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View Full Version : How do you wash using a ewer & basin?


StarvingButStrong
12-28-2007, 10:06 AM
Apparently pre-indoor plumbing, guest rooms and maybe all bedrooms of well-to-do households were provided with a ewer and basin for grooming purposes. At least, I've read dozens of scenes of some maid hauling ewers of water up to said bedrooms.

What I've never read is how exactly the ablutions were performed.

As in, presumably you pour some of the water into the basin and wash out of that, as you would a sink nowadays. But, do you use soap? If so, how do you rinse, with your basin full of soapy water? Is there a third part of the set, some sort of waste water catcher, that you dump the soapy water into, so you can refill with more water from the ewer and rinse? Or...I dunno, do you heave the soapy water out a window? Surely not?

Of course, never once have I heard mention of soap in one of those scenes (like: "There's a bar on soap on the stand if you forgot to pack your own," said the maid) so maybe you weren't supposed to use soap at all?

Similarly, no mention of sponge or washcloth or rag or whatever. Did you just use your hands? Maybe you washed your hands, splashed water in your face, and called it quits?

But....physiology hasn't changed that much. This was back before Secret and Sure and all their ilk. If you weren't taking daily baths, I'd assume you'd at least want to cut down the odor from pits and crotch. So you'd absolutely need some sort of washing implement.

If so, what did you do with them after use? Absolutely you couldn't hang a wet wash cloth over wood furniture. And no plastic...was there maybe a metal rack or some hooks or something?

Finally, what happened afterwards. I mean, there's a basin full of 'used' water, soapy or not, and the ewer, maybe partially full. Did the maids have to dump the water from the open basin back into the relatively narrow ewer to haul it away? Or somehow juggle both the basin and ewer with sloshable water in them?


Why don't historical books include the really useful information like this? I might accidentally fall through a time warp and end up the heroine of a Regency Romance. I can handle all the extra silverware at a formal dinner, but I fear humilating myself when faced with the task of cleaning up. :(

ShibbOleth
12-28-2007, 10:25 AM
Think of taking a bath, but on a slightly smaller scale. Have you used a bathtub?

Not sure what the debate is, though.

StarvingButStrong
12-28-2007, 10:29 AM
Not sure what the debate is, though.


Eeeek. This was supposed to be in General Questions. Will report it to a mod. :(

Gaudere
12-28-2007, 11:17 AM
[Moderator Hat ON]

To GQ.

[Moderator Hat OFF]

spingears
12-28-2007, 11:26 AM
Finally, what happened afterwards. I mean, there's a basin full of 'used' water, soapy or not, and the ewer, maybe partially full. Did the maids have to dump the water from the open basin back into the relatively narrow ewer to haul it away? Or somehow juggle both the basin and ewer with sloshable water in them?(To make a long story short. you empty the wash basin into the "White Owl" aka chamber pot. Also the common term for ewer is pitcher.

No doubt but that you have heard the expression "He don't have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of (empty it).

Slithy Tove
12-28-2007, 03:28 PM
BTW, the "wife-beater" sleeveless undershirt was invented to be worn back in the days before central heating and indoor plumbing, so one wouldn't have to expose one's upper body in an unheated bedroom while washing one's neck and armpits.

While the pitcher & basin have passed into history, this shirt is still popular because they look great on a small pecentage of the people who wear them.

Zsofia
12-28-2007, 03:31 PM
I took a week's vacation learning how to sail a schooner this summer. I think I took two showers for the whole week, and I only took the second one by just standing up and walking off helm watch when I wasn't on the wheel, so the people I sat next to on the plane home wouldn't try to throw me out of the emergency exit.

So, like everybody else, I washed in the tiny little cold water sink in my cabin. Yes, it sucked. It got you clean enough for government work, though. I used a washcloth but I guess I didn't need to, could have gotten by with splashing.

Broomstick
12-28-2007, 03:59 PM
A couple of Grim Realities about bathing in the old days:

1) Everyone stank. My mother remembers life before deodorants were commonplace and the house she grew up in didn't have hot water, just running cold (hence the term "cold water flat"). Baths were once a week at most. Yeah, you "touched up" face, hands, armpits, etc. but by our standards people reeked by the end of the day. On the other hand, everyone smelled like that so I guess you got used to it on a certain level. Oh, and some folks used perfume to try to cover the worst of it up.

2) Soap, at one time, was a luxury. In other words, until fairly recently in history washing up was with water alone. Maybe something to scrub with, but hey, you got fingernails, right?

3) Even when soap was used it was expensive, so minimal amounts were used. Thus, the "soapy water" wasn't all that soapy. Male members of my family that served in the military during war time have recounted pouring a pint of water into a helmet and using it to wash face, hands, pits; brush their teeth; and finally shave with that small quantity (I may have the order of operations wrong, not sure I remember exactly). When desperately short of water in hot conditions you might even be willing to drink what was left.

In sum, standards of hygiene were much lower than our current ones, and you learn to make do with what you have. You know, way back it wasn't unusual for a bath to be drawn and each family member, one after the other, used the same bathwater to bath in. I'm sure it was pretty murky by the time the last person climbed in.

Also, as mentioned the leftover water could be used to clean out chamber pots. Or simply thrown out a window into a gutter (if there was a gutter - if not, just out the window). And yes, removing such things could be part of a servant's duties.

missred
12-28-2007, 05:05 PM
Well, as my late godmother's mother used to say, "First, you wash down as far as possible, then you wash up as far as possible, then you wash possible."

