In ancient Rome, the baths were the fulcral point of the social life. A bath was taken for physical and mental relaxation, it also happened to be hygienic; in fact, in Latin, sanitas meant “health” and not hygiene. The men and women of the day washed themselves and used perfumes.
From the fall of the Roman Empire and therefore from the advent of Christianity, right through to well into the 20 th century, western society paid scarce attention to hygiene; in the High Middle Ages men and women neither washed themselves nor used perfumes; in the Late Middle Ages and in the first part of the Modern Era (end of the 17 th century) they did not wash themselves but they did use perfumes. Many medical practitioners were convinced that water was dangerous for the human body; the paradoxical theory of the time was that the aristocratic classes and all those who did no physical work had an effective need for an “extremely prudent” and salutary washing of their bodies; those who worked hard physically had no need to wash because it was the flow of sweat which was enough to wash out the pores and free them of the dirt.
It was even feared that water on the face could damage eyesight, cause toothache and catarrh, that it made the skin excessively pale in winter and excessively dark in the summer. In the more well-to-do classes the practise of “dry washing” was achieved by frequent changes of clothing: it was believed that the clothing materials were a perfect substitute for water since they absorbed the sweat and impurities from the skin; your shirt cleaned you. In the 17 th century architects hypothesized that new houses would have no need for bathrooms “thanks to the use of clothing” which would have allowed people to keep themselves clean more easily than their ancestors had.
From the second half of the 19 th century the social and hygienic picture slowly but progressively improved: the spread of tuberculosis, typhoid and cholera induced the population to pay more attention to personal hygiene. The role of the bathroom therefore assumed greater importance and as a result the accessories associated with cleaning, including the bidet, were slowly re-evaluated. Washing parts of the body at least, began to be recommended. The feet were supposed to be washed every eight days, the hair every two months, the teeth at least once a week. In the early years of the 20th century the magazine “Margherita” prescribed all over washing with hot water at least once a week and encouraged women “to look at themselves, with courage, for what they are” since nudity, for reasons of hygiene, is not a sin.
In Italy , the second world war gave a noticeable boost towards “a bathroom culture”.
(Taken from “ Storia del Bidet” , Luciano Spadanuda, Castelvecchi, 2003)
- The Sun King had only one bath in sixty-four years, to be precise, in 1665 at the age of 18 according to the Journal de Louis XIV (1647-1711), written by the sovereign’s personal doctors.
- Goethe used to have two baths a year.
- Queen Elizabeth I of England had a bath once a month.
- Napoleon was used to have a warm bath every day.
- “Be suspicious of water, especially if hot”.
- “Wash your hands often, your feet rarely and your head never” - proverb from the 16 th Century.
- “Baths of water and steam and their effects, since they heat up the body and its humours, weaken its nature and dilate the pores, are the cause of death and illness” (T. Le Forestier, Parisian doctor, 1495).
- “Let the little ones come unto me” a sentence written on the inside of some bidets. This expression referred to the widespread belief that the bidet's main purpose was as a contraceptive device by means of douching.