Keeping ourselves clean and presentable is a crucial part of our daily routine, with hours spent on grooming. But when we reflect on the colonial era, we encounter a striking difference in how people approached hygiene.
Back then, streets were used as garbage dumps, and the idea of washing with soap and water hardly crossed the minds of anyone from peasants to government officials. It's intriguing to delve into the hygiene practices of that time, where dirtiness was the norm and cleanliness was considered a luxury!
Probably the one thing about colonial times that modern people would find most unappealing are outhouses. They were essentially small sheds outside that functioned as bathrooms, with no proper methods for disposing of human waste. One trip outside to an outhouse in the middle of the night and there’s no doubt you’ll be longing for indoor plumbing.
Lye soap was a sort of old-school cleaning detergent made from a combination of lye and animal fat. For many, it was expensive and thus was used sparingly for only the most necessary or valuable of items. Sadly, bathing was not a daily occurrence so soap itself was not commonly found in colonial households.
Unfortunately, colonial times were not especially clean or hygienic, which meant that clothes could easily become infested with fleas. There are reports that this was a common problem for early colonists, some of whom complained about bug infestations that included fleas, roaches, mosquitoes, flies, and lice. This meant that victims of infestations either had to constantly pick fleas out of their garments or just accept their unhygienic fate.
Regular bathing was not really a thing in the colonial era, which meant that people often went for long stretches of time without thoroughly cleaning themselves. Even when they did bathe, it’s debatable as to how clean the bath would’ve made them given the lack of modern bathing products such as soap and shampoo.
During colonial times, many people believed that bathing in water was actually an unhealthy practice that could leave them vulnerable to diseases. According to beliefs at the time, the body came equipped with natural oils that helped protect an individual from getting sick. Thus, cleaning oneself with water was seen as detrimental because it removed these oils from the skin.
Family Bath Water
When they did actually take baths, colonists sometimes did so as a family, meaning that multiple people would take turns sharing the same bath water. The water would be fetched from a well, heated up with fire, and then poured into a tub. One could only hope to be the first family member in the tub!
Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater!
Typically, family bathing required the father to go first, followed by the mother, and then the children in order of age from oldest to youngest. Thus, the last family member to bathe would be the youngest, otherwise known as the baby. This is where the phrase “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” came from. They literally wanted to ensure the bathwater was not emptied with the baby still in the tub!
The Ordeal Of Bathing
Another reason why regular bathing was not common was how much of an ordeal the task would’ve been for many colonists. Taking a bath required fetching lots of water from a well or some other water source, preparing a fire to warm the water, and then lugging the warm water to the tub.
This entire process of fetching water, building a fire, heating up the water, and then bringing all the water to a tub could take as long as an hour. Then one would have to strip naked (an unpleasant task in cold temperatures) and wash before the water temperature became too unpleasant.
Why Even Bother Bathing?
Of course, even after all this work was put into preparing and emptying a bathtub filled with water, a recently bathed colonist would simply put their dirty garments back on. Since laundry was a relatively infrequent chore, even bathing didn’t really make someone all that clean. In fact, one might even take a bath only to be covered in a flea-infested garment!
Much like bathing, hair washing happened infrequently during the colonial era. And it was far less effective, thanks to the lack of modern-day shampoos. Women tended to wash their hair only once or twice a month, depending on how oily their hair was. Men tended to wash their hair even less frequently than women.
Unsurprisingly, given the lack of regular bathing, body odor was a constant issue in the colonial era. To put it simply, many people stunk. While they did have some remedies to try to mask their odor, colonists probably just accepted that they could only get so clean in their rugged habitats.
Perfumes and Bay Rum
One way colonists battled body odor was with perfumes (usually used by women) or a unique substance called bay rum (typically used by men). Bay rum was a combination of spices, perfume, and rum that created what some must’ve considered a more masculine scent than many perfumes. One can only hope this odd scent covered up the stink.
Another way that people in colonial times might prevent the unfortunate experience of smelling a friend or neighbor was to carry around scented handkerchiefs. These handkerchiefs, typically scented with lavender, could be held up over one’s nose to mask whatever smells might be nearby. Who knows, maybe handkerchief users were trying to stop from smelling themselves.
Ear and Teeth Cleaners
In colonial times, tools were developed to help people clean their teeth, ears, and noses. But unfortunately, you might use just one tool to do all three. Perhaps this odd tool is not exactly the best instrument of cleanliness, but at least there was an effort being made to stay clean!
In colonial times, lice were a common problem and they could ruin someone’s natural hair. As a result, many people who could afford a wig would shave their head and wear one. Unfortunately, wigs themselves could also attract lice but one could always upgrade to a new wig if they had to.
Toothbrushes were not common among colonists. In fact, toothbrushes as we know them today weren’t invented until the mid-18th century. So before toothbrushes became common, a variety of methods were used for teeth cleaning, including rinsing the mouth with water, rubbing teeth with a cloth, and chewing on an herbal stick.
Although men found it necessary to shave so as not to grow enormous beards, women did not partake in this activity very often. In fact, removing leg hair didn’t become a standard practice for many women in the United States until the 1930s or 40s. In the early 40s, it quickly grew from a fad to a widespread norm.
Syphilis was a common disease among the colonies and would remain prevalent in North America until as late as World War II. In its final and most threatening stage, syphilis can result in damage to the brain, heart, eyes, and nervous system. The disease is treated with penicillin, which wasn’t discovered until 1928.