Really, though, I think that what Broomstick said is likely the case. If you've ever been to a third world country, you will notice the folks that live there usually have different standards of hygiene than the ones found in developed parts of the world. Theirs is probably closer to that of our ancestors.

Fear Itself
12-28-2007, 05:07 PM
When desperately short of water in hot conditions you might even be willing to drink what was left.Under those conditions, there would be no washing at all. You won't die of stink as fast as you would of thirst.

Mr. Moto
01-02-2008, 03:48 PM
Under those conditions, there would be no washing at all. You won't die of stink as fast as you would of thirst.

A close family friend was a destroyer sailor in WWII. Those guys would take some of the alcohol out of the torpedoes, soak a washcloth, and clean themselves that way.

I had to sail with the Venezuelan navy a few years back, and they had no working evaporators on the frigate we were on. I made do with baby wipes. Not as good a sea story as draining a torpedo, but probably safer.

JR Brown
01-04-2008, 06:56 PM
Apparently pre-indoor plumbing, guest rooms and maybe all bedrooms of well-to-do households were provided with a ewer and basin for grooming purposes. At least, I've read dozens of scenes of some maid hauling ewers of water up to said bedrooms.

What I've never read is how exactly the ablutions were performed.

As in, presumably you pour some of the water into the basin and wash out of that, as you would a sink nowadays. But, do you use soap? If so, how do you rinse, with your basin full of soapy water? Is there a third part of the set, some sort of waste water catcher, that you dump the soapy water into, so you can refill with more water from the ewer and rinse? Or...I dunno, do you heave the soapy water out a window? Surely not?

Of course, never once have I heard mention of soap in one of those scenes (like: "There's a bar on soap on the stand if you forgot to pack your own," said the maid) so maybe you weren't supposed to use soap at all?

Similarly, no mention of sponge or washcloth or rag or whatever. Did you just use your hands? Maybe you washed your hands, splashed water in your face, and called it quits?

But....physiology hasn't changed that much. This was back before Secret and Sure and all their ilk. If you weren't taking daily baths, I'd assume you'd at least want to cut down the odor from pits and crotch. So you'd absolutely need some sort of washing implement.

If so, what did you do with them after use? Absolutely you couldn't hang a wet wash cloth over wood furniture. And no plastic...was there maybe a metal rack or some hooks or something?

Finally, what happened afterwards. I mean, there's a basin full of 'used' water, soapy or not, and the ewer, maybe partially full. Did the maids have to dump the water from the open basin back into the relatively narrow ewer to haul it away? Or somehow juggle both the basin and ewer with sloshable water in them?

Why don't historical books include the really useful information like this? I might accidentally fall through a time warp and end up the heroine of a Regency Romance. I can handle all the extra silverware at a formal dinner, but I fear humilating myself when faced with the task of cleaning up. :(

There are Victorian catalogs offering washstands with a holder on the bottom for the "slops jar", where the dirty water goes. Otherwise you could pour it back into the cans the maid used to bring the water up in the first place, or if you didn't use much, into the "guzunder" (chamber pot), as people here have mentioned.

Yes, there would usually be a bar of soap somewhere nearby. You could get china sets with a soapdish and other accessories to match the ewer and basin. Towels typically hung on a bar on the side of the washstand, or on a freestanding towelrack. Wet sponges went into a dish, or a waterproof bag (my period magazines are full of instructions for making these), or just sat in the basin when not in use (washcloths don't seem to have been all that common, although you could dip the corner of a towel into the water if you needed to). Any leftover clean water stays in the ewer for later use.

Here's a picture of a pretty basic setup with a ewer and basin, a matching soapdish and tumbler (I think...) on the bottom shelf, and towels (but no slops jar in evidence):
http://www.uiowa.edu/~oldcap/tour/artifacts/gov_washstand.html

Several pages of washstands from 1855 (page 301 on; figure 445 has a slops jar inside the cabinet section under the basin):
http://books.google.com/books?id=f5oDAAAAYAAJ

Basic procedure:

Pour clean water into basin
Splash face with water, wet sponge (if using one)
Dip soap into water, lather
Rub soap and/or lather and/or soapy sponge onto required parts
Rinse with water in basin (which will get progressively murkier as you go along)
Dry off
Pour dirty water into slops jar


For an actual bath, there's pretty much the same setup on a larger scale; the tub (not necessarily large enough to lie in) would be hauled from the attic or storeroom into your bedroom and filled one can at a time, and after you've splashed around to your satisfaction it would be emptied the same way, dried off, and hauled away again. Several sources recommend having a large piece of oilcloth to put under the tub to protect the carpet from stray water.

I once read a fun book which covered all of this kind of stuff, which was either An irreverent and almost complete social history of the bathroom by Frank Muir, or Clean and decent by Lawrence Wright, can't remember which.

JRB

StarvingButStrong
01-04-2008, 10:48 PM
There are Victorian catalogs offering washstands with a holder on the bottom for the "slops jar",

{big snip}

I once read a fun book which covered all of this kind of stuff, which was either An irreverent and almost complete social history of the bathroom by Frank Muir, or Clean and decent by Lawrence Wright, can't remember which.

JRB


Ah, wonderful! Just exactly the info I wanted to know. I will chase down the book(s), to see what other revelations they might hold.

Thanks!

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