Nineteenth Century Hygiene and the Wash Basin Stand The households of the nineteenth century were the domestic domain of the woman, and how she would adorned her home, along with what necessities she sought to include within it, were a focus of her initial household planning. Along with items chosen for decor, to make the home life pleasurable, she would also chose items of necessity; those that were for domestic needs like stoves, tables, chairs, beds and one intended for hygiene, the wash basin and stand. Beecher 38)
An essential item for a woman of any period in history, the wash basin and tand was a very important item of hygiene for a woman’s bedroom of the nineteenth century. These stands, consisting of wooden structures of varying shapes and complexity; were intended to accommodate a large basin, a pitcher, a toothbrush jar, and various other toilet accessories, including a chamber pot shelf on the base, with the basin being suspended from a circular hole cut into the top of the stand. Leavitt 166)
From the middle of the nineteenth century, washstands became more elaborate, with mirrors, shelves, and other accessories ncorporated into their structure; which was largely the result of their increased use by the hotel industry. (Mann) “After the Civil War, the “Domestic Science” movement, as espoused by Catherine Beecher, her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others, did much to popularize efficient bathroom designs. (Cotton 273) The Wash Basin Stand; the precursor to the modern bathroom sink, was one of the first implementations of proper hygiene practices within the home; as history can provide many examples of disease being facilitated by poor hygiene. (Mann)
Even “though the Roman of the sixth century B. C. had running water for public baths, domestic wash basins were primarily filled for washing with water drawn from a well poured into a basin,” (Wikander 479) and “it was not until the late eighteenth century that something resembling a bathroom sink came about. (Cotton 271) Using “buckets, troughs, bowls, tubs, or anything else that held water; these vessels were made of wood, stone, metal or porcelain” (Cotton 271) for use in the practice of washing a person’s faces and hands. The wash basins of the nineteenth century were primarily filled with either collected rainwater, or ater from streams, lakes and wells considered to have clean water. (Wikander 479)
“Following the English prototypes, wash basin stands were simply small tables on which were placed pitcher-and-bowl sets; sometimes the bowl rested in a hole cut into the table top. (Cotton 272) The Victorian era wash basin stand located in the house at the San Benito County Historical Park, with pitcher and basin; is carved in a three barley twist legs design, with an oval mirror that includes two candle holders. (Cotton 272) It has a cut-out for the basin and small lower shelf here the pitcher was resting, but was probably intended for a commode; as the pitchers were usually placed within the basin prior to use. Wash basin stands, or washstands as they were often referred, “reflected the popular furniture styles of the period from designers like; Eastlake, Hepplewhite, Chipendale, and Empire. (Cotton 272)
Manuals discussing American domestic advice arose in the later part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from the writing in cookbooks and various etiquette manuals. Domestic writers started by introducing household advice in the 1830’s (Leavitt 9) similar to English writing, but soon understood there was a need to generate advice and guidance specifically for the American women. (Leavitt 5) American women faced many challenges that were extremely different from women’s life in England, as many families were also now migrating from the cities towards the frontiers.
Essentially, many of the early household advice books, like Lydia Maria Child’s, The American Frugal Housewife  (Leavitt 10) incorporated “American” within the title to distinguish their writings from any English authors publishing comparable topics. These American specific domestic writings concerning basic household advice in the 1800’s were popular due to a rise in literacy amongst the middle class women in America. (Leavitt 6) Literacy, along with a continued rise in the white middle-class population that continued to build in America after 1800, provided the authors an ever growing audience for their writings. Leavitt 10)
Domestic-advice manuals began to take a form in the mid-nineteenth century that would differentiate most of them from both novels and cookbooks. Catharine Beecher was an influential person in aking this transition. In her opinion, “domestic life was more important than any other aspect of women’s existence. ” (Leavitt 15) Catharine Beecher, Julia Wright, and their contemporaries had certainly noticed and discussed sanitation in the home. They believed in the importance of cleanliness and fresh air, but did not have, or feel the necessity to apply scientific vocabulary in describing their ideas.
