an initiative of ACCORD
History of Hygiene
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1700 BC: The first plumbed baths? Palace ruins at Knossos, Crete, revealed various bathrooms with water supplied through terra cotta pipes.

Ancient Israel: Hard line on handwashing. “Whoever eats foods without previously washing the hands is as though he had intercourse with a harlot.”

312 BC: Public baths in Rome were supplied by aqueducts. Perfumed oils were used for bathing. Pumice and ashes were also rubbed over wet skin.

500 BC: Gentlemanly etiquette in China required hand washing five times a day, hair washing every third day and a hot bath every fifth day.

6th C: Japanese Buddhism taught that bathing purified the body of sin and also brought luck.

4th/5th C: Instead of soap, Indian women used a turmeric cream with antiseptic properties.

7th C: The hammam, also known as the ‘Turkish Bath’, became a major feature of Islamic culture. The Quran requires cleanliness as an important part of Muslim faith: face, hand, forearm and feet washing before prayer, and whole body bathing after sex.

1100s: Self inflicted torture? At extremely hot steam bathhouses in Russia, people would undress, rub tallow over their bodies, then violently lash themselves with young reeds before dousing themselves with cold water!

Question  Europeans in the Middle ages – How clean were they? Some sources say that bathing was a frequent practice for rich and poor alike, with use of public baths, at-home wooden tubs, or elaborate home installations with piped water. For example, in Germany it is reported that men bathed several times each day - Lucas Rem’s diary from 20 May to 9 June 1511 indicated that he took 127 baths! In addition, bathing was a social event often incorporated into banquets and weddings.

Other sources say that bathing became such an over-indulged, hedonistic pleasure that the church spoke out against it, prompting infrequent bathing. For example, St Francis of Assisi promoted non-bathing as a way to be holier; monks bathed two or three times a year; King John I of England bathed every three weeks, Queen Elizabeth I bathed once a month; most people took a bath only once or twice in their life.

1500-1600s: “Dry cleaning”. In England, the rubbing action of linen underclothing replaced bathing. Underclothing was aired or laundered.

1600-1700s: Next to godliness? Puritans in the USA prioritised cleanliness, with Sunday washing linked to spiritual cleansing. Cleanliness became linked to respectability and moral virtue.

1996: Bathing holidays! 141 million people visited Japan’s 15,700 hot-spring inns in 12 months (the population of Japan was 125 million)!


  • Sotah 4b, cited in Neufeld, E., 1972, “Hygiene conditions in Ancient Israel (Iron Age), in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp 42-66
  • Needham, J. 1859, "Hygiene and Preventative Medicine in Ancient China", in Health Education Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 170-179
  • Chaudhri SK, Jain NK. "History of cosmetics", in Asian Journal of Pharmaceutics, 2009, Vol. 3, pp. 164-7
  • Brown, K. M., 2009, Foul Bodies: cleanliness in early America, Yale University Press
  • “Very clean people, the Japanese”, August 2, 1997, in The Economist, 344(8028), p 66

useful stuff...

How Australian pandemics have changed! The 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic caused over 10,000 deaths in Australia,14 whereas the 2009-10 H1N1 pandemic ("Swine Flu") caused 191 deaths.15 English knights were required to bathe at least once in their lives - during the ritual of their knighthood ceremony. Because of this tradition, during the reign of King Henry IV there originated an order called "Knights of the Bath".16 The term "shampoo" came from Indian language and originally meant "massage".17 English society ladies held vacuuming parties after invention of the horse-drawn electric vacuum in 1901.18
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