A Glimpse Into Colonial America's Hygiene Practices


| LAST UPDATE 07/17/2023

By Stanley Wickens
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Most of us may not fully appreciate our access to modern plumbing and an array of cleaning products, oblivious to the fact that these amenities were non-existent in colonial America. Let's take a step back in time to explore colonial America's approach to personal hygiene.

In an era devoid of plumbing, full immersion baths were a rarity. This luxury was reserved for children, not for cleanliness, but to toughen them up. Adults resorted to a rudimentary method of bathing, wiping their bodies with a cloth soaked in a basin of water, akin to dusting off a shelf. The lack of indoor plumbing meant outhouses served as the primary facilities for human waste. Chamber pots were also used indoors and their contents unceremoniously thrown out of windows when full. Regrettably, this waste often contaminated water sources leading to the spread of diseases and numerous fatalities due to the absence of an effective disposal system.

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Images from the colonial era often show upper-class men sporting white wigs. This fashion statement was actually a solution to the prevalent issue of lice infestations. Shaving one's head and donning a wig made of animal fur was the chosen remedy. However, these wigs attracted lice and other insects due to the pomade and other products used to maintain them, resulting in an ongoing battle against pests. Bathing soaps were a luxury only the affluent could afford, with the common folk relying on lye soap, a concoction of animal fat, ash, and lye. This soap was too harsh for regular bathing and too costly to be used frivolously, hence it was primarily used for washing dishes and the dirtiest laundry - underwear, diapers, and aprons.

When bathing did occur, it was not an individual affair. Families would share a bath in a single tub of water, a practice that was fairly common. The process involved drawing water from a well, heating it over a fire, and transferring it to a portable wooden tub. Personal hygiene was not a major concern during the colonial era, and people from all walks of life bathed equally infrequently. The wealthy, however, had the advantage of larger wardrobes and fragrances to mask body odors. The less fortunate, unable to afford extra clothing and fragrances, had a more noticeable odor. But given the times, nobody was expected to smell like a bouquet of roses.

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