Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Colonial Hygiene: Were They Dirty?


“Colonial America’s church leaders deemed bathing impure, since it promoted nudity, which could only lead to promiscuity.”

Other statements made are “Brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up the their body odor” and “People bathed twice a year whether they needed it or not”.

To say that bathing habits from this time were disgusting and non-existent would be vastly inaccurate. Even today, personal hygiene habits are personal. Some washed several times a day, and some only washed up variably. They are also extremely hard to document, since little note was made of the fact. When was the last time you mentioned having a bath in writing?

Of course, Colonialists, and in fact everyone almost everywhere in Europe, had little opportunity to bathe as we understand it today. After all, tubs were notoriously hard to fill and empty with hot water, and it was time consuming and labour intensive. They didn't exactly have the indoor plumbing we have now. All we have to do is turn on a tap. In yesteryear, scores of buckets had to be filled, heated and emptied into the tub to even get enough to lie down for a good soak, and then there was the emptying afterwards. If they had a huge staff of servants, then I could them enjoying the luxury far more often than middle – low class residents of the community.

In fact, men often bathed in rivers and lakes, not only to get clean but more often as recreation, especially in hotter climates or after a hot, hard day’s work. It was not unknown to resort to horse troughs, as well, to get a quick clean-up of the face and hands. Women, however, for reasons of modesty and decorum, seldom indulged in these rough, outdoor activities. Instead they used the wash basins, using the water that was in the accompanying pitchers sitting on a discreet washstand somewhere private in their homes.

It was about this time in America that a series of warm mineral springs and hot springs were discovered further west in Virginia, where the bulk of “No Gentleman Is He” is based. Those wealthy enough to travel there to indulge, or those living close enough to travel, were fortunate to be able to attend and experience the pleasure of deeply immersed bathing. In the early 1800’s, spas sprung up, privately owned, and organized so that each group had their chance to indulge so that the sexes did not mix during this intimate procedure. After all, this was still a very oppressive, Christian society.

As for the hygienic habits of Colonialists, and indeed anyone in European influenced communities, of which America was certainly a part during the 1700’s, some washed daily and some did not. Some washed only hands and face, others took extensive sponge baths daily. In fact, William Byrd once wrote that he was relieved to bathe after several days in the wilderness, and Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia recommended that American soldiers should “wash their hands and face at least once every day, and his whole body twice or three times a week, especially in summer.”

There were also public baths in some towns, often attached to Inns. There were several in Richmond, right up until about 1950, and it was estimated that they served about 60,000 persons per year. But of course, they were limited to people who could afford to pay for them, and the poorer folk didn’t consider it a necessary expense when they were living from hand to mouth as it was. Most people, however, preferred to bath near a fireplace, especially in the cooler weather, and most had them in kitchens by the wood stove, since it was warmer and less toting of water buckets and clean up later. Needless to say, there was not a great deal of privacy.

Tomorrow or the next day, (depending on whether I will be busy writing on Book 2 of our Sons of Liberty series) I will be talking about what they used to bathe. Did they use soap? Did they have shampoo in 1700’s America? Stay tuned, and your questions will be answered.

**to be continued**

To view "No Gentleman Is He", the first in the Sons of Liberty series, a 5-star Amazon rated historical romance, please go here. Or go to Tirgearr Publishing: http://www.tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Bauer_Carley/no-gentleman-is-he.html