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Personal Hygiene - Tudor Style!

Despite the common belief that Tudors were unhygienic, when in reality they were very attentive about their levels of cleanliness - just in ways that are different to our own times.

Joanna Munholland

The following is the first of two posts written by Joanna Munholland, who spent a two month placement with us in the summer as part of her Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She is now Curator & Archivist at the Sam Waller Museum in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada.

There is a common misconception that people in Tudor England were not concerned about their personal hygiene: in fact people were highly aware of their appearance and their manners. Accepted standards of hygiene and personal appearance were different, both because of different ideas of cleanliness but also different views of what was beautiful. For example, people did not bathe often, instead just washing their face and hands, and combing their hair and beards. When they did bathe, families would take turns to use the same water, because it took a long time to heat enough for a bath. Men went first, followed by women, then children. This usually meant the water was pretty cold by the time the children got their turn!

‘Courtesy’ or etiquette books from this time instruct against picking your ears at the table; similarly, courtesy books decree one was not to clean their teeth with their finger but instead with a toothpick. Table manners were important to all ranks of society, not just the elite. Did this ‘cleaner’ exist solely for private use? Or maybe it would have been used in public so people could clean themselves without having to use their fingers, which needed to be kept clean during meals as people used their hands for many aspects of eating. It is possible this would have been a private instead of a shared item, like a person’s cutlery.

tudor nail cleaner and scoop
Tudor Silver Nail Cleaner and Scoop (SBT 2015-5)

This 4cm silver artefact (SBT 2015-5) is one of our newest acquisitions, containing an ear scoop on one end, and a combination nail cleaner and toothpick on the other. It may have been used after a meal, much as we clean our teeth and hands after eating today. The small loop suggests that it could originally be attached to something, such as a pair of tweezers or perhaps so it could be hung from a belt. Some nail cleaners were simply pointed ends instead of a curved, extended hook as on ours. We think it is Tudor, though this design has also been found at Roman and Anglo-Saxon sites, suggesting that the design fitted its purpose well and didn’t need improving. We also have Anglo-Saxon ear scoops in our collection (see additional photos). Similar items have also been found in Asia, showing widespread use.

Many ear scoops found from this time period are made out of silver or a silver alloy. Silver is an expensive metal, and even though this ear scoop is small, it may have been a status symbol. You could think of the ear scoop as the ‘cotton bud’ (English) or ‘cotton-swab’ (North American) of today. Would you feel comfortable sticking a cold piece of scooped metal into your ear?

Shakespeare does occasionally write on the topic of personal hygiene in his works. For example, in Act III Scene III in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff hides in a basket of dirty laundry to avoid a jealous husband, and is promptly thrown into the Thames, laundry and all. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, people wore underclothes which were used to soak up sweat, and would change them as often as they could afford to – the wealthier you were, the more undergarments you could afford to both own and launder, as you would pay someone to clean your laundry for you if you could afford it, and the whiter the laundry the wealthier you were. The wealthiest could change their clothes numerous times a day. It is probably the laundry Falstaff is hiding in would smell a lot more than our typical laundry today. It would be a degrading position for anyone to be in. As a wealthy man, Falstaff would never have washed his own clothes, and being in others’ dirty clothes would have been a disgusting place to hide.