Living in Tudor England and bathing did not go hand in hand. While bathing was still seen as a social status, as the wealthier you were the cleaner you were, it would still make you nauseous to think about the methods that were employed.
It is of no wonder that the people who lived in Elizabethan England were afraid of water. Looking back it is easy to see that dumping your waste into the Thames and then bathing in it is not safe. People became sick and diseased from bathing this way and the only reasonable explanation was that it was the water. What they actually did believe was that it was not only the water but when water seeped into the pores on ones body it caused the effects of illness and so no one immersed themselves fully in water unless it was made absolutely certain that the water was pure.
What water was pure? The water from a well or fountain, never from a lake or river as these were “troubled” waters. Now imagine the process: bucket after heavy bucket needed to be hauled from a well to the kitchens, heated pot by pot over a fire, and then brought to the bathtub located probably as far away from the kitchen as humanly possible. Not a feat most people wanted to endure, not even for those who had servants to do the dirty work for them.
Another reason why there was a general fear of water was thanks to syphilis. Prior to the reign of Henry VIII there were public bathhouses in England that were left from the Romans, but when syphilis found its way to England in the 1500s, it spread rapidly within the bathing communities. Henry took it upon himself to shut down any bathhouses that were still in use. So, this backed-up people’s fear of water and the notion that bathing made you ill.
What was the alternative? Linen and the “poor man’s shower” as we would refer to it today. Linen was worn under clothing to absorb sweat and surprisingly these were changed on a regular basis. Regular meaning as often as their incomes would afford them to launder. Outer clothing was cleaned far less often, even by the wealthy. But linen was not only used as a barrier, it was also used as a dry loofah of sorts. You would scrub your body with a piece of dry linen until they were “ruddy and warm” and then you could also rub your hair with linen for washing of the hair. Some people did wash their hair in basins but not everyone did this.
The “Poor man’s shower” that I referred to was the morning and nightly routine of washing your hands and face with just a basin of water. It should also be mentioned that these basin cleanings were done while fully clothed, meaning only the parts of the body that were exposed were washed. What about soap? Well, that was reserved for the wealthy because it was considered a luxury and was taxed meaning that it was not available to the poor or less-than-wealthy.
Apparently one man thought these were insufficient means by which to cleanse oneself so in the 1600s he invented an artificial bath. It was basically a sauna where you sweat out through your pores from the heat made from a fire and the moisture created with water, milk, oil and various liquors. Mind you, these were not modern saunas, it was a leather box delivered to your house. You had to have wealth and space to use these as they were 18 feet around, not something that would likely fit in a London flat in the 1600s.
Source: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer