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What Was Hygiene Like In Colonial America?

Updated September 23, 2021 761k views12 items

Personal hygiene in the 1700s was heavily maintained through a complicated balance of practicality, religious belief, and social position. Men and women living in colonial America washed their bodies and clothes with varying degrees of regularity, often falling victim to disease and disorder as a result. 

Despite the differing attributes of the original colonies, colonial hygiene in the earliest cities and rural settlements in America always left a lot to be desired, with odors, dirt, and waste being inescapable parts of daily life. Middle- and upper-class people tried to avoid or mask common nuisances like insects, usually to no avail, while lower classes simply struggled to survive. A lack of hygiene didn't go unnoticed, however, with dirt and grime thought to be indicative of bad manners and sloth. With so many factors to consider, here's a look at what hygiene was like in early colonial times.

  • Outhouses And Privy Pots Were Used For Disposal Of All Kinds 

    Photo: C.E. Turner and William Rice / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Colonial households had outhouses - more accurately a covered hole in the ground - near their cabin. When individuals couldn't or didn't visit the outhouse, they could use the chamberpot inside. Chamberpots had to be emptied regularly, but were usually just dumped out of a window or near the house. In rural settings, people often lived near water sources. Human waste found its way into streams, rivers, and lakes, contaminating drinking water and spreading disease.

    In urban centers like Philadelphia, however, privy pots excavated in 2014 revealed more than just typical household and human waste. When archaeologists found a dozen brick-lined privy shafts behind what was once an illegal tavern, they unearthed glasses, bottles, bowls, and drinking tankards. Other items included tanning supplies, wig curlers, and pottery made made and used by local artisans.

    According to archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, the human waste was present but, more than anything, the find - which dates from right around the Revolutionary War - gave a sense of "people drinking and talking politics and arguing."

  • Early Colonists Had A Single Tool To Clean Their Ears And Teeth

    Archaeologists discovered a silver earpicker at the site of the original fort at Jamestown during the 1990s. The instrument, which dates to the early decades of the 17th century, had a pointed pick at one end with a small scooping tool at the other. Earpicks were used as toothpicks, to clean out one's fingernails, and for a variety of hygienic tasks.

    The spoon-like side of the earpicker may have been used to remove earwax, but it also proved useful in collecting the valuable material. In lieu of beeswax, earwax was applied to thread to prevent unraveling.

  • Lye Soap Was Used For Clothing And Dishes, Not For Personal Care

    Photo: Gabriël Metsu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Wealthy colonists may have imported fragrant soaps from Europe, but most colonists made their own soap or purchased it locally.  Lye soap - made from a mixture of animal fat, lye, and ash - in colonial America was harsh and used only to clean clothes, dishes, and parts of the home. Lye soap was made with little regard for measuring, and the process itself was time-consuming and smelly. 

    The use of lye soap made doing laundry in colonial American that much more difficult. The harsh concoction, combined with hauling water, heating fires, wringing clothes, and hanging items to dry, added to the already exhausting task. As a result, only clothes that got the dirtiest - underwear, aprons, diapers - were washed with any amount of regularity.

  • Dysentery Was Common For Early Colonies

    Photo: William Simpson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    The general absence of sanitation in both rural and more heavily populated areas in colonial America meant the spread of disease. Outhouses and privy pots were often close to water sources and living quarters, while streets could be lined with animal waste, garbage, and refuse of all kinds. Common diseases included dysentery, cholera, and typhoid fever, ailments that were particularly prevalent during the hot summer months. 

    An outbreak of "bloody flux" in Boston in 1676 claimed the lives of numerous children in the city while the leader of Bacon's Rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon Jr., suddenly succumbed to the disease that same year. Outbreaks of the water-born disease broke out over and over again, striking civilians and soldiers alike. When George Washington and his troops camped at Valley Forge in December 1777, nearly two-thirds of Washington's 2,000 troop army perished of dysentery, typhoid, and influenza. The dangers of campaigning during the summer were not lost on military commanders, either, although outbreaks of disease may have contributed to colonial success as large numbers of British troops in the South fell victim to fevers of all kinds.