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. With this came a new way of living that is now associated with gunslingers, saloons, and constant conflict with the Native Americans. 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 from today.
Spitting Became A Health Hazard
In the Old West, many of the men spit tobacco, and when in a saloon, would spit it directly on the floor where spittoons lined the bar (as seen here). 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.
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.
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 with the cowboy way of life.
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 or drank 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:
“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.
Women Had Much Better Hygiene Than Men
Everyday laborers, cowboys, soldiers, and other men typically spent their time outside and would go extended periods of time without bathing. When they did, it was usually in a body of water, something they typically avoided during the winter months. Women, on the other hand, had both more time and resources to maintain slightly better hygiene practices.
According to Sarah Raymond, each morning she would go down to the spring where she “bathed my hands and face in the water, picked a bouquet for the breakfast table, and returned to camp.” However, due to a lack of privacy, they weren’t always able to do much else.
Communal Towels Were Used In Saloons
Bars back in the Wild West looked different than they do today, as many of them didn’t have stools to sit on. Instead, they had rails at the bottom and the top to lean on, with the top rail having hooks to hold towels.
These towels were then used by the men occupying the space to wipe beer foam from their mouths and beards. Because these towels were communal, used by numerous patrons a day, and rarely washed, they also carried countless germs and diseases.
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 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 few pain medications available as well. All in all, oral care was horrendous, and countless people paid the price for it.
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 often times, scratching them with dirty hands and fingernails only led to further bacterial skin infections.
Smelling Like His 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’s even rumored that the legendary Wild Bill Hickock died from such a disease.
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.
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, 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.
Shows Were A Big Part Of The Wild West
Because life on the frontier appeared to be so exciting for those not living there, people from all over were interested to see what it was really like. Buffalo Bill capitalized on this curiosity and established Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The former Pony Express rider, soldier, and buffalo hunter created a show that displayed various aspects of what it was really like in the Wild West, and the company took off. The show traveled all over the United States and to parts of Europe as well.
It Was Every Man For Himself
The ambitious pioneers who left the east coast to move west weren’t only faced with harsh conditions, but frequent and brutal confrontations with the native Americans who were trying to hold onto their land.
This led to a breakdown in law and order that resulted in conflict between the pioneers and natives, and among each other. Hence the name, the Wild West. This was a continuation of the American Indian Wars, in which the pioneers and Native Americans fought fiercely against each other for land.
Taking Pictures Of The Dead Was A Norm
Back in the Wild West, one of the only ways to convince the public that an outlaw was dead was to take a picture of the body which could then circulated around. The photograph of the corpse was taken almost immediately after they had died, usually propped up against a wall before the body had time to stiffen.
This practice was also used by bounty hunters in order to collect their reward or their work. If there was no picture, few believed the outlaw was actually dead.
There Were Plenty Of African American Cowboys
Although Hollywood has portrayed the image of cowboys to be mostly white males, it is estimated that around one in four cowboys were actually African American. These African American cowboys were no different than the ones that we are familiar with as they herded cattle, worked on ranches, tamed horses, and appeared in rodeos.
Today, it’s believed that between 5,000 and 8,000 African American cowboys were involved in the major cattle drives that took place in the 19th century. While it’s assumed that a number were brought over as slaves, generations after continued the lifestyle.
Camels Roamed The Plains Of Texas
Assuming that the arid region of Texas was similar to that of the deserts in Egypt, the U.S. Camel Corps was established in 1856 at Camp Verde, Texas. The Army imported 66 camels from the Middle East, and although they’re quite different from horses, the experiment was considered to be a success.
During the American Civil War, Camp Verde was captured by the Confederates, and after the war, many of the camels were sold to circuses, such as the Ringling Brothers, and others escaped into the wild. The last reported sighting of one of these wild Texas camels was in 1941. It is assumed that none are alive today.
The California Gold Rush Of 1849 Wasn’t America’s First Gold Rush…Or Second
In 1799, a young Conrad Reed found a brick of gold in his father’s field in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, and had no idea what he had found. Supposedly, the family used the brick for years, until a visiting jeweler noticed the 17-pound nugget. At that moment America’s first gold rush was underway.
Due to the amount of gold being mined in North Carolina, the government was forced to build the Charlotte Mint. Then, in 1828, gold was discovered in Georgia, the second gold rush. It wasn’t until 1848 that James Marshall made his discovery at Sutter’s Mill in California.
Saloon Girls Were In High Demand
The frontier could be a lonely place for a man on the road, but this was the case even in towns. Often, men greatly outnumbered women, especially in California. In order to entertain the men, saloons would hire girls to dance, sing, and basically keep them spending their money on drinks and gambling.
However, there was a difference between saloon girls as opposed to those with a more intimate profession. Saloon girls were typically considered to by ladies and were treated as such, also making a decent living performing at the saloons. It was still considered a dangerous profession, with many keeping knives and small pistols for protection.
A Myth Of Good Luck
Although today, many people are familiar that the horseshoe is a sign of good luck, this is a myth that came about in the Wild West. Because horses played such a critical role during the time, a superstition developed that nailing a horseshoe above a doorway or on the mast of a ship would help to ward off evil spirits.
Over time, evil spirits became less of a worry and the horseshoe became a symbol of good luck.
Cowboy Language Is Still Around Today
Since the frontier was basically a different world compared to the rest of the United States, over time, the pioneers developed their own slang terms. Some of these include “Bellyaching,” which means to complain; “Hankering,” which is to have a desire for something; and “Fandango,” which comes from the Spanish word and means a big party.
Some of these terms can still be heard sprinkled throughout English in America today, showing the impact that the Wild West had on the future of the United States.
Cowboys Didn’t Go Anywhere Without Their Chaps
Along with their bandanas, spurs, hats, and pistols, another article of clothing that few cowboys would ever be seen without is their chaps. Pronounced “shaps,” chaps were leggings that were designed to specifically protect the cowboy’s legs from rubbing up against the side of their horse or if they were riding through the brush.
Chaps were typically made from leather or suede and were attached by buckling them to trousers so they could be taken off with ease. Chaps are still widely used today by people who ride horses, either for work or show.
They Called It The Gould And Curry
Mining was an essential part of the Wild West. It was a huge part of the economy and it provided many jobs for people. This mine is located in Virginia City, Nevada. The population of a city was relative to how much resources were available in the mine.
So when the materials being mined were at a high in Virginia City, so were the number of people living there. And when the materials were gone, many cities were forced to find new industries or fall apart.
The Name’s Billy
Probably the most famous outlaw from the Wild West, Billy the Kid was a dangerous gunfighter. The man who was born Henry McCarty killed at least eight men at a very young age.
He was eventually killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett when he was caught off-guard in the dark at a friend’s home. Maybe not the most glamorous way to go, but the real Wild West rarely followed the plot movies would make you believe they did.
The Soiled Doves
Burlesque dancers in the Wild West were staples of the saloon scene. They were regarded so highly that some of them became millionaires. They were called different names based on their locations. For example, the California-based women were called “soiled doves” by the cowboys.
Any city you went to, you could be sure to find a saloon. Whether you decided to enter said saloon would have been entirely up to you.
Attacked At A Young Age
This young woman’s family was attacked and murdered when she was only 14. Olive Oatman was kidnapped, along with her sister, and enslaved by their captors. Later, they were sold to the Mohave people.
Both girls received distinctive tattoos on their chins, which signified that they were members of the tribe. Some people believe the tattoos were meant to mark the girls as slaves, but this doesn’t align with Mohave tradition. In the Wild West, Native American tribes were often referred to as “Savages,” a term which brutalizes their history. While it’s true they were responsible for some horrible crimes, so were the Cowboys forcing them out of their homeland.
The Wild West Charging Thunder
Meet Charging Thunder. He joined the Wild West Show when he was 26 and eventually married one of the horse trainers. Once he was done with the show, he became a British citizen and worked at the circus in Manchester.
He later changed his name to George Edward Williams and found a factory job. It’s safe to say he changed a lot from his humble beginnings. Now we just need to know what the dog’s name was.
The Renowned Jesse James
Jesse James was a bad man. He was more than just an outlaw. James was a gang leader, a murderer, robber, and guerrilla fighter. He and his brother formed the Younger Gang together. The two were Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War. That’s quite a sibling bond right there.
James is one of the most famous gunslingers from the Wild West and has been depicted on the silver screen multiple times.
One of the most famous Wild West characters, Annie Oakley rose to fame at a young age. She trapped and hunted by the age of eight, and became a great sharpshooter when she was 15.
She did all of this to support her family after her father had passed away. Her intentions may have been noble, but that doesn’t mean she always did the right thing. Then again, morals weren’t exactly the law of the land back then.
The Sioux Teepees
The Sioux Nation is comprised of three tribes (Lakota tribes, Western Dakota and Eastern Dakota). They lived in the Great Plains, hunted bison, and built these teepees as their homes. This picture was taken in the Dakota Territory.
Teepees may look like simple structures, but creating them was actually an incredible balancing act. They had to be sturdy, yet easy enough to disassemble in case the people living there needed to move at a moment’s notice.
The All-Around Man
Here we see another well-known man by the name of Doc Holliday. He gained notoriety through his gunfighting skills. He was also a gambler and dentist. Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis while he was a dentist and that is when he went off to become a gambler in Arizona.
Today, that would have been seen as a pretty drastic career shift. Back then it was another day at the office, although his patients probably weren’t very happy about it.
Wyatt Earp Was Not To Be Messed With
A friend of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp was into gambling even though he was a sheriff in Arizona. He earned his fame after a gunfight at the O.K. Corral in which he killed three cowboys.
The gambler, brothel owner, and miner was called an “old offender” by a local newspaper. He also might have been one of the country’s first true entrepreneurs. Just look at all those businesses he owned!