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.
For a truly comprehensive guide to cosmetics in this period and throughout history, do not miss Sally Pointer’s The Artifice of Beauty.
Previously published on A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.