Home Life: Household Hygiene

5 min read

Many of our everyday household tasks are vital for our overall health and well-being.

Brushing our teeth and washing ourselves are some of the essential bits of maintenance we do for our health as well as our appearance. Other things, such as where to go when nature calls, are an inescapable part of how our bodies work. The availability of these in the home has expanded as living standards have increased.

To most of us they’re second nature, habits that we’ve learned since childhood. However, as we’ll explore, even these everyday routines have had quite the historical journey…

Bathing and brushing

With the dawn of the industrial age, people could no longer safely use streams or rivers for drinking water and washing – they had become polluted and filthy. This was the meeting of an old society and the new. North Lanarkshire’s booming new industrial towns had little or no clean water, and the average life expectancy plummeted well below pre-industrial levels.

By the end of the 1800s understanding of disease and hygiene had improved massively, piped clean water made widely available, and with it the beginnings of different habits we have today. It was part of the weekly routine for water to be heated on the kitchen range over different nights, a ‘tin bath’ pulled out from underneath a set-in bed and for various members of the family to take it in turns to use and re-use it. This might need to be repeated every night for anyone who was in a dirty and physical job.

This placed a further burden on the mother of a household to make sure everyone was catered for. When North Lanarkshire’s miners and other industrial workers won the concession of showers at their different workplaces it was a victory for those at home. Since the 1920s most new houses built have come with indoor bathrooms as standard.

Readily available warm water, whether from a household boiler or from an electric shower, has made washing much easier than before. The time and effort needed to wash yourself has been dramatically reduced, and makes for a  more comfortable existence. However, with this there are probably higher social expectations of cleanliness than there would have been in the past.


Our oral hygiene too has also improved substantially over the past 100 years, with much of this being done at home. More affordable, mass-produced toothbrushes and public health campaigns have helped improve the care we take of our teeth and gums – even if sugary drinks have filled the gap left by the decline in popularity of boiled sweets!

Wash day

Another aspect of cleanliness is washing our clothes. Like washing ourselves, this is something which is important for our own health – to wash away dirt and bacteria. However we also do it for social acceptability. For example, importance is given by others to clean, fresh-smelling clothes.

Wash day in the back green of houses on Stirling Road, Airdrie, about 1925 (North Lanarkshire Archives: U34/00904)

There are various subconscious associations that have been built up over the history of human society. Clean, well-kept clothes might indicate that a person is more hygienic, meaning less chance of carrying diseases and being a threat to others. There is even the more abstract association that some might make of that person being of good social standing or behaviour!

Clothes washing was at one time one of the most labour-intensive aspects of housework, and almost always one of the jobs for the mother of a working class household. Water would have to be heated in pots, usually on the range. Clothes were scrubbed on a washboard with hard, alkaline soap that irritated the skin. Soaking wet clothes were ‘wrung’ by rolling them through a mangle and hung on the washing line to dry fully. They were then brought inside and folded.

At the end of this process they would usually have to be ironed, as the clothing material that existed and this process of washing usually would cause them to have a crumpled appearance. Even the irons themselves would have to be heated on the range, and were very heavy pieces quite literally made from cast iron.

Quite often houses were too small to comfortably carry out all aspects of washing. In working-class areas in North Lanarkshire there were often communal wash-houses at the back of rows, or in the back court of tenements – usually with the outdoor toilets next to it.

The arrival of indoor plumbing and electricity, and of affordable mass-produced washing machines has completely revolutionised these tasks. Without a doubt it has hugely reduced the workload of some of the most exhaustive aspects of house work.

When nature calls…

The increased availability of indoor plumbing and a planned sewage system since the 1800s has also made flushing toilets a standard. Compare this with before, where even the mightiest monarch would have needed to use some variation on the privy or humble chamber pot, and to go to the toilet usually meant having to leave the house in order to keep bad smells – and bacteria – out of the home.

With the Industrial Revolution came overcrowding, and the existing water supply (mostly local rivers, streams, and wells) couldn’t cope. Huge amounts of human and industrial waste was being mixed in with the supply of drinking water. Coatbridge, then one of the most overcrowded places in Britain, experienced several outbreaks of cholera in the 1830s and 1840s.

Local Burghs were forced to improve this horrific level of public health by increasing the amount of plumbing available, piping fresh water from local reservoirs and safely disposing of waste. Roughrigg Reservoir, to the east of Airdrie, was built 1846-49 as a joint public water project between the Burghs of Airdrie and Coatbridge.

Flushing toilets had become increasingly common in urban areas of North Lanarkshire by the end of the 1800s. For working-class town dwellers they were usually in an outside building and shared between several households.

If this sounds bad, it was worse in other areas. In mining villages, which were more remote and did not have the same level of plumbing installed, most were still relying on privy toilets. A privy sat over a ‘midden’, or rubbish heap, that would be ‘scavenged’ or emptied by someone hired by the owner of the houses to clean them. Public health inspectors were appalled – a 1918 report on miners’ housing in Scotland described the situation in Lanarkshire:

Generally they are of large dimensions, and, without exception, found to be in an extremely foul condition, so much so that any who have any regard to their person would not enter them…they are an abomination and a danger to the community.

With the end of the First World War there was an increasing demand for the pledge of ‘homes fit for heroes’ to be fulfilled. In the 1920s North Lanarkshire’s Burgh and District councils began demolishing huge numbers of slum housing, replacing them with more modern homes. Whilst the privy had all but disappeared by the Second World War, it wasn’t until the 1970s that almost everyone in the area was enjoying the delights of an indoor bathroom.

Cleanliness: next to godliness?

On a household level, giving the home a tidy covers a lot of different essential functions and even emotional needs. Washing the dishes allows them to be re-used. Hoovering the floor prevents the build-up of dirt and dust that might cause irritation to our lungs or feet. Cleaning the toilet gets rid of unpleasant smells.

People might attach an importance to a house looking spotless for feelings of personal pride and achievement in a well-maintained house – and avoiding embarrassment if a neighbour comes to visit! Others might be more relaxed about scrubbing floors because there’s other things are more important to them – or they don’t have the time.

The cleaning products and objects that we use at home are a reflection of who we are as well as the time period in which we live. The extent to which we clean ourselves and our home is not a simple matter either. It is in part a reflection of our own needs, but also in part because of the social pressures or expectations that we feel.


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