Bathing in the Age of Extravagance: How to Make Your Own 17th Century Washball (Recipe)

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Diana and Her Companions. Johannes Vermeer, 1655.

There is an unfortunate misconception that people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not bathe. While it is true that full immersion was less common than it is today, people washed fairly regularly and business in scented bathing products and cosmetics thrived.

Demand for luxury goods flourished during the Age of Extravagance (1660-1714) and this naturally extended to cosmetics and bathing products. Cosmetics were easily purchased or made at home, as many household books such as The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675) contained recipes for perfumes, skin tonics, and remedies for freckles or chapped hands.

Both men and women bathed in scented flower waters. Those who did not or could not might freshen up with sponges soaked in perfume. For some, perfume replaced bathing altogether. Washballs also became very popular. Made from soap blended with herbs, flowers, or scent, they would have resembled some of the luxury soaps available to us today.

In The English Housewife (1683), Gervaise Markham supplies the following recipe for washballs:

“To make very good washing balls take storax of both kings, benjamin, calamus aromaticus, labdanum of each a like; and bray them to powder with cloves and orris; then beat all with a sufficient quantity of soap till it be stiff, them with your hand you shall work it like paste, and make round balls thereof.”

Public baths remained open throughout the eighteenth century and were used socially or for medical concerns more than as a means of bathing. These were often suspected of concealing brothels, so the most reputable bath houses took pains to advertise the respectability of their establishments and even offered bloodletting as an extra feature.

Bathing at home was by no means an option for everyone. Washballs remained popular, but their composition suffered. Now used primarily for the hands, they were often cut with fillers or lightening agents such as white lead. Perfumers continued to make quality washballs for their wealthier patrons, but those sold to the poor were significantly worse.

In Lillie’s The British Perfumer (1740), he describes the process for making “inferior common washballs,” and we can see a significant difference from Markham’s recipe:

“One hundred-weight of tallow soap and fifty pounds of Spanish or common whitening, are mixed and beaten up with double the above quantity of water, and scented with oil of caraways or some other cheap essential oil. These washballs are made large; and, to deceive the buyer, are made very round, by being skin-dried, or crusted, by laying in the stove for twelve hours; whereas good washballs, dried in the air, generally lose their shape. Their roundness, with their large size at little expense, recommend such rubbish to the ignorant buyer; but as for washing, or any other use, it is well known that they will no more lather, than a piece of clay, or a stone. There have been wash-balls frequently made for this sort of trade, which are merely the shells of large French walnuts covered over with the above base composition.”

For those with the means to afford quality cosmetics, the range of products available must have seemed endless. Abdeker’s Library of the Toilet (1754) lists many products that would have been available to purchase at well-stocked chemists. Waters, spirits, essences, pomatums, oils, vinegars, pastes, washballs, powders, and even gloves came in a dizzying variety of scents. Familiar scents such as rose and lavender were sold alongside varieties the modern reader might find peculiar, such as wormwood, scurvy grass, and the intriguingly named “volatile.”

You can easily make your own washballs at home inspired by Markham’s recipe. With a base of castille soap and rosewater, you can add ingredients of your choice to make your own washball in your kitchen.

In The Artifice of Beauty, Sally Pointer suggests the following recipe:

17th Century Washball

1 bar bland white (Castile soap) grated
1 small cup rosewater
1 tsp. lavender flowers
1 tsp. orris-root powder
1 tsp. dried rose petals
1 tsp. powdered sweet flag root (or myrrh, camomile, or marigold flowers)

“Beat all the herbs being used to a powder, and sieve to get the larger particles out. Don’t worry if the powder is a bit gritty. Warm the rosewater and dissolve the soap in it. When it has all melted, stir in the powders and remove from the heat. As soon as you can safely handle the mixture, divide it into several portions. Allow to harden for five minutes, then wet your hands in rosewater and shape them into nice, round balls.

Leave to set, then wrap in greaseproof paper and store in a dark place for a while to harden further. The longer they are left before use, within reason, the harder they will get and the more the scent will develop. It is a nice idea to store them in a paper bag in the underwear drawer or airing cupboard to scent everything. The slight grittiness of the powders makes the soap a good exfoliant in use. A small cheat to get an even deeper scent into your soap is to store your dry washballs in a bag of dried herbs or pot-pourri. The scent will permeate the soaps very readily.”

Although this recipe smells divine, you can also draw inspiration for your washball from some of the scents available from the time. Try cedar, lemon, bergamot, amber, plantain, violet, jasmine, orange flower, lavender, strawberry, cyprus, rosemary, cherry, almond, cassis, cinnamon, or your own combination thereof to bring a touch of the seventeenth century into your bath (minus the lead).

Washballs and other popular cosmetics of the period feature prominently in my new book, The Long Way Home, which is set in Versailles during the Affair of the Poisons. You can read more about here.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

For a truly comprehensive guide to cosmetics in this period and throughout history, do not miss Sally Pointer’s The Artifice of Beauty.

