scented were costly. Those who could afford these fine soaps, like Pears Transparent Soap, used them with restraint and care.


The word shampoo is derived from the Hindi word champo> “to press, knead the muscles.” Sake Dean Mahomed, a Bengali traveler, surgeon, and entrepreneur, is credited with introducing the practice of champooi or “shampooing” to Britain. In 1814, Mahomed, with his Irish wife Jane Daly, opened the first commercial “shampooing” vapor masseur bath in Brighton. He described the treatment in a local paper as “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (a type of Turkish bath), a cure for many diseases and giving full relief when everything fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame legs, aches and pains in the joints.”

Prior to Mahomed’s introduction of the word, people used the same soap used on their body to clean their hair. Ancient India was, in fact, the first and only culture known to add herbs, fruit pulps, flowers, and other natural detergents and extracts specific for hair cleansing and treatment. In European countries, various products were concocted in the same vein but none were sold commercially. The credit for inventing liquid shampoo goes to German inventor Hans Schwarzkopf in 1927, over one hundred years after the Regency. Schwarzkopf’s shampoo assuredly was a major advancement in specializing hair care and a sign of what was to come, however, even his concoction was basically just soap with herbal additives for improved hair cleansing and manageability. Not until the 1930s, with the invention of synthetic surfactants (the detergent ingredient in soap), would our modern concept of shampoo begin.

There were people who insisted washing the hair was dangerous and/or bad for the hair. Thankfully, by the enlightened Regency, these attitudes had largely waned. How often women and men washed their hair is the real question. Male hairstyles in the Regency were short, thus easier to wash and quicker to dry than the long hair of females. Nevertheless, for either sex, it was unheard of to wash the hair daily. “Experts” on hygiene and hair care were mixed in their advice, recommendations ranging from washing weekly to “semi-weekly, or even oftener” with tips on how to wash and rinse, the best water temperature, what additives solved problems such as dandruff, and even how to remove the water and dry the hair.

As for hair conditioners, natural oils such as tea tree, sandalwood, orange, grapeseed, and jojoba have been used for centuries as an after-washing treatment. One of the most common products specific for hair styling and scalp conditioning was pomade, a French product whose name meant “ointment.” Originally an all-purpose ointment, pomade (also called pomatum) during the 18th and 19th centuries consisted mainly of bear fat and lard, these base oils giving the hair a shiny, slick appearance that lasted for days without drying out. Pomade has always been primarily a gentlemen’s product applied to beards and mustaches, but its superb ability to sculpt hair and add shine was beneficial to females. It also lasted longer than most hair care products, often requiring multiple washes to completely remove.

The first explicit hair-grooming conditioner was brilliantine from the French for “brilliant.” At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, French perfumer Ed Pinaud presented his concoction of perfume and colored oil as a way to soften MEN’s hair, beards, and mustaches to give them a glossy appearance. Full ranges of conditioners for men and women followed.


Documented history and archeological evidence prove that humans in every culture down through the ages have attended to the cleaning and health of their teeth. Everything from bamboo twigs, chew sticks and other plants with fibrous medicinal qualities, bird feathers, animal bones, and porcupine quills were used to keep the teeth cleaned. The first recorded toothbrush creation was in 15th century China. The Chinese toothbrush was of natural bristles plucked from the necks of pigs and attached to a bone or bamboo handle. These were brought from China to Europe, the design adapted using softer horsehairs or feathers.

William Addis of England is credited with creating the first mass-produced toothbrush. In 1770 he had been placed in jail for causing a riot. While in prison, he decided that the method for teeth brushing of the time – rubbing a rag on one’s teeth with soot and salt – could be improved. So he took a small animal bone, drilled small holes in it, obtained some bristles from a guard, tied them in tufts, then passed the bristles through the holes on the bone and glued them. By 1780, free from jail, Addis marketed his invention and became quite wealthy.

In 1844, the first 3-row bristle toothbrush was designed, improving teeth cleaning efficiency. The invention of synthetic nylon by Du Pont in 1938, followed in the 1950s by softer nylon bristles, was the beginning of the truly modern toothbrush.

