Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Elizabethans and Cleanliness and Bad Teeth


As far as washing, if you're poor, you probably don't bother.  So says Ian Mortimer in the BBC History Magazine.  If you live in a rented room on the fourth floor of one of those timber-framed tenement houses it's simply too much effort to go to the public water supply conduit and carry the water back in sufficient quantity for a bath on the fourth floor. and then you wouldn't be able to afford the cost of the firewood to heat up the water. So you stay unwashed, and since all your acquaintances don't wash either, you can't tell the difference

Those who are able to wash don't use soap.  They rub themselves clean with fresh linen, and you can't afford to buy the fresh linen.


But how does the water get from the public water conduit to the houses of those who can afford it?

The guild of water-carriers took care of that.  They carried two tubs of water either from the River Thames, or from one of the wells, on a yoke across their shoulders.

Around the year 1600, the Company of Water-Tankard Bearers presented a petition to The House of Commons stating that they and their families numbered 4000 persons and complaining that wealthy people were running pipes from the conduits to their houses - the beginning of household water supply.

(from 'Cleanliness and Godliness' by Reginald Reynolds.

In the fourteenth century Fitz Stephen, speaking of London, says of the wells of Holy Well, Clerkenwell and St. Clements Well, "....water, sweet, wholesome and clear, streaming forth among the glistening Pebble Stones".


The wealthy, according to Ian Mortimer, wash themselves daily by rubbing themselves in clean linen (wet or dry?), they wash their hands and faces daily in clean water, they wash their hands before after and during every meal.  Occasionly they take a hot bath.  They wash their hair in lye and use tooth powder to clean their teeth.


Source unknown:

In Elizabethan times sugar was an imported delicacy, and as such, expensive.  Only the upper classes could afford it.  Too much sugar without appropriate dental care, as we know and they probably did not know or didn't care, damages your teeth.  So it follows of course that the upper classes would have had bad and blackened teeth; and since such discolored teeth were, like sugar,  exclusive to the upper classes, it became the fashion to re-enforce your status as an aristocrat by blackening your teeth using some kind of cosmetic.

Can this be true?  Bad dental hygiene, discolored teeth, and yet still the subject of sonnets?

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