Hair Growth Remedies
Much like today, men during the colonial era could sometimes be a bit self-conscious about their lack of hair as they aged. Also like today, there was no easy or foolproof method to create lots of natural hair growth in older men. One relatively common elixir used to combat hair loss was a mixture of potassium and chicken feces.
Once upon a time, doctors developed different theories to combat all manner of health issues, and the common cough was no exception. Reportedly, one cough remedy consisted of a mixture of sugar and snails. The idea was that snail slime would cover the walls of the person’s throat, thus eliminating agitation and coughing. Needless to say, it wasn’t terribly effective.
History is filled with plenty of pseudoscientific birth control methods, but few are as outrageous as crocodile dung. Apparently, some women tried to avoid pregnancy by inserting the foul substance into themselves. While it may not have worked in the medical sense, it certainly could’ve been effective at keeping potential mates far away.
Before sanitary pads became inexpensive items available at practically any store, women tried some alternatives with varying degrees of success. In colonial times, these alternatives might’ve been folded cloth or moss. Unfortunately, older methods like these could result in infections. Thankfully, humanity has since found more effective (albeit less nature-based) alternatives.
Pale Skin and Chalk
In colonial times, pale skin was considered an especially attractive feature for women. In France, female members of high society would even paint their faces white. For some colonists, chalk was the preferred method of skin whitening. Although usually just applied to the face, there are some reports of women actually eating the chalk as well.
With no toothbrushes and what we would today consider to be poor overall hygiene, it’s no surprise that many colonial era people had issues with their oral health. Although rotting teeth are obviously not good, there was a time in which they were associated with wealth since the richest members of society could afford to purchase copious amounts of sugar.
One constant problem in the early days of America’s history was poor hygiene among our fighting forces. Although some military leaders, such as General George Washington, encouraged their men to clean themselves regularly, this didn’t always happen. As a result, it was not uncommon for diseases to spread among the troops.
Today, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we think of hand washing as a common and frequent method of keeping viruses and general uncleanliness at bay. But hand washing was not necessarily a daily occurance in colonial times. Part of the reason, of course, was because clean water and soap were not always abundant.
Common But Dangerous Illnesses
As a result (in part) of poor general hygiene among colonists, as well as the widespread but relatively unsanitary use of outhouses, illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever were not uncommon. All three could pose serious threats to colonists and make life far more difficult than it already was.
Superstitions About Water
One possible reason why some colonists avoided taking frequent baths is that there was a superstitious belief that, once submerged entirely in water, one could drown from water seeping into the body. In other words, some thought that they could drown from the inside. As a result, some people might have avoided spending too much time submerged in water.
Superstitions About Underwear
Another false belief that might’ve contributed to general uncleanliness in the colonial era was the belief that underwear was capable of absorbing impurities from the human body. This idea that good underwear could somehow soak up bad things on the body certainly didn’t make many colonists cleaner and probably contributed to poor overall hygiene.
In colonial times, soap making was a lengthy and fairly difficult endeavor, which is part of the reason why people at the time did not frequently clean themselves well (or at all). The process of soap making required boiling leftover cooking and animal fats for hours in a giant cauldron.
Life In The Colonies
Indeed, colonists had to make virtually everything themselves since shops were not always abundant, and even if they were, many families didn’t have the wealth necessary to simply buy all of their household items. Most colonists (roughly 90 percent) lived and worked on small family farms, where they either made or raised everything they needed.
One reason why good hygiene was difficult for colonists to maintain is that they usually slept, ate, and generally lived in close quarters with the rest of their families. A typical household would essentially just be one large room with a chimney. If the family grew large enough, they would build a loft for extra space.
Colonists tended to have large families, with women often giving birth to as many as ten to fifteen children. While such a large family in a small living space made it difficult to prevent the spread of disease among family members, more children was considered beneficial overall because kids could be assigned chores that helped keep the family farm afloat.
Taking a bath might have also been seen as an unnecessary activity given all the colonial families needed to do just to stay alive. Typical tasks on a family farm would include chopping firewood, feeding animals, clearing farmland and growing crops, making household furniture, sewing clothes, making candles, cooking, cleaning, and maintaining a 24-hour fire.
For a colonist, city life wasn’t that much cleaner or hygienic. Cities usually smelled awful, with open sewers and piles of garbage rotting away. Animals would run wild in the streets. When it was hot, large swarms of flies and mosquitoes would gather. And homes tended to be close together, making interaction with sick neighbors a frequent occurrence.
The typical diet of a colonist was made up of corn and many corn products, such as cornbread, corn pudding, corn soup, and corn muffins. They also ate wild animals such as deer, rabbits, birds, and squirrels. In New England and the Middle Colonies, apples were abundant. In the south, peaches were the fruit of choice.
Odd Food Beliefs
Some colonists may have suffered from health issues due to odd beliefs about certain foods. Although they grew and ate vegetables in large quantities, colonists believed that uncooked vegetables could cause illnesses. Sweet potatoes were also considered dangerous, and even capable of killing someone who ate them daily for years on end.
Protestant Work Ethic
Despite some beliefs that today would be considered unusual or ridiculous regarding hygiene and overall health, early colonists were able to survive and, in some cases, thrive under exceptionally harsh conditions. It was extraordinarily difficult to clear and farm land, but the famed “Protestant work ethic” kept many colonists motivated to work hard.
Ultimately, many credit the Enlightenment with disproving old superstitions and causing the spread of science and medicine throughout Europe and the colonies. While not all new ideas born of the Enlightenment were scientifically sound, many helped to revolutionize medicine and hygiene, saving countless lives. Today, Americans benefit from both the hard work of early colonists, and the science-based hygienic practices of medical professionals.