How Do Your Characters “Go”? Personal Hygiene in History

Ad for Ivory Soap, 1898. (Source: Library of Congress control number 00650433)


Horrors!  Would you set a scene in your novel in a lavatory? Even if you don’t depict your characters actually using the loo, you might still need to have some idea how people in your novel’s time period tended to personal hygiene, in order to write around it.  Here are some resources that will help you research the topic of cleanliness, elimination habits, and menstruation in history.  Maybe they will spark a story idea for you on centering a novel around an historical plumber or a night-soil remover.




Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, by Virginia Smith.  Oxford, 2007.  9780199297795

The author emphasizes hygiene as a means “what we did (and do) for ourselves in order to preserve our bodies…You could call it a social and cultural history of preventive medicine”—p.3.  Extensive bibliographical notes.

The Clean Body: A Modern History, by Peter Ward.  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019.  9780773559387

A conversation with his grandfather on childhood bathing habits sparked the author to write this book, researching hygiene habits in Western Europe and North America from the mid-17th century to the recent past.  Extensive bibliographical notes.

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg.  A.A. Knopf, 2007.  9780676976632

“The scent of one another’s bodies was the ocean our ancestors swam in, and they were used to the everyday odor of dried sweat”—p.2.  The author covers hygiene from Greece and Rome to the present.

The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life, by Nancy Tomes.  Harvard University Press, 1998.  0674357078

“What fascinates me is how bacteriology was applied to the dinner table, the parlor, and the bathroom”—preface.  Has extensive bibliographical notes.

Taking physick, or, The news of shooting the King of Sweden, by James Gillray, 1792. (Library of Congress control number 92518051)



Bathroom, by Barbara Penner.  Reaktion Books, 2013.  9781780231938

“Charts the evolution of the bathroom and the habits and lifestyles to which it gave rise”—back cover.

This social history has lots of illustrations and extensive footnotes and a bibliography.

Bathroom: A Social History of Cleanliness and the Body, by Alison K. Hoagland.  Greenwood, 2018.  9781440852671

Examines the history of the American bathroom from the late 19th century to the present.  Has some illustrations and an extensive bibliography.

Bogs, Baths & Basins: The Story of Domestic Sanitation, by David J. Eveleigh.  Sutton Publishing, 2002.  0750941251

The introduction says that the author is concerned with how modern bathroom fittings evolved from the late 18th century through the 20th, with lots of illustrations.  Includes a list of water closet trade names, with earliest known dates of use.

Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper, by Richard Smyth.  Souvenir Press, 2012.  9780285641143

An amusing history of the evolution of toilet paper and its predecessors.

Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom & the Water Closet, by Lawrence Wright.  University of Toronto Press, 1971.  0802060633 [also published by Routledge & Paul in 1967.]

This older work is cited by the more modern publications in this list, and is still in print today.  “Meant as a little social history, popular rather than technical”—preface.

Compleat Loo: A Lavatorial Miscellany, by Roger Kilroy.  Barnes & Noble, 1984.  0760704163 [reprint of 1984 edition by Victor Gollancz]

The author’s research into graffiti led him to “wonder what life had been like before there were flush lavatories.”  The book mixes humor with history, including b&w photographs, but no bibliography.

Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, by W. Hodding Carter.  Atria Books, 2006.  9780743474085

“See how plumbing’s conveniences have flowed through time and shaped our modern world”—p.23.  No illustrations, and it’s more popular than scholarly, but it does include a short bibliography.

Roman latrines in Ostia, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World, by Barry Hobson.  Duckworth, 2010.  9780715638507

The author’s medical career led him to become interested in ancient sanitation.  Includes a chapter on Roman Britain and Pompeii, along with photographs of archaeological sites.

Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History, edited by Gemma C.M. Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow and Eric M. Moormann.  Peeters, 2011.  9879042925410

The title is rather self-explanatory; the book covers technology, impact on society, decorations and graffiti, etc.  Many illustrations and a very extensive bibliography.

The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet, by Julie L. Horan.  Citadel Press/Carol Publishing, 1997.  0806519479

“Explores the history of the toilet and the customs and manners that surround it.  The result is a fascinating study of both ancient and contemporary cultures”—back cover.

