In most households in Britain, Sunday nights have recently been dominated by the ITV series Victoria. As it nears its end, one can’t help but notice that Queen Victoria has spent a lot of the series in her tin bath.
Bathing, for Victoria, serves as a time to ponder, as well as a home for the more traditional occupation of washing, which she does with the help of her maid. And, just as we brush our teeth, get dressed and say our prayers, bathing is a ritual that — like it or not — we all have to live through at some point every day. Unlike Victoria, we do not have a Miss Skerrett on hand with a flannel and a bar of soap.
The royals and their bathing habits have always captured imagination. Queen Isabella I of Spain famously only bathed twice in her life — once when she was born, and once before she married. Queen Elizabeth I is known for the Spanish Armada, never marrying, and announcing: ‘I take a bath once a month, whether I need to or not.’
Hygiene and sanitation are both relatively modern concepts, and ones we have welcomed with enthusiasm. Confessing to a day without washing can shock and disgust (unnecessarily).
We all have to pretend that we scrub-a-dub-dub at least once a day, if not twice, and I’m sure the majority of us actually do. It is a practice that, in Britain, possibly originated in medieval times, when vast wooden tubs were dragged up narrow corridors and placed in bedrooms, lined with linen and buckets of water heated and poured into the tub alongside petals.
Prior to that, submersion in water was associated with medical benefits rather than sterility. The hot springs in Bath are said to have been built in 836 BC and were dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sulis, before the Romans invaded and put the baths to use for communal bathing and socialising. Bathing then evolved and became less of a recreational activity; instead the trend, by the 18th century, was for hydrotherapy (that is, doing exercises in a pool). Bathing was thought to cure arthritis, rheumatism or poor circulation.
These days, bathing is something of a ceremony. Armed with numerous props and squirty things — soaps, shampoos, razors, scrubbers, polishers, it can become extraordinarily arduous, if not represent actual persecution. Who can forget agonising childhood memories of sitting in the bath with multiple siblings, being drowned in piffy nit lotion, under the terrifying claws of a disgruntled parent? It became such torture in our house that we gave up and our heads became homes to thousands of lice, swathes of them, each with their own ecosystems.
Bathrooms themselves are often adorned with swanky smelly soaps — handwashes and creams — that are carefully chosen not for their abilities to kill germs but for their dainty labels that certify ‘our house is nice’. Whatever happened to Imperial Leather? And over the pond, where everything is weirder, it seems to be commonplace in Los Angeles for houses to contain more bathrooms than bedrooms.
Be it for therapeutic reasons, head-louse genocide or a jolly with all of your friends, we all have our separate reasons for bathing and preferences as to how. But nothing beats half an hour in hot water, alone, with a good book. It has the added perquisite of being socially acceptable: surely half an hour in the bath must mean a good scrub? No one will ever know.