As bathrooms weren’t installed in all Edwardian houses, the usual method to cleanse the body was to dip a washcloth in a basin of water which was resting in a washstand. Even if the Edwardians couldn’t take a daily shower, they nevertheless were very cleanly: they washed the whole body at least once a day.
Hard water was then as now a problem: It’s less cleansing for body and hair, and coarsens the skin. Edwardians advised to always use soft water for the skin or to make hard water soft.
‘Cleanliness is the outward sign of inward purity. Cleanliness is health, and health is beauty.
The first business of the dressing-room is the bath, and this should be a complete bath, and not simply a hasty washing of the face. It is not to be supposed that a lady washes to become clean, but simply to remain clean. A bathing of the entire body at least once a day is essential to health. It is not necessary to have a bath tub for this purpose, but merely an ordinary basin of tepid water, with soap, sponge and clean towels.
The whole body may be quickly sponged off, or the sponge may be dispensed with, and the hands alone used to convey the water to the body, after which dry the body thoroughly with a soft towel, and then use a coarse Turkish towel vigorously until the skin is red from the friction. In lieu of the coarse towel, a liberal use of the flesh-brush may be made, but either one or both must be regularly used, as nothing tends to keep the complexion in good condition so much as the daily use of the flesh-brush.’ (Manual Of Useful Information, 1893) Beauty creams aren’t necessary if ladies rise early, take exercise in the fresh air, protect the skin from the sun with wide-brimmed hats and veils and keep a careful diet and regular habits.
Hard water will coarsen the skin, ‘partly because soft water is much more cleansing, and dirt ruins the skin; and partly because hard water contains microscopic particles which literally scratch the delicate surface.’ To preserve a firm and clear skin into old age, use soft water for washing your face: ‘Soft Water, especially rain-water, cleanses, softens, and brightens the skin, and will restore a bloom which time or ill-health have removed.’ (Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1910-2) If rain, well, or spring water cannot be had, buy distilled water. In the morning, wash your face just with water; wash your face with soap in the evening, steam it, and massage it with cold cream. A good powder isn’t injurious to the skin if removed in the evening, but a ‘complexion properly cared for seldom requires powder’ (Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1910-2). Don’t wash your face oftener than twice a day: if the skin feels greasy, it needs ‘medical treatment, not perpetual washing.’ (Three Meals A Day, 1902) Soap will seldom be needed if soft water is used. Rather use cold cream, and wipe it off with a soft cloth.
Hard water can be softened by distillation, boiling, or additives, such as oatmeal, bran or carbonate of soda (baking soda). Softening hard water by distillation: ‘By evaporation, water is completely separated from all fixed saline matters, and consequently from all hardening matters. Distilled water, however, has a vapid and unpleasant taste, due partly to deficient aeration and partly to the presence of traces of volatile organic matter; and though filtration through animal charcoal will remove this, and the aeration can begin chemically, the process is too expensive, except in certain cases, as on board ship, or at military or naval stations where no potable water exists.’ (Scientific American Supplement Volumes, 1883)
‘If water is temporarily hard, however, it may be softened by being boiled, then allowed to stand until the lime settles. The top water is afterward drawn off. Boiling water to soften it is without doubt the best method if it softens the water sufficiently, since no harmful chemicals are left in the water’ (A Manual Of Home-Making, 1919). Another way of perfuming and softening hard water for the face is ‘with fine oatmeal, to which has been added one-fourth part of powdered orris-root. Mix, tie in a muslin bag, and drop into the jug at night. Change every few days.’
If soft water for brewing ‘cannot be procured, expose hard water in the coolers to the air for two or three days, and throw a handful of soda into each hogshead.’ (The Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts, 1841) ‘The hardness of water, as already explained, being principally due to the presence in solution of bicarbonates and sulphates of lime and magnesia, can be reduced by addition of carbonate of soda [baking soda], which decomposes these salts slowly in cold water but quickly in hot, forming insoluble compounds of lime and magnesia, which are slowly precipitated as a fine mud, leaving the water charged, however, with a solution of bicarbonate and sulphate of soda. This process, on account of expense, is only applicable on a small scale to the water for laundry purposes, as the water acquires an unpleasant taste from the presence of the soda salts. For laundry purposes it is, however, valuable, as it effects a great saving of soap.’ (Scientific American Supplement Volumes, 1883)