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Monday, August 2

Personal Hygiene in Jane Austen's Day

Inquiring reader: Last week Tony Grant discussed how rainwater seeping into the stratas of chalk, clay and gravel, which underlie the landscape of Hampshire, absorb the minerals from the ground it permeates and becomes hard. This week he continues his discussion of water from the perspective of personal hygiene.

Well and outbuildings at Chawton

As for washing, and personal hygiene, when you visit Janes cottage at Chawton you can see inside her and Cassandra’s bedroom a cupboard with a jug and basin for washing their hands and face but also a chamber pot. This was used during the night to urinate or defecate in. Imagine doing that with somebody sharing your room.
Whether the water in the jug for washing was hot or cold can only be speculated. To heat the water up would have taken a lot of effort. Not only drawing from the water from well but then heating it over the open fire in the kitchen and then taking it upstairs. I would speculate that Jane mostly got washed in cold water even in the winter. Perhaps an ice pick to break the ice would have been appropriate in winter months.
Wash basin and chamber in Jane's room at Chawton

The chamber pot would have had to be emptied in the morning. At the time cesspits were popular but they could smell and overflow. Claire Tomlin says that Edward had a new cesspit dug for them. However another and I would say more hygienic method of dealing with human excrement used at the time was a dry earth closet.

A dry earth closet is a wooden seat with a hole in the top, with a bucket underneath. Dry earth or peat is then ladled on top of the human waste to reduce the smell and to help it decay. When the bucket is full the contents are then dug into the garden to help the vegetables and plants grow. (Last image at bottom: view of the garden from Chawton cottage.)

Some people have even attached religious significance to the use of earth closets. They believe using an earth closet is a way of returning Gods minerals to the ground where it came from.

Perhaps we all need to have modern earth closets installed.

We have the probable boudoir habits of Jane Austen.

I’m not joking!!!!!!!!

Posted by Tony Grant, London Calling

PS: Continuing the subject, Vic wrote a review on Jane Austen's World about Privies and Water Closets.


Vic said...


What a fascinating topic. It prompted me to finish reviewing a book on Privies and Water Closets. I love how you share your images of your visits to Chawton Cottage, which in many cases are unique and different.

Nonna said...

I shuddered at just the title of this post. I can't get into the downside of living in past times in history when it comes to chamber pots, privies, water closets, stinky people, rotten teeth, cleanliness ( or lack thereof ) etc. although it is interesting, I'd rather not know !

Charles Bazalgette said...

A couple of points. Earth closets might use a bucket but, in the country at least, they were often just dug deep in the soil. I spent weeks of the summer at a farm in Norway when I was younger, and although there were earth privies and no bathroom it was still not difficult to keep clean, and took not a lot of getting used to. I admit it would have been more of a chore in the winter. Fact is, we're pretty soft, and nowadays I think the world is about to end if I can't get at least one shower a day!

Raquel said...


Nonna Beach have said all, living in the past may seem romantic, but it was not!

Nonna said...

Thank you so much Raquel !

I'm with you when it comes to showers too !

Anna said...

This was very interesting. I was wondering about this, too, when I visited Jane's bedroom. How would you wash your full body with a small bowl like this? Or did people simply not do that? Did they just wash their faces, necks and hands and ignore the rest?

I was also thinking how smelly it would have been in the bedroom if they kept the chamberpot there all night until it was picked up by the maid in the morning. Ugh!

No doubt these were all regular things in those days. But used to the hygiene standards of today, it's quite hard to imagine all this!

I've started a JA blog of my own, too. Please do visit!