French paintings of ladies dressing and at their toilettes provide us with an insight into how dressing rooms were once constructed and used. While we think of dressing as a private affair, William Hogarth demonstrates in his painting, Marriage à-la-mode: The Countess’s Morning Levee, how a woman of means with a large elaborate dressing room would entertain visitors while she was completing her toilette.
Women did use their dressing rooms at more intimate and private moments when one presumed they would be alone. The washing of one’s face, feet, and hands was a daily ritual while bathing one’s entire body was not. Such ablutions were done privately. People would wash in basins. A portable hip bath would be placed in the dressing room if they decided to bathe completely.
In reality, the toilette became a ritual in 18th century France for the very rich, one that had both intimate and public elements. A maid would groom and sponge bathe her lady in private, but then her mistress would devote hours to having her hair dressed, eating her breakfast from a tray, writing letters, entertaining friends, and picking the clothes she would wear for the day. The wealthier the woman, the more elaborate her morning ritual. As Hogarth showed, the custom of entertaining guests in one’s dressing room was also popular in England. In the image below, a shameless young lady is entertaining her spiritual adviser in her boudoir. His expression is priceless.
Wikipedia provides a history of the word “toilet”. The word did not have the same meaning back then as it does today.:
It originally referred to the toile, French for “cloth”, draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders while their hair was being dressed, and then (in both French and English) by extension to the various elements, and also the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table, also covered by a cloth, on which stood a mirror and various brushes and containers for powder and make-up: this ensemble was also a toilette, as also was the period spent at the table, during which close friends or tradesmen were often received. The English poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock (1717) described the intricacies of a lady’s preparation:
“And now, unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.”
These various senses are first recorded by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) in rapid sequence in the later 17th century: the set of “articles required or used in dressing” 1662, the “action or process of dressing” 1681, the cloth on the table 1682, the cloth round the shoulders 1684, the table itself 1695, and the “reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet” 1703 (also known as a “toilet-call”), but in the sense of a special room the earliest use is 1819, and this does not seem to include a lavatory.
Woman’s Fashions of the 18th Century fully describes the above painting by Boucher, in which the seated woman, probably a courtesan, is tying a garter over her stocking while wearing a short jacket to protect her outfit from particles of applied makeup and the powder on her wig. No visitors invade this intimate scene, which clearly shows a tray with refreshments and a decorative dressing screen behind the chair.
How did women relieve themselves when wearing those enormous 18th-century dresses? T It was a boat-shaped vessel with a raised lip at one end and handle at the other, a bit like a gravy boat and the maid would be expected to carry this for her mistress and empty it after use. Why was it called Bourdaloue? Some say it was named after a Jesuit priest, Louis Bourdaloue who was renowned for giving long speeches that would mean ladies would have to wait for hours before they could go and relieve themselves.
Elaborate ‘morning toilette’ in the boudoir. In order to be ‘clean’ (neat and tidy), the day started with an elaborate ‘morning toilette’. Especially for women, this could take quite some time because of the fashions of the age, with corsets, bodices, petticoats and hoop skirts, hip pads, wigs and hairpieces, and often required the help of servants. In an age before the advent of running water, the laborious procedure took place in the bedroom or the boudoir. These rooms were equipped with special furniture for attending to ‘local personal hygiene’, which craftsmen at the French court had been producing from the beginning of the 18th century onwards and which had rapidly been taken up by the aristocracy. One of these was the poudreuse: a dressing table with fold-out mirror and space for toilet sets, make-up, combs, hairpins, scented water and powder. Soon, the poudreuse was as much a part of the standard equipment of the private chambers in aristocratic circles as the long-established ‘commode’ – referred to by Liselotte von der Pfalz (Princess Elizabeth Charlotte, 1652-1722, sister-in-law of the Sun King, Louis XIV) in her blunt descriptions of French court life with the more expressive term Kackstuhl – roughly, ‘crapping seat’. These armchairs in various styles were elaborately designed, padded and upholstered with fabric or leather. Removable ceramic chamber pots could be integrated into these structures. Chamber pots were also concealed inside box-like, hinged pieces of furniture, with the true function often remaining hidden behind a commode-like façade.
As the 19th century progressed, bidets also found their way into the bedrooms of the upper middle class. Around 1900, as a result of advances in technology and plumbing, they were increasingly found – together with the flushing toilet, the washbasin and the bathtub – installed in the new bathrooms, which were specially set up for washing purposes and were separate from the other private chambers. Now plumbed into the water system, fitted with a water intake or a jet of water – the so-called Unterdusche for intimate rinsing – or even a shower hose, the bidet became even more widespread in the first half of the 20th century. After World War II it also started to be found in many middle-class homes.
Despite its wide distribution, from the 19th century onwards the bidet and its use were also fraught with shameful connotations, especially in circles and countries in which prudishness prevailed. In addition to the issue of intimate hygiene, which was increasingly becoming a taboo topic, this also had to do with the additional sexual associations of its intended purpose. Portable seated washbasins were already well known in antiquity; Greek marriage contracts stipulated the provision of these items for vaginal rinsing before and after intercourse. The modern bidet was also used for contraception – although it was admittedly very unreliable. Catalogs of 19th and early 20th century manufacturers of sanitaryware advertised the bidet under product names such as ‘Protector’. Doctors recommended the use of the bidet to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. So, as you can imagine, the bidet was also encountered in many brothels – further reinforcing its dubious reputation, presumably.
People doing their business wherever and whenever they felt like it: Colonial Williamsburg does an admirable job explaining how 18th-century people used the bathroom, so I won’t belabor the point much. Though I will say that while sanitation was not what it is now, sewage pipes have existed in European cities since Roman times. There is true that many waterways were badly polluted by sewage carried from these pipes, or dumped directly into the river by hand, but that’s also a problem we modern people have to grapple with. In short, it’s not like we’re any better with the whole problem of public sanitation thing than they were 300 years ago.