What “Hygiene” Looked Like 100 Years Ago
Sure, we've come a long way...but the fundamentals of cleaning and washing have remained more constant than you might think.
Hygiene is always changing, and right now, it’s going through something of a seismic shift as COVID-19 forces us to realize that many of our ordinary cleaning protocols were too little, too late. We decided to take a glimpse back in time and see what passed for “hygiene” a century ago. These photos from the 1920s and ’30s show how majorly our basic cleaning procedures have changed—but at the same time, they seem kind of familiar! And if you’d rather go further back in the past, find out what people used before toilet paper existed!
That’s not food!
In New York, the Camp Fire Girls’ 1932 demonstration on “how to bathe a baby” takes a chuckle-worthy turn when the baby puts the soap in his mouth! Clearly the Red Cross nurse is more than a little concerned, but the girl on the right certainly seems to be enjoying the tot’s antics. Here are some more funny baby photos that will make you laugh out loud.
Tandem tub time
“This picture of my sister Joyce and me was taken in the summer of 1928. I’m the happy one on the right. We were allowed to cool off in the washtub, half-filled with water, under the supervision of Mother.” —Donna Gardner Samborn of Auburn, Michigan in Reminisce
The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing plenty of comparisons to the influenza outbreak of 1918—and the mask-clad worker in this 1920 photo certainly highlights some similarities. He sprays an “anti-flu virus” spray throughout the top of a double-decker bus. Here’s how other past epidemics changed daily life in America.
These boys at a summer camp in Kent, England, in June 1931 clean their hair and faces all in a line, each using individual wash buckets.
Baby bath time
At a German women’s clinic in 1931, it’s bath time for a couple of adorable babies, one of whom is getting clean in a tiny tub. While the image is in black and white, the face masks the nurses are wearing give it an eerie kinship to today. Here’s what you should know before trying to make a DIY face mask.
This family has quite the setup in this photo from 1931! A quintet of bathing-suit-clad kids rinses off under an outdoor shower…all at the same time. Hey, at least there appears to be good water pressure! Check out these images of vintage swimsuits we kind of wish would come back!
Smelly stain removal
“My young husband and I were living in a small Colorado town in the 1930s. When my one dress-up dress was soiled, I couldn’t wash it because it was made of wool. I drew a little gasoline from a pump at our repair shop and rubbed the spots, which came right out. But on our evening out, I began to smell gasoline. I was terrified our hosts would notice.” —Vern Berry of Bettendorf, Iowa in Reminisce
Wash those hands
Now this looks familiar. This photo is from 1931 Germany, but, with the exception of the old-timey sink taps, it looks like it could be from today, as people are constantly washing their hands with soap and water per the guidance of the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You should especially make sure to wash your hands immediately after touching these 10 things.
This swimmer (in an incredibly stylish old-timey bathing suit!) decided that one spray of water just wasn’t enough for his rinse-off at this Italian spa. An attendant hoses him down in this 1926 photo.
These engineers share a wash bucket as they clean up after what was surely a grueling day at a German engineering works in 1930.
Clean hands all around
Proper hand-washing has always been one of the earliest skills children should learn. Just as today’s might, these kindergarteners from 1930 wash their hands and faces; one boy gets his face toweled off by the teacher, perhaps after snack time. Get a look at more photos showing what school was like 100 years ago.
Hygiene is important for dogs too—and even was back then! This adorable terrier gets the full shampooing treatment from these two groomers in 1930 Los Angeles.
Family’s first toilet
“This 1929 Ford Model A pickup came in handy for all sorts of jobs on our family’s farm near Milan, Michigan, including moving the privy. The outhouse was used on our farm until my daddy built a new house with indoor plumbing.” —David Cranson of Payson, Arizona in Reminisce. Check out what 14 everyday objects looked like 100 years ago.
In 1929 France, these children fill up water jugs and buckets—and do a little self-cleaning as well—at a fountain on a Parisian street.
Barber’s little girl
“A visit to the barbershop was an adventure for the barber’s daughter in 1934. The well-groomed lass in this photo is my future mother-in-law, Joyce Bjerk Jacobson, then three, with her father, Oscar Bjerk, in Karlstad, Minnesota.” —Bertha Jacobson of San Antonio, Texas in Reminisce. Jacobson says that Oscar would even try out some new beauty products on little Joyce! Check out these poignant photos of everyday Americans that show that some things never change.
These boy scouts in Germany get a little extra help with their washing regimen as their buddies dump buckets of water over their heads, smirking all the while, in this 1927 photo. Now that’s good, clean fun.
In 1932 France, these boys in bathing caps rinse off (while splashing and playing around, too!) in a river in the Bois de Boulogne. And, in fact, this isn’t just a river—it’s also an obstacle on a horse trail! They might need another bath after this bath.
In 1925, this New York woman relaxes in the bath while filling out a crossword puzzle. Note that she also has the radio perched on the side of the tub, listening to it through headphones, which may not be entirely safe—but we’re loving her self-care vibes! Sure enough, taking a bath is one of the things you should be doing for yourself during quarantine.
This team of German gymnasts washes their feet in the same…trough? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem sanitary. They’re participating in 1921’s International Workers’ Olympiad, a sporting competition held in Czechoslovakia as an alternative to the Olympics, which some nations viewed as favoring the upper class. Get a look at what 10 famous landmarks looked like 100 years ago.
Washing the dishes
In 1921, this woman demonstrates an early version of a dishwasher, feeding water into this transparent drum. The dishes are loaded into a wire rack, and, according to ads for this technology, would be completely clean in only two minutes! Today, it turns out we now know that there’s a most hygienic way to wash your dishes.
In 1923, this trio of English campers washes up outside their tent using these handy-looking (if maybe not super sanitary) basins. Note the mirror and hairbrush perched against the legs of one! Next, find out what another day-to-day necessity—food shopping—looked like 100 years ago.