Personal grooming is a large part of modern etiquette, which is something I have mixed feelings about. We’re always taught not to judge a book by it’s cover, but nobody wants to read a book that clearly hasn’t showered in four days. And then you get into the hole of realizing our cleanliness standards stem from the rich, who’ve had the most access to baths/perfumes/other grooming tools, and having access to hot water is already a hurdle in so many places, not to mention dental care and other things we consider “basics,” and okay I’m getting ahead of myself. Our cleanliness standards may have gotten a little too elaborate, but yes, everyone likes someone who makes the effort to bathe regularly.
The New York Fashion Bazar Book of Etiquette has some tips on how to achieve cleanliness, many of which sound pretty good today. Wash at least your face and hands every day, change your underwear often, and don’t forget to clean your underarms. But remember, “In the street cars, railways, omnibuses, and at churches and theaters the vast numbers of unwashed persons make themselves odious to their neighbors, and often a well-dressed man or woman is quite as disgusting as those whose outward garb show their low grade of life,” so have some chill.
However, the book does a strange thing in advising against soap. “Soap is not a good cosmetic for the face and hands,” author Sophia Johnson writes, “but alcohol stimulates the skin and invigorates the glands and muscles of the body.” Alcohol is apparently especially helpful for the elderly–the young need only use water.
As the book goes on it increasingly sounds as if it’s written by that general in Dr. Strangelove who is worried about fluoridated water sapping his fluids:
All places of resort unless well ventilated are filled with the poison of human breaths and the noxious exhalations of the body and no one who understands the science of health can doubt that many lives are shortened by the injurious atmosphere of fashionable assemblies churches and theaters
American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness takes a bold pro-soap stance, and also advocates for the vigorous use of a “flesh-brush.” And looking to remove your freckles? Just wash your face with a mixture of horseradish and buttermilk. There is one grooming tip I’d advise we all remember, and that is that any perfume must be used in “moderation.” “Perfume which may be agreeable to one is perhaps offensive to another,” author Walter Raleigh Houghton reminds. So please, lady on the subway that smells like fermented baby powder, lighten up.