The American Frontier, otherwise referred to as the Wild West or Old West, was a time period in American history that involved the westward expansion across the United States. During that time, pioneers looked west to “the frontier” in hopes of making their fortunes and starting new lives.
Life on the frontier was not for the faint of heart, and those who were brave enough to face it paid the price with their hygiene. Take a look to see what hygiene was really like in the Wild West and how greatly it contrasts with today.
You Took Your Chances Sleeping On A Public Bed
Although not every bed in the American Frontier was made from straw and hay, many of them were. Because they weren’t cleaned often, many of these beds became infested with what became known as “seam squirrels,” or lice. However, these were just one of the many types of insects that plagued those living in the Old West.
Flies were everywhere, contaminating food with their larva as well as mosquitoes making their way into poorly insulated structures. Furthermore, few people had screens on their windows, welcoming in any kind of insect that passed by.
Soap Wasn’t A Top Priority
An associate of Billy the Kid, Frank Clifford wrote a memoir about his life in the American West, even discussing his experiences with soap. He describes a product called “soap-weed,” which Mexican women would use to wash their hair. It is made from the yucca plant and supposedly left their women’s hair “soft and clean and lustrous.”
While some people used soap-weed, many settlers relied on soap made of animal fat. These homemade soaps were known to be particularly harsh and would cause skin irritation. Furthermore, body odor was considered to be just a fact of life with many believing that having overly clean pores would subject them to germs and disease.
Clean Water Wasn’t A Guarantee
In the Wild West, finding clean water was imperative to survival, especially when traveling. Yet, it wasn’t easy to come by. Even when people believed they found drinkable water, it was always possible that an outhouse had been built upstream, potentially contaminating the water.
On the other hand, stagnant water was essentially poison as it usually attracted insects or had already been stepped in by horses. Furthermore, the rainwater that was collected using cisterns was fresh at first, but would eventually become undrinkable over time.
Dust Was A Part Of Life
In the Wild West, dust was inescapable whether you were in or outdoors. Dust storms were frequent and devastating, covering entire towns in a thick layer of dirt and grime. Sarah Raymond Herndon, a young girl who traveled from Missouri to the Montana region in the 1860s, reflected in her book Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865:
“Oh, the dust, the dust; it is terrible. I have never seen it half as bad; it seems to be almost knee-deep in places […] When we stopped, the boys’ faces were a sight; they were covered with all the dust that could stick on.” Of course, the presence of so much dust also caused severe respiratory illnesses.
Outhouses Were A Nightmare
As you can imagine, going to the bathroom in a shed that’s built on top of a hole in the ground isn’t the most pleasant experience. Although nobody had a problem taking care of their business outside in the bushes or the woods, outhouses were typically built near homes, and when the hole became full, it was buried, and the structure was moved to another hole.
Unsurprisingly, considering the smell, outhouses attracted all kinds of insects and were an easy way to catch a disease. There was no toilet paper at the time either, with people relying mostly on leaves, corn cobs, and grass.
There Were A Few Different Types Of Shampoo
If they were lucky, some people had access to soap-weed in order to wash their hair, but that wasn’t the only method around. Besides drinking it, whiskey served a variety of purposes ranging from a disinfectant to a shampoo.
When mixed with castor oil, it was used to wash hair, which was then rinsed with rainwater or water softened with borax. When it came to women styling their hair, it wasn’t uncommon for them to use heated pencils as rudimentary curlers.
Long Hair On Men Wasn’t Unusual
Although long hair might seem like a hassle to keep clean and something that will make you hotter, it was a popular style among men in the Wild West, with some of the most notable figures of the time sporting long tresses.
However, men didn’t just let their hair grow as long as they could. When arriving in a town, many cowboys would treat themselves to a trim, a bath, new clothes, and a shave. During the 19th century, shorter hair became the norm among men.
Disease Was Inescapable
Because of the unsanitary conditions that many people living in the Old West experienced, it was common for diseases to ravage settlements in the American Frontier. One of the most prominent was cholera, which was devastating to both Native Americans and settlers alike.
Sickness was at every turn, and it was seen as a miracle if you came across a camp or settlement where there wasn’t any disease at all. According to Sarah Raymond Herndon’s book, upon arrival at one camp, “There is no sickness in camp at all; it is marvelous how very well we are. I hope it will continue so.”
