Elizabethan Hygiene

  • The Elizabethan Era
  • 3 mins

By Crusader1307

Hygiene in The Elizabethan Era was problematic – at best. While one would imagine that by the 16th Century, Personal Hygiene would have advanced from The Middle Ages, it really had not much. In particularly in England, with it's mad race to best Spain in it's colonization of The New World – coupled with increased trade, a influx of foreign goods and ''cross culture'' – England was becoming a hub of change and new ideas. This cannot be said for it's personal hygiene habits.


Queen Elizabeth I of England ''set the standard'' for dress, style and habits. These were readily emulated by Her Nobility and copied by the Common people (to a lessor degree). She may have also inadvertently helped cause much damage to the personal health of Her people as well. During Her reign, a commodity was discovered and refined. This item was sugar. Now, the ''sweet spice'' could be copiously applied to just about everything. And while the Commoners rarely got the expensive commodity, The Queen's Nobles could. Which leads up to the end result of too much sugar in one's initial diet. Poor dental health!


A common issue in The Era was bad breath. This was due to the lack of ''modern'' mouth washes and tooth pastes. It was determined, that bad breath could actually transmit disease, so a method was invented by Queen Elizabeth (more or less) to ''sweeten'' one's ''air''. She applied copious amount of honey and sugar, mixed with vinegar to create a paste. This was applied to Her teeth, via Her fingers, or swabbed on with a cloth. Naturally this ''combination'' very quickly destroyed Her teeth. It is well documented that She suffered from toothaches and the resulting tooth decay. In fact, by the end of Her reign, many Foreign ambassadors wrote back to their Countries, of Her ''yellow, black and missing teeth''. So much so that in several cases, it was difficult to even ''understand'' Her speech.


Other Nobility also practiced this application, and likewise suffered a similar fate. Some, used other methods to help clean their teeth. Small pumice stone, the chewing of various mint twigs or sprigs, etc. This really did nothing in the end result. Often, the previously discussed ''Barber-Surgeon'' (also a trained Dentist in name only), was needed. In short, most operations were simply to extract the decaying tooth – without any form of pain blockers! In fact, Queen Elizabeth was so fearful of the process, She was only known to visit one twice in Her life.


Another basic form of hygiene is bathing. This is something that – today, is done at least once a day. Be it a shower or bath, ''We'' today are well aware of how to care for our bodies ''largest'' organ – the skin. This was not so in The Elizabethan Era. Bathing was seen as very problematic. Some felt that to do so often would invite disease. Hence, in the case of the ''average'' person, a complete bath was done maybe once or twice – a year! In the case of Nobility, they were somewhat better – one or twice a month. The Noble Class had bathing tubs. These were wooden constructs, often too small to even properly ''stretch out'' (but some, as The Queen – had much larger versions). But it didn't matter. It was the water they used that was the problem.


Elizabethan England did not have any form of mass water treatment. Often, water was non-potable or unsafe for drinking continuously. This meant that often ''dirty water'' was used to clean ''dirty bodies''. It perhaps exacerbated the issue greatly. Nobility would ''treat'' water with various perfumed oils and fragrances. All this accomplished was ''sweet smelling, dirty water''. As for soaps, what ''We'' use today did not exist in The Era. Any soap used was made of Lye. This (in long term exposure), would cause serious problems to the skin in general. Another (and excepted practice), was to use one's own saliva. It was thought that the bodies enzymes were better to help cleanse the face and hands! As often horrid as it may seem, Elizabethan hygiene was seen as far better that 300 years prior. In time, as Science and Medicine advance, MUCH of the above practices would quickly disappear.