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As Bathers, We've Come a Long Way

January 26, 1998|MARTIN MILLER

A century and a half ago, America was a much simpler place. It was also a much smellier place.

Let's just say people back then weren't exactly enamored with the idea of bathing. At that time, bathing was something for the landed gentry or for the barbarous folks in Finland, Russia, Turkey or Japan.

Real Americans stunk and were proud of it.

But as the link between disease and personal hygiene became clear, the American habit of bathing once every blue moon began to give way as pressure from the medical community grew.

In 1867, one doctor made this plea in a way most Americans might best understand: "I believe that health would be preserved and life prolonged if we ourselves were . . . as assiduously 'groomed' as our horses."

Gradually, Americans cleaned up their act. By 1890, bathtubs, sinks and showers were part of most new homes. Between 1904 and 1919, Americans' consumption of soap nearly tripled.

Better personal hygiene was one of a series of critical advancements spurred by the so-called sanitary movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement, which also brought sewage removal, garbage disposal, street cleaning and water purification to towns and cities, led to much lower rates of infant mortality and much higher rates of life expectancy among Americans.

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