In the middle of summer, when many places including NYC are shimmering with heat, you may wonder how, I, Jane Eyre stayed crisp and cool in a time before air conditioning. It’s well-known that Victorian ladies wore a lot of clothing. I was no exception; I would never have dreamed of walking about in a camisole and pantaloons, the equivalent of a modern girl’s t-shirt and shorts! Nor am I fan of polyester dresses. Natural fibers like muslin, cotton and linen allowed me to breathe even in the worst 19th century heat. Though I always wore a corset in public, I did allow myself only one petticoat during the months of July and August.
In medieval times bathing was thought to bring on the plague, by exposing the body’s delicate pores to water. By the 1840s we had gotten over this idea but there was no modern plumbing consisting of pipes or flush toilets. As a girl I bathed in a copper tub as was the custom, and because I was the least important person in the household, I used bath water in which my Aunt Reed, my male cousin, and my two girl cousins had already immersed themselves. If there had been an infant in the house he or she would have bathed after me; hence the expression “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Soap underwent a major transformation in the 1840s. when manufacturers began to replace lye made from wood ash with chemical products. Being a country girl my soap was generally still fashioned out of lye and tallow, with maybe a handful of dried rose petals mixed in. Perfumes were not made out of heavy musk and ambergris until much later in the century; but as a married lady I did allow myself a dab or two of orange blossom-scented toilet water. As fastidious as all governesses must be, I brushed my teeth with a sponge and warm water each morning; occasionally I whitened them with a powder of crushed sage. My friend, Madame Emma Bovary, was not quite so lucky; it was a trend in France to brush your teeth with urine, a practice mocked by some but extolled by others. Mr. Rochester liked to scrub his teeth with gunpowder, also a popular practice. Though a form of 3-row bristle brush was invented in 1838, my nursemaid Bessie used to chew on a thin twig with a frayed end until she died–nearly toothless, I might add.
As for going swimming to keep cool, it was usual in my day to walk by the sea and catch the breezes. It became more accepted for girls to bathe in the ocean as my stepdaughter Adele matured. Of course, she always wore a proper bathing costume which kept her limbs well-hidden and she emerged into the ocean from a bathing machine, which otherwise kept her from the public’s vulgar gaze.