See also:

The English Housewife (1684). Gervaise Markham
The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675). Hannah Woolley
The British Perfumer (1740). Charles Lillie
Abdeker’s Library of the Toilet (1754)

Previously published on A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life

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Taxation, Smuggling, and Sheep Dung: The Dirty History of Tea in Britain

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Still Life: Tea Set. Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1781-3.

Tea is thought to have been popularized in Britain by Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. Although she adopted English fashion following her marriage to Charles II in 1662, she continued to favor the cuisine of her native Portugal. Tea was already popular in Portugal, Holland, and other parts of Europe through trade with the east, but it was still unusual in England in 1660 when Pepys recorded trying it for the first time on September 25th, 1660:

“To the office, where Sir W. Batten, Colonel Slingsby, and I sat awhile, and Sir R. Ford coming to us about some business, we talked together of the interest of this kingdom to have a peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland; where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what he thought of it. At this time, tea was usually drunk without anything added to it. Milk was difficult to keep fresh and was mainly used for butter or cheese. It was brewed by pouring hot water into a pot, and slotted spoons were used to extract the leaves. As it gained popularity throughout the seventeenth century, there was some confusion as to how to make it. Sir Kinelm Digby advised that brewing should take “no longer than while you can say the Misere Psalm very leisurely.”

The first tea cups to arrive in Britain were mismatched, handle-less Chinese porcelain used primarily as ballast on the clipper ships. Matching sets were not purchased until the eighteenth century with the development of the British ceramic industry. Inviting people over for tea took off as a way for the hostess to show off both her purchasing power (tea and tea sets were prohibitively expensive) and manners (in knowing how to serve it).

Although tea was hugely popular in the eighteenth century, few could afford it. The East India Company held the monopoly on importing it, and on top of the already high prices, tea was taxed heavily. Tea was a luxury item everyone wanted, so to answer the demand for an affordable product, two things became commonplace: smuggling and adulteration.

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Smugglers. John Atkinson, 1808

Smuggling flourished. Much tea was smuggled in from continental Europe on small ships, but some was purchased from the East India Company’s own officers who would use the space allotted to them to undercut the company with some private trade of their own. Throughout the eighteenth century, smuggling grew in scale and became more organized, until an anonymous pamphlet in 1780 complained that so many men were employed as smugglers Britain’s agriculture was suffering as a result. Fortunately, tea smuggling stopped abruptly when William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act of 1784, reducing the tax on tea from an outrageous 119% to a more reasonable 12.5%.

‘British tea’ was a regional substitute for the genuine article that was produced briefly both as an addition to imported tea and as something to drink on its own. Made from the buds of elder, hawthorn, and ash trees, it was banned in 1777 out of concern over the destruction of the trees.

Even after the Commutation Act made tea more affordable, merchants added other substances to it to further reduce the price. Green tea was colored with highly toxic copper carbonate and lead chromate. Because of this, black tea became more popular, although adulterated back tea wasn’t much better. Often cut with sheep’s dung, floor sweepings, or black lead, if it wasn’t lethal, it would have tasted revolting. It was made palatable with the addition of milk, which wasn’t much better. By the time it became a common addition to tea in the nineteenth century, milk was often watered down and whitened with chalk dust.

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Chemical Lectures by Thomas Rowlandson. Caricature depicting Friedrich Accum. Accum was a chemist and his Treatise on Adulteration of Food (1820) denounced the common practice of cutting food and tea with additives.

The public was largely aware of these abuses, and it seems to have been generally accepted as a trade off for an affordable product. Parliament eventually brought in the Food and Drugs Act of 1860, but tea continued to be adulterated throughout the century.

Tea had become so cheap by the nineteenth century, that it was a dietary staple for those who could afford little else. It continued to be popular across class lines, and coffee and tea stalls popped up all over London until there were an estimated three hundred in 1840. Encouraged and sometimes sponsored by the Temperance movement, they remained open all day to offer an alternative to alcohol. Coffee and tea were sold in the streets with hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and bread, and many people purchased their meals from these street vendors. Made in cans over charcoal burners, coffee and tea were served in china. People would drink it quickly and return the cup to be (hopefully) washed and used by the next customer.

By 1901, the average person in Britain drank an estimated six pounds of tea per year. Tea had become so much a part of British life that the government took over tea importation during the First World War to ensure it continues to be affordable and readily available. Tea was acknowledged to boost morale, and was one of the products rationed during the Second World War.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain. Running Press, 2008.
Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. Walker Publishing, 2011.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry for September 25th, 1660.
The UK Tea & Infusions Association. Catherine of Braganza and Tea Smuggling.

For more on smuggling, read Virginia Heath’s post How Smuggling Shaped the English Language.