Story: Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene

Page 3. Bathing and personal hygiene

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Monitoring cleanliness

In the 19th century scientific discoveries about the role of bacteria in causing illness, and the development of urban sanitation systems, highlighted the value not only of clean towns, waterways and homes, but also of personal cleanliness.

Women were charged with getting rid of germs and keeping their families clean and healthy, aided by guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles, and agencies like the Department of Public Health (established in 1900) and the Plunket Society (1907).

From 1912 the School Medical Service monitored children’s hygiene – school nurses tackled issues like body and head lice. From the 1920s trainee teachers were given physical examinations and hygiene lessons so they could be models of cleanliness. Children’s hygiene was also a focus of health camps, which started in 1919.

Clean and shiny children

In 1938 School Medical Service officers reported favourably on children’s hygiene. Dr Phillipps noted that ‘the cleanliness of the children, both in person and clothing, is in the main extremely good. It is rare to see a child at school who is not clean and tidy.’ Dr McLaglan wrote: ‘The rank and file of the children are exceptionally well, rosy, sleek and waggish. They are mostly clean and vermin [lice] incidence is lower than ever before.’1

By the late 1930s health agencies were claiming credit for reducing the incidence of ‘dirt diseases’ like impetigo (school sores) and scabies, as well as lice, among children. The role of technology in making it easier to keep clean was unacknowledged.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, doctors recommended daily cold baths and warm or hot baths less often. Educationalist James Pope advised that frequent hot baths made the blood flow away from the heart and lungs. It is unclear how common cold baths actually were.

Frequent hot or warm baths were impractical because heating water was so time-consuming. A weekly warm bath was common, with water heated over a kitchen fire or in the laundry copper. In the 1880s kitchen ranges with boilers dispensing hot water by tap were available. Baths were taken in a tin bath filled by hand. Some older people used a washstand in a bedroom, with a basin and ewer. Some towns and cities had public baths, where people paid to bathe.

Bathing eventually increased in frequency after electrically heated water became more common in the 1930s. By then, cheap, commercially made soap was readily available. School doctors recommended a daily cold and weekly warm bath, highlighting the still limited availability of hot water.

In 1951 the ‘Survey of dirty children’ investigated 107 children living in Auckland’s Freemans Bay, then a poor suburb. Half the homes had no bath and 90% no hand-washing basin. This highlighted the links between hygiene, poverty and ethnicity – almost two-thirds of the children were Māori or Pacific.

By the 1960s most houses had a hot-water service, making it easier to wash in hot water regularly. Doctors have realised that over-use of soap caused skin problems like eczema, while excessive cleaning damaged skin and made it vulnerable to germs.

The miracle of soap and water

In 1977, aged 86, politician John A. Lee wrote: ‘Men have gone to the moon and marvelled, but no greater event occurred on this earth than the abundance of soap and the unheralded arrival of hot and cold water by the turning of a tap. It is a gift of my lifetime, as is the leisure to use it. A rocket to the moon put millions of miles on to exploration potential; but hygiene – made possible by instant hot and cold water – probably doubled our life span’.2


Around the 1890s new houses started to include separate bathrooms at the back. Some had both baths and showers. By the 1930s bathrooms were more centrally positioned and bigger. Large houses sometimes had more than one bathroom, a common feature for new dwellings in the early 2000s.

Body odour

The weekly baths of the 19th and early 20th centuries meant that body odour caused by perspiration was unremarkable, except when particularly offensive odour was seen as a sign of illness or a problem like constipation. Sweaty, smelly feet were less acceptable, and deodorising powders were available. Perfume was used by some to mask body smells.

By the 1920s and 1930s people – particularly women – were expected to eliminate body odour through regular washing and use of deodorant. Women were encouraged to remove underarm hair. In the 1970s alternative lifestylers and feminists rejected deodorant and razors in favour of a ‘natural’ look and smell, although most people continued to see body odour as offensive. In the early 2000s a vast array of products was available to counteract the body’s smells.


Menstruating women used home-made pads made by cutting up towels and sheets until the 1920s, when commercial sanitary pads became available. Tampons were available from the 1930s. Women have always concealed evidence of menstruation, and in traditional Māori societies, menstruating women were restricted in their activities.

  1. Department of Health, ‘Annual report of the Director-General of Health.’ Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives, 1939, H-31, p. 38. Back
  2. Quoted in Nigel Isaacs, Michael Camilleri and Lisa French, Hot water over time – the New Zealand experience, p. 1, (last accessed 11 February 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene - Bathing and personal hygiene', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013