The origin of the "Great Unwashed Masses," or simply the "Great
Unwashed," has an interesting history.
It's worth noting at the outset that the use of "unwashed" as an
adjective for people (and often as a synonym for "low class") goes
back hundreds of years. For example, Shakespeare's "The Life and Death
of King John" (1595) contains a line about a "lean unwash'd
The term "Great Unwashed" appears to have originated in 19th Century
In 1868, Thomas Wright wrote a book called "The Great Unwashed," about
the working class in Victorian England. No doubt because his book did
a lot to popularize the phrase, Wright is sometimes credited with
coining it, as in this book review by Sasha Abramsky:
However, author William Makepeace Thackeray had used the phrase "great
unwashed" 18 years earlier in "The History of Pendennis." And a few
commentators cite him as the creator:
Earlier still, though, was Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton who used
the term in his 1830 novel "Paul Clifford." Interestingly, according
to a web page at the Department of English at San Jose State
University, Bulwer-Lytton not only coined "great unwashed," but also
came up with "The pen is mightier than the sword" and the classic
opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."
The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition 1989, confirms that
Lytton's use as the first, with Thackeray and Wright following. From
b. absol. Those who are not usually in a clean state; the ?lower
orders?. Freq. with great.
(a) 1830 LYTTON Paul Clifford I. p. xix, He is certainly a man who
bathes and ?lives cleanly?, (two especial charges preferred against
him by Messrs. the Great Unwashed). 1833 HOOK Parson's Dau. II. 119
The ?fat and greasy?, and the ?great unwashed,? bowed and smiled their
best. 1850 THACKERAY Pendennis xxx, Gentlemen, there can be but little
doubt that your ancestors were the Great Unwashed. 1868 [T. WRIGHT]
The Great Unwashed Pref., Whenever..I speak of working men, or the
working classes, it is in the ?great-unwashed? sense." "
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary essentially agrees, citing the
1830 date associated with Bulwer-Lytton:
" UNWASHED noun
: an ignorant or underprivileged group : RABBLE -- usually used with
great <the great unwashed> "
search terms: "great unwashed"
term, phrase , expression
I hope this helps. Good luck in your research.