How often do you take a bath or shower? Is it daily, weekly, monthly or never?
Yesterday we were roaming about the countryside near my hometown, located just a stone’s throw from the Canadian and Montana borders. And while doing so we drove by the site of my grandfather’s original homestead.
In fact I have a photo of my grandfather sitting by his tar-paper shack, in the early 1900s, playing his mandolin. And I remember him telling me about how, in the winter, he was so lonely and bored, listening to the coyotes yelp, that it nearly drove him insane.
I doubt at the time that he had the opportunity to bathe frequently.
That thought led me to do some research on bathing habits in America and I discovered that, as late as the 1860s, expert opinion was nearly unanimous that the best kind of bath was a brief plunge in cold water to relieve congestion of the brain and fight anything from cholera to whooping cough. And, for the most part, hot baths were a no-no.
“However pleasant a long-continued bath may be in hot weather, yet it is by no means to be recommended,” British domestic engineer J.H. Walsh warned in 1857. In fact, parents should yank kids out of their baths, lest they “dabble too long in the water and thus do absolute injury to themselves by carrying to excess what is otherwise a most valuable adjunct to health.”
At the time, the focus of bathing was not to remove dirt, and few experts suggested the use of soap. One physician suggested soap only for excessively dirty bodies, since it removed necessary oils from the skin.
And at first, bathtubs were expensive. The earliest ones were made of painted sheet metal that had to be carefully shaped from a single sheet, or crafted from expensive porcelain. Tubs made of copper or zinc-lined wood were a bit cheaper, but also more prone to leak.
But then ideas about bathing evolved as the technology improved. Doctors, social reformers and domestic advice-givers eventually provided various rationales for bathing as a healthy practice. Some leaned on old-fashioned medical theories involving the balancing of humors and the elimination of bile through the skin.
Eventually, the idea that a bathtub was a useful facility trickled down to the middle class through books and magazines about domestic life, very much in the same way that trends take hold today.
Yet, even centuries ago, the Egyptians were known for their cleanliness (they bathed frequently) and they used many cosmetics. Meanwhile in Babylon, before 2,000 BC, a form of soap was made. Plus, the Greeks knew that diet, exercise and keeping clean were important for health and they even invented a form of shower, which sprayed bathers with water.
Originally most Greeks washed in a bowl on a pedestal called a louterion and rubbed themselves with olive oil and then rubbed it off with a tool called a strigil, which looked like a scraper.
Today in America, you might be considered a hillbilly if you don’t bathe at least once a day, applying layers of lotion to replace bodily oils.
After all, as American author, salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.”
Kevin Holten is a columnist and executive producer of “Special Cowboy Moments” on RFD-TV.