Temples of Convenience and Chambers of Delight, by Lucinda Lambton.  St. Martin’s, 1995.  0312141912

After an introduction, this book is largely color photographs of bath and toilet facilities throughout British history, starting with the latrine at Housesteads Fort (Roman) through 1993.

The Water Closet: A New History, by Roy Palmer.  David & Charles, 1973.  0715357638

One of the older and shorter titles in the list.  It starts with ancient privies and ends with a chapter speculating on the water closet’s future.

Woman Bathing Her Feet in a Brook, by
Camille Pissarro, 1894-95 (Art Institute of Chicago). (Wikimedia Commons)



Need to research how your historical female characters handled their periods? Have a look at these sources.

A History of Women’s Menstruation from Ancient Greece to the Twenty-first Century: Psychological, Social, Medical, Religious, and Educational Issues, by Glenda Lewin Hufnagel.  Edwin Mellen Press, 2012.  9780773426481

“Examines how dominant European-American culture has historically constructed the ways in which women and girls experience menarche”—p.9.  The first three chapters cover ancient to early modern times, and then the bulk of the research is on 19thcentury to the present.

Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France, by Cathy McClive.  Ashgate, 2015.  9780754666035

“I use materials from early modern France to reconsider three basic assumptions…that menstruation was predominantly perceived negatively, that it was a direct signifier of womanhood and that the relationship between menstruation and procreation was straightforward”—introduction.  Includes a substantial bibliography.

Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England, by Sara Read.  Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013.  9781137355027

“A key impetus for this book was to try to recover examples of how early modern English women related to their bleeding bodies…”—p.10.  Has an extensive bibliography.

The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, by Lara Freidenfelds.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.  9780801892455

The author examines the change in attitude from traditional beliefs about menstruation to how new attitudes in the 20th century, social, cultural, and economic, affected “modern periods.”

Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygienc Technology, by Sharra L. Vostral.  Lexington Books, 2008.  9780739113851

“This book looks at the social history of menstrual hygiene by examining it as a technology”—back cover.  Chapters have bibliographical notes.

Milong Bond, tipple worker, taking a bath, 1946 by Russell Lee. Wikimedia Commons










How Brits Went Soft on Toilet Paper (Wellcome Collection)

The evolution of wiping technology in the UK.

A Brief History of TP, From Silk Road Hygiene to Pandemic Hoarding (Atlas Obscura)

The title pretty much describes the content.  Note that it’s a .com site, use with caution.  The site also has other elimination-related articles you might want to explore.

Toilets in a Medieval Castle (World History Encyclopedia)

A brief introduction to medieval elimination technology, with some photographs.

And from the same site:

Bathing (Body Soaps and Cleansers) (Smithsonian)

A survey of bathing habits in America.

The Long History of Japan’s Tidying Up, by Hiroko Yoda (New Yorker Magazine article)

The author grew up in Japan and gives an overview of historical Japanese cleanliness habits.

Soaps & Detergent History (The Cleaning Institute)

A brief history of soaps and detergents in history, with a timeline.

Introducing the MUM Menstrual History Collection (National Museum of American History)

1887 trademark image for a brand of U.S. soap. (Library of Congress, control # 2020708403)

A blog post by Rachel Anderson and Diane Wendt about a new collection acquired by the museum “that documents the history of menstrual products and their impact on our lives.”

Menstruation and the Holocaust (History Today magazine)

Women who survived the camps tell how they coped with their periods.

Period Drama: That Time of the Month in Victorian America (National Museum of Civil War Medicine)

A brief discussion of how Victorian-era American women coped with periods.

A Brief History of Menstruating in Space (Popular Science magazine)

When NASA started getting serious about sending women into space, scientists didn’t know how they would cope with their periods.

The Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion (Internet Archive)

This electronic copy of an 1834 publication has chapters on hair and nail care, recipes for ointments, how to care for the teeth, and one on bathing.

Menstruation and Modern Materials (U.K. Science Museum)

Surveys how women coped with their periods from ancient times.

“Solving Woman’s Oldest Hygienic Problem in a New Way”: A History of Period Products, by Johanna Goldberg (Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, N.Y. Academy of Medicine)

Discusses American solutions to feminine hygiene from the mid-19th century to present.  Includes product advertisements and a bibliography.

‘Lister’s Towels’: Menstrual Madness (The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret)

A history of menstrual technology, with a bibliography.


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.




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