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Hygiene and Grooming

The bathroom is a place for maintaining personal hygiene and practising self-care and, for some, it is a place to sing. Listen to the sounds of bathing, learn the meaning of 'wibbles' and hear a vivid description about sharing a tin bath.

How has the bathroom changed?

We often think of bathing as a private experience, but historically bathing was a communal activity. In the 19th century there was a growing awareness of the importance of personal hygiene, and many public bath and washhouses were built. Only as the 20th century progressed did the bathroom develop as a private room inside the house. For many people though, bathing continued as a shared, weekly event that either took place in a bathhouse or in front of the living room fire in a tin bath.

Listen to Vic and Minnie Alsop, both born in the 1910s, describe their bathtimes in the Sheffield home in which they lived until 1969 when they moved to a more modern house:

The space of the bathroom and who we share it with also affects the time we can spend washing and grooming. Have you ever sat in the tub or stood in the shower and thought about the sounds of bathing?

Bathing might be a ritual that we try to get over and done with as quickly as possible in the little time we have before rushing out of the house, something we do because we have to, or a process that is fully embraced and thoroughly enjoyed. Is your bathroom a space where you like to linger or are you in and out in a matter of minutes? Why?

I do like to sing in my bath by Alfred Lester (9CL0032700) © Alfred Lester, © Thomas Case Sterndale Bennett, © George W Byng; Wibbles: the wrinkles on your fingers (C1442/01067/2) © British Library.

Being one of the places in the home with running water and a bath or a sink to fill, the bathroom is not just used to wash and clean people. The space can be used to rehydrate thirsty house plants during the summer or to wash clothes or even four-legged members of the family. Can you guess who is being dried after being given a bath in this bathroom?

Self care in the bathroom

Grooming and self-care have long been part of the human experience. The ancient Egyptians had skincare regimens whilst the Romans removed unwanted hair. Today, in addition to washing and bathing the private space of the bathroom is where these rituals of grooming and caring for the body can take place.

It is here that we are able to take the time to pay attention to what the body needs, to soothe a particular health condition or simply to refresh and nurture the body after its regular daily use. What do you do to take care of your body? We often pay attention to the way that these rituals make our bodies look but what do these practices of self-care sound like?

  • Mary Stewart
  • Mary Stewart is Curator of Oral History and Deputy Director of the oral history fieldwork charity National Life Stories. The British Library's oral history collection is one of the largest in the world, and as part of the oral history team Mary helps to add diverse voices from across the UK to the Sound Archive, particularly through academic and community partnerships. Mary is currently researching how oral history and family history intersect, which builds upon her studies of her own family history. Mary is also a Trustee and Accredited Trainer for the Oral History Society.

  • Holly Gilbert
  • Holly Gilbert is the Cataloguer of Digital and Multimedia Collections at the British Library where she archives collections of audio and audio-visual material, including The Listening Project, an ongoing nationwide project run in collaboration with the BBC, on which she has worked since its inception in 2012. Before that she worked on Voices of the UK, a sociolinguistic project that developed specialised linguistic access to a collection of BBC audio recordings held in the British Library Sound Archive.

  • British Library Learning
  • The British Library’s Digital Learning team welcomes over 10 million learners to their website every year. They provide free learning resources that allow audiences to access thousands of digitised treasures from the British Library’s collection, and explore a wealth of subjects from children’s literature and coastal sounds to medieval history and sacred texts.