What Hygiene Was Like In Colonial America

In the 17th and 18th centuries, several colonies of the British Empire were founded on the East Coast of what is now the United States. Before declaring independence in 1776, the New World colonies were under the control of Britain, with the population growing from around 2,000 to over 2 million between the years 1625 to 1775. Although the colonies managed to develop from a small group of settlers into one of the most powerful nations in the world, that surely didn’t mean that they emphasized hygiene. Read on to learn what the standard of cleanliness was back then and how much it differs from today.

Bathing Wasn’t A Common Practice

Woman washing hands
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With showers out of the question, full-body baths were also uncommon during the 17th and 18th centuries. Baths were usually only given to infants, but even that was rare. Although men, women, and children rinsed their faces and hands each morning, when bathing, they usually used a small basin with water and a rag or sponge to occasionally wipe themselves down.

One of the most common ways of “bathing” was to swim in a nearby body of water, which was usually done to cool off rather than for cleanliness.

Cleanliness Was Connected To Religion

Man preaching
Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Considering how important religion was in colonial society, it’s unsurprising that cleanliness was heavily influenced by religious ideology. Puritans viewed being dirty as a sign of the devil and sin; therefore, those who didn’t bathe were believed to be more likely to take part in sinful activities.

Puritans were taught that a clean body, house, clothes, and settlements were an essential part of spiritual health. However, bathing was a complicated issue as public bathhouses were thought to spread disease and lead to sexual impropriety.

There Weren’t Any Real Dentists

Man having teeth pulled
David Teniers/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
David Teniers/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Unfortunately, in colonial America, there weren’t any real dentists. If you needed dental work done, such as the pulling of a tooth, you would most likely have to visit a barber, surgeon, or even a blacksmith.

There weren’t any standard anesthetics either, so people had to use natural remedies such as figs and chamomile, or even alcohol and opium. Furthermore, dentures and fake teeth were standard. Dentures were usually made from the teeth of poor people who were willing to sell whatever they could for money, or they were implants shaped from ivory or wood.

Going To The Bathroom Was Not A Relaxing Affair

White outhouse
MARLIN LEVISON/Star Tribune via Getty Images
MARLIN LEVISON/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Most colonial households had an outhouse, a separate small structure on the property that covered a hole in the ground that people used as a toilet. However, when individuals didn’t have (or couldn’t use) the outhouse, they usually resorted to using a chamber pot kept under the bed that they would clean by emptying it out of a window.

This was a particular problem in urban areas such as Philadelphia. In more rural places, people would empty their waste into a nearby water source that would also be used for drinking water. This would result in the spread of disease.

Powdered Wigs Were A Double-Edged Sword

John Hancock with a book
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

In colonial America, many members of the middle and upper class would keep their hair short to stave away lice and would wear powdered wigs instead. However, with the wigs being made out of human and animal hair, they were also vulnerable to lice and other insects.

So, wigs had to be carefully cared for, and although it was recommended to have them cleaned weekly, some people went weeks and months without proper washing because of the cost involved. Moreover, pomades used to style the wigs attracted insects that would then get stuck in it.

A Hygiene Tool With Multiple Purposes

Tool found in Jamestown
Pinterest/Historic Jamestowne
Pinterest/Historic Jamestowne

While excavating the Jamestown settlement in the 1990s, archaeologists uncovered a peculiar instrument. They discovered that the device was used as an ear picker to remove wax from the ear.

However, there was another pick on the tool that was presumably used as a toothpick and to clean under one’s fingernails! Apparently, human ear wax had a variety of uses in colonial America, so it wasn’t uncommon for people to collect it.

Lye Soap Was Mainly Used To Wash Clothes

Making soap
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although some wealthy colonists had the luxury of importing fragrant soaps from Europe, those who didn’t have the means made their own soap or purchased it locally. The soap was usually lye soap, which was made from a mixture of animal fat, lye, and ash.

Making lye soap wasn’t necessarily complicated, although the process was known to be time consuming and smelly. However, the soap was harsh and was usually only used to wash clothes, dishes, and other parts of the home.

Diseases Were A Major Concern

Men at Valley Forge
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Due to an overall lack of sanitation in both urban and populated areas, diseases were a major threat to everyone living in colonial America. With human waste being dumped into water sources and the streets lined with garbage, common diseases included typhoid fever, dysentery, and cholera, all of which became rampant in the hot summer months.

Water-born diseases such as dysentery became increasingly common in the military. For example, in 1777 George Washington lost nearly two-thirds of his 2,000-troop army to dysentery, typhoid, and influenza when they camped at Valley Forge.

Men Visited Barbers For A Shave

Man getting a shave
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Early male European settlers visited barbers when they wished to receive a shave. Although barbers were needed, this was seen as a lowly profession as many enslaved individuals shaved their white masters, and it was a popular profession for free nonwhites.

On the other hand, it’s assumed that women didn’t shave many of their body parts since social norms dictated that they were expected to show as little skin as possible. If women did remove any hair, it is believed that they would pluck the hair out or use depilatory creams.