The dust and decay of textiles and heavy upholstery took on new significance as Americans began to learn about germs and disease. ” (Leavitt 41) The washstand as becoming a common item in nineteenth century bedrooms for hygiene purposes when dressing in the morning, before a meal, or cleaning oneself prior to bed. This was also essential for the cleaning of children, especially babies and toddlers. As stated by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book, The American Woman’s Home: “Both the Health, and comfort of a family depended, to a great extent, on the cleanliness of the person. (Stowe 116) It was Stowe’s teaching that: “In early life, children should be washed all over, every night or morning, to remove impurities from the skin. (Stowe 121)
Handwashing was proved to be effective in preventing infections by Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis , where he demonstrated that “childbed fever was contagious, and that its incidence could be reduced form 13% to 2% or less by enforcing appropriate hand-washing behavior by medical care-givers. (Mann) Stowe even reflected that: “If men will give as much care to their own skin as they give to currying a horse, they will gain both health and wealth,” (Stowe 121) but it remained the responsibility of the woman of the house to ensure there were adequate facilities to accomplish the task. Examples in history show that “ancient Athens was decimated by a plague [Salmonellatyphi] during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B. C. as described by Thucydides. ” (Mann)
George Washington also suffered from “the bloody flux” [diarrhea] during his service on General Braddock’s march to Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. Mann) Even as late as the twentieth century people trivialized handwashing, as it was believed that: “People have died from a lot of things but not from poor handwashing. ” (Mann) Not until Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary” a seemingly ealthy woman was the cause of several typhoid outbreaks, did the necessity of handwashing finally get determined as being necessary for everyone. As one of the primary functions of woman in the home was her role as nurse; there was enough illnesses, major and minor, to give the nineteenth century American woman nursing experience.
As Barbara Welter wrote in The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860: “The sickroom called for the exercise of her higher qualities of patience, mercy, and gentleness as well as her housewifely arts. ” In Women, Plumbers, and Doctors: or, Household Sanitation of 1885 by Harriette Plunkett, the editor of the “Sanitary Department” at the New York Independent, wanted to show that: “if women and plumbers do their whole sanitary duty, there will be comparatively little occasion for the services of the doctors,” and published a detailed analysis of home sanitation in 1885. Leavitt 63) This was also something Catherine Beecher understood, as she detailed in her Treatise On Domestic Economy the necessity of teaching women about such things as cleanliness, both of the house and of those within That women needed to be properly educate in the appropriate ways n which to manage a household, similar to how a man would manage his business.
She wrote that “women of this country are unusually subject to disease” (Beecher 18) and how the “drudgery of the kitchen is dirty work” (Beecher 40) and how a woman’s health was dependent on her cleanliness, and that she needed to provide her house with “convenient facilities” and not be “slack in person” with regard to her personal hygiene. (Beecher 40) Though not specifically mentioned, the wash basin with stand was a primary tool for conducting this important part of a woman’s daily routine.
The many cultural indicators pointed to the heightened concern over the quality of domestic life in the mid-nineteenth century, especially as American women were moving away from their communal families towards the western wilderness. (Sklar 152) It was Catherine Beecher’s household design that was seen as the beginnings of household automation, and with her most important teaching being those of hygiene and cleanliness for the sake of personal health. Sklar 153)
For Beecher taught about the necessity to keep the skin clean, with the reasoning and methodologies, she detailed the mportance of a woman to being clean at all times, but especially with regards to young children and the preparation of foods. It was the purpose of the wash basin and stand to provide the facilities for accomplishing this task, to minimize the potential for diseases affecting the health and even mortality of the family. The Wash Basin and Stand were vital to the overall family for health and well-being.
They evolved from the simplest forms of basic items capable of holding water, to become very ornate and elaborate pieces of furniture, with doors and rawers that held everything from the basic bowl and pitcher, to fold-out commodes with all the necessary toiletries. Major developments in sink design came later in the nineteenth century, as the sink migrated from a loan table with a bowl and pitcher, to having faucets with running water, as bathroom designs were given a great deal of scientific thought concerning efficiency. Cotton 272)
This eventually lead to the bathrooms we know today, with tub and shower, and internal plumbing verses exposed pipes, and with the sinks of today even resembling the old wash basins of the past. The wash basin is not without its own sense of elegance though, it has even had mentions in popular literature and poems, with the poet Louis Zukofsky writing an entire poem dedicated to his washstand titled; To my wash-stand, where he wrote: “To my wash-stand, in which I wash my left hand and my right hand.
To my wash-stand whose base is Greek whose shaft is marble and is fluted. ” (Zukofsky 59-60) I would not have thought anyone would think of an item such as a simple household washstand would illicit poetry, but it has been essential to women’s hygiene for thousands of years, maybe it was just time to immortalize it as such…