The Importance Of A Kerchief
One of the most iconic aspects of a cowboy’s outfit is his kerchief or bandana, something he couldn’t live without. They served a multitude of purposes such as keeping the dust out of their mouths and noses, protecting their neck from the sun, ears from the cold, and more.
Of course, Hollywood also likes to show them as a way for outlaws to hide their faces when committing a robbery. They were made from a variety of materials and were mostly red. To wear one, you would fold it into a triangle and tie the knot around your neck.
From Bushy Beards And Long Hair To Clean-Cut
In the late 19th century, as more dental products became available to the public, new hair care products and styles arose as well. Although the initial look for cowboys and other men in the Wild West tended to consist of a scruffy beard and long hair, this changed with the introduction of these products.
Men began to view their extra hair as another place that could harbor harmful germs, so many began to cut their hair and shave for a more clean-cut look.
Dental Hygiene Wasn’t A Thing
Back in the Old West, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other oral care products weren’t prevalent. This meant that a lot of people suffered from severe oral issues, and when a tooth became problematic, it was usually just pulled out.
With dentists being uncommon, this task was usually performed by barbers or blacksmiths, or even the “patient” themself. Of course, besides drinking or applying whiskey, there were a few pain medications available as well. All in all, oral care was horrendous, and countless people paid the price for it.
Women’s Complexions Were Important
For women, a popular look at the time was to keep their skin as white as possible, and without blemishes and freckles. Many middle and upper-class women did this by either bleaching their skin or keeping out of the sun as much as possible.
If they did find themselves outdoors, chances are they wouldn’t be seen without a bonnet, gloves, and long sleeves. Unfortunately, not all pioneer women had this luxury and were exposed to the sun regardless. Many women also went against social norms and conformed more to the cowboy way of life.
Cowboys Suffered From Fungal Infections
With the inability to properly bathe for weeks and even months at a time, few changes of clothes, and riding on a horse all day, many cowboys suffered from horrendous fungal infections.
Many of these infections appeared in the crotch, buttocks, armpits, and feet regions. They were terrible to live with because they severely itched and burned, and oftentimes, scratching them with dirty hands and fingernails only led to further bacterial skin infections.
Smelling Like Horse
After weeks on the trail, many cowboys were described as “smelling like their horse.” Although this saying led some to believe this was the result of a cowboy being atop his horse for extended periods of time, this is mostly the accumulation of normal skin bacteria from not being able to shower.
Being so dirty, if a cowboy was unlucky enough to have a cut or abrasion with staph or strep, they had the possibility of impetigo. Although this was not always fatal, these infections were contagious and chronic among cowboys.
Venereal Diseases Were Rampant
Unsurprisingly, with all of the intimate activity occurring within saloons and other establishments, many men and women suffered from venereal diseases. Not only was there very little information or education about these diseases, but there wasn’t a whole lot of hope of curing them, either.
With many people not even knowing that these diseases and infections existed, they carried on with business as usual, further spreading the ailments. It has even been rumored that the legendary Wild Bill Hickock contracted such a disease, although this is just speculation and has not been proven.
Drinking Alcohol Was Not For The Faint Of Heart
Back then, many saloons served whiskey that was made up of burnt sugar, alcohol, and chewing tobacco, producing a dangerously strong alcoholic beverage. A nickname for the drink was also “firewater,” with cowboys lighting whiskey on fire to create a reaction to prove that it had a strong alcohol content.
Another popular drink at the time was known as cactus wine, which was a combination of tequila and peyote tea. Almost all the alcoholic beverages back then were far more potent than they even are today, and there was no shortage of people drinking them. Of course, all of these powerful drinks resulted in countless bar fights and deaths.
Spitting Became A Health Hazard
In the Old West, many of the men spit products, and when in a saloon, would spit it directly on the floor where spittoons lined the bar. The saliva on the floor and the spittoons were then covered in sawdust, which became an issue due to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
The spit-riddled sawdust was a breeding ground for germs. A lot of people slept on the floor when the saloon would rent out space to travelers. For this reason, spitting was banned in some places altogether, and to do so would mean a fine or prison time.
The Typical Diet Wasn’t All That Bad
In the Wild West, frontier cooking was greatly influenced by an individual’s location and the season. People ate the indigenous plants available as well as local game such as rabbits, squirrels, buffalo, and more. Other dried provisions such as flour, beans, and sugar, would also be used and restocked when possible.
Food was often cooked simply using dutch ovens, frying pans, boiling pots, and other heavy materials. However, as settlements began to grow, so did the options for food.