Some Women Preferred Not To Bathe As A Form Of Self-Defense

Portrait of colonial woman
Burstein Collection/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Burstein Collection/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

While women in the 18th century were encouraged to bathe, especially if they were inflicted with an illness involving their reproductive organs, some women shied away from washing regularly.

Women knew that men preferred a woman who was freshly washed, so some of them wouldn’t bathe in order to make themselves unattractive to males. Many of them figured that if they smelled foul, men would be less likely to pursue them or assault them in any manner.

Many Military Leaders Knew The Importance Of Sanitation

Painting of George Washington
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington stressed the importance of sanitation and cleanliness, noting that it was “essential to health and service.” At the time, one of his main concerns was smallpox. He instructed his soldiers to wash their shirts weekly and their hands and face daily.

Of course, not everyone followed these orders. To further ensure cleanliness, the army had what were known as “followers,” who helped cook, clean, and keep things sanitary around the camp.

Venereal Diseases Were A Way Of Life

Man and woman riding horses
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

After the Spaniards brought syphilis to the shores of the New World back in the 1400s, it didn’t take long for the deadly disease to circulate through the American colonies. Referred to as the Great Pox or just Pox, by the 1760s, syphilis and other venereal diseases were at epidemic levels.

Medicines at the time did little but offer some relief to those afflicted, with doctors not being able to do anything without antibiotics. Syphilis remained the fourth leading cause of death in the United States until World War II, with venereal diseases still being found regularly throughout society.

Few People Had Healthy Teeth

Dentist working on patients
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Most Native Americans’ teeth were in a lot better condition than the Europeans who came to settle the land. This is because Natives used a variety of methods to keep them clean, such as brushing them with sticks, chewing fresh herbs like mint, and even rubbing them with charcoal to brighten them.

On the other hand, the Europeans who came over did very little to take care of their teeth and generally had a diet that was overall worse for their oral health.

Bathhouses Weren’t Necessarily For Bathing

Men in bathhouse
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Although some bathhouses did exist in the American colonies, they weren’t necessarily used for cleaning the body. Instead, they were viewed as places of healing and areas for the wealthy to relax and socialize in the water.

In the late 1770s, the royal governor of the Colony of Virginia was known to use his bathhouse to cool down on hot summer days. At times, baths were also recommended by doctors to help stop convulsions.

Linens Were Thought To Be The Basis Of Cleanliness

Man doing white laundry
Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

According to W. Peter Ward, professor of history at the University of British Columbia, “Cleanliness, to the extent that people thought about it in the 17th century, had much more to do with what we now call underwear than anything else.”

Colonists believed that a person was only as clean as the white linens that they wore under their clothing. This is because they assumed that the linens were what absorbed all of the body’s sweat and impurities; therefore, the cleaner the linens, the cleaner the person.

Rudimentary Teeth Cleaning

Stick used as a toothbrush
Twitter/863vd
Twitter/863vd

Long before the first patented toothbrush in 1857, the colonists had elementary methods when it came to oral hygiene. The standard equipment they used included rough cloth, salt, and charcoal, and they would rub the coarse cloth against their teeth to remove any particles.

Colonists would then use a combination of charcoal and salt for an even deeper clean. Some people used birch twigs and frayed them at the end to create a type of brush. Although cleaning their teeth wasn’t nearly as universal as it is today, this was about the best they had.

Some People Believed It Was Unsafe To Bathe

Soap and brush
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although today we know that bathing helps to promote health and gets rid of germs and other filth, back then, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Unfortunately, some people believed that by bathing, they were removing important oils from the skin, which made them vulnerable to diseases. Although this concept is the opposite of what’s true, it’s one of the main reasons that many colonials had a legitimate full-body wash just a few times a year.

Modern Anesthesia And Sterilization Were Out Of The Question

Surgical tools
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When it came to surgery, patients were subjected to horrific procedures without any true anesthesia and a serious lack of sterilization. Not only was this incredibly painful, but it usually resulted in severe infections that would often be fatal.

Patients would have little more than a stick to bite down on during surgeries such as amputations, with only 35% of the people to go through these operations surviving. At the time, your best chance of survival was to never to find yourself under a surgeon’s knife.

Medical Progress Occurred During Wartime

Surgery being performed
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The biggest steps forward in terms of successful medical procedures occurred during wartime when there was no shortage of patients. Although a lot of it was trial and error, with a seemingly endless stream of patients, surgeons could test new techniques and practices that would be safer and more effective.

A surgeon on the battlefield could gain more experience in one day than in years’ worth of practice during times of peace. During the American Revolution, countless new procedures were developed to save as many people as possible.

There Was No Shortage Of “Vermin”

Picture of John Smith
FPG/Getty Images
FPG/Getty Images

From when the first Europeans began to settle in Jamestown, it became clear to them that insects and rodents were going to be a constant nuisance. Captain John Smith wrote on the issue, describing what he called “musketas and flies” and “a certain India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarooch, which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-scented dung.”

However, this wasn’t just an issue for early settlers. Without modern fumigation and protection, rodents and other insects co-existed with colonials in their homes. These were also the source of many deadly diseases.