Clean Linen: Sam, Sheets, and Personal Hygiene in the 18th Century

One of Sam’s more memorable quotes concerns the brilliant and eccentric poet Christopher Smart, who was born in 1722 and so was about 13 years younger than Sam himself. Smart showed early promise and in fact did well for himself, both literarily and financially, in the early part of his career. However, when he was about 33 he suffered “a fit” that set him on a destructive path. About a year and a half later he was confined to a mental asylum with the charming name of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. It was always dubious whether he was mentally ill at all. He was bounced between different asylums but continued to write poetry during his confinements, and was finally released in 1763 after nearly six years of mental institutionalization.

Sam supported and defended him during the period, famously saying:

I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (Penguin, 2008), 273.

William Savage, whom I interviewed in 2019 about cleanliness and personal hygiene in the 18th century, says that “it’s a myth that people liked to go dirty.” (Savage, by the way, maintains an excellent and information-packed blog about the century called Pen and Pension, which I highly recommend.) As with many things in life, then and now, much depended on how much money you had/have. The rich were cleaner than the poor: “Generally speaking, people tried to be reasonably clean. Some people were more conscientious about it than others, but generally speaking they liked to be as clean as they could. If they were dirty, and by our standards they were dirty, it was by necessity … The poorer you were, the dirtier you got.”

The rich had options. It was a big job to wash clothes and bed linens, and so they employed “washing women” for the task:

You only [did] a wash every so often, because it was so difficult to wash and it was so difficult to dry things. So the washing women would come in and they’d spend probably two days washing everything and hanging it out to dry, etc., and then all of that would be available once again for the next month or the next six weeks or the same week or whatever it was … The clothes [were] steeped in a vat, a pot of urine to whiten them, and then the urine washed off. They would use ashes; that’s another source of cleaning agent … It was a very complicated business. Wash day was a major activity.

a clean shirt

Sam was not a “fashion plate” — do people still use that term?! — and one of his biographers says that he “refused to conform to the respectable norms of hygiene and dress, [and] looked like a tramp or a beggar … Johnson rarely had a clean shirt.*

He lacked similar finesse in his eating habits, sort of like Homer Simpson (if Homer had three honorary degrees, had compiled a dictionary, and edited Shakespeare’s plays). His famous biographer James Boswell said that he “never knew any man who relished good eating more than [Johnson] did.” He goes on to describe some of the mechanics — “his appetite … was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible” — but then, being the prim man of polite society that he was, says that for “those whose sensations were delicate, this could not but be disgusting; and it was doubtless not very suitable to the character of a philosopher, who should be distinguished by self-command.”** (Note that Boswell is likely using disgusting here in an 18th-century sense, equivalent to distasteful today.)

One of my favourite anecdotes about Sam concerns a meeting at a dinner that Boswell was trying to get Sam to attend, without telling him that Member of Parliament John Wilkes, whose political views Sam opposed, would also be there. He jumped at the opportunity (a free meal!) and said to his servant, “Frank, a clean shirt!” And in fact it turned out that the two men got along just fine at the dinner. That was Wednesday, May 15, 1776. Sam was 66 and a well-established writer by then.

Want to hear 3 more minutes about some other details about Sam’s eating and appearance … ?

* Jeffrey Meyers, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (Basic Books, 2008), 74, 101.
** James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (Penguin, 2008), 308.

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