Toothpaste far predates the development of the toothbrush and was used to treat the same concerns that we have today: keeping teeth and gums clean, whitening teeth, and freshening breath. Ancient Egyptians are credited with the first references to a paste used to clean the teeth, as well as the earliest known reference to the word “toothpaste” in a 4th-century manuscript which prescribes a mixture of powdered salt, pepper, mint leaves, and iris flowers. Ancient Greeks and Romans also are known to have used pastes, as were people in China and India. Ingredients ran the gamut, including but not limited to: charcoal, salt, pulverized brick, chalk, powdered ox hooves, ashes, eggshells, pumice, cinnamon, soap, crushed bone and oyster shells, and even urine. Yikes!

Prior to the 1850s, toothpaste consistency was more powder-like and thus purchased and stored in round tins or jars with lids. These powder/paste combinations of various ground down ingredients were usually made at home by the individual, or in the case of the upper classes by the valet and lady’s maid, per the specific taste of the user. There were apothecary and perfumers who sold diverse concoctions as an option to mixing at home. Common ingredients in tooth powder during this period included salt, charcoal, chalk, and brick as the base.

In 1824 a dentist named Peabody added soap for improved cleanliness. The modern idea of toothpaste with fluoride, pleasing tastes, and collapsible tubes are a late 19th-century invention, largely brought to general public consumption by the Colgate company.

Early 19th-century toothpaste jars.

Anthropologists have found evidence of interdental cleanings, such as pieces of fiber and toothpicks, in the grooves of prehistoric human teeth. This clearly indicates that people have augmented teeth brushing with a variety of implements to maintain the cleanliness and health of their teeth, as well as the care of the gums, tongue, and breath. To remove debris between the teeth, picks from an assortment of hard materials were fashioned. Some, such as those from wood, were disposable, while others crafted of metals, bone, and ivory were reused. It was so common to carry toothpicks that gorgeous cases are plentiful as collector items and museum pieces. Wealthy individuals owned costly dental hygiene sets complete with toothbrushes, toothpicks, and tongue scrapers.

In 1815, Levi Spear Parmly, a dentist from New Orleans, began instructing his patients to clean between their teeth with thin silk threads. The idea caught on, gradually becoming a common practice and recommendation by other dentists. Parmly is credited with inventing the modern form of dental floss, although it would not be until Johnson & Johnson patented the product in 1882 that dental floss became commercially available.

The first mouthwash was created in 1755 by Julien Botot, the personal physician to Louis XV of France. An all-natural concoction scented with gillyflower (a type of clove), cinnamon, ginger, and anise, it received the endorsement of the monarch. Luckily for Botot, his mouthwash survived longer than the king and was hugely successful. In fact, Eau de Bouche Botot is still in production today, the formula largely unchanged.

One type of breath freshener were comfits made of anise, caraway, and fennel seeds. Comfits are a sugary confection created when seeds are coated with sugar, continuously and laboriously stirred as the sugar evenly coats the seeds until hardened. Layer by layer, sugar is added to form a comfit of the desired size. These comfits were carried in small tins or bottles, much as we carry mints today, to pop into the mouth as needed. When chewed, the aromatic seeds are crushed, freshening the breath. Indian restaurants serve candied seed comfits to this day.

In the 1780s, Smith & Company in London created the Altoid brand breath mint. The high concentration of peppermint oil used in the original lozenge flavor is summed up in the advertising slogan, “The Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Mints.”

For more images related to Georgian Era Hygiene and Beauty, visit my Pinterest Board on the topic. Return tomorrow (Friday) for more on this subject.



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Love this! So informative. Thank you for writing this. 🙂

Sheri Humphreys

The toothpick holders are beautiful! That must be what you get the woman who has everything–a toothpick holder inscribed with her name.


Thank goodness they stopped using urine! – they did didn’t they? ?. I used to buy Pears soap and I loved the advertising posters they used to do with the cute children. .
I’m so pleased that toothpaste and brushes evolved to what we have today as I love my electric brush and minty toothpaste.
Thank you Sharon. I look forward to the next instalment.

Victoria Chatham

Great information. Did you ever get your Pears soap? It was always my favourite and I used it for years. These days I tend to use all natural hand-made soaps but can’t imagine a life without either one.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x