Photo: Gabriël Metsu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Was Hygiene Like In Colonial America?

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.

Photo: Gabriël Metsu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Bathing Was Done With A Wet Cloth And A Pail Of Water

    Bathing Was Done With A Wet Cloth And A Pail Of Water
    Photo: Victor Kühnen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Full-body baths were uncommon during the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was usually only given to infants - not necessarily to clean them but rather to "harden" them. Men, women, and children rinsed their faces and hands each morning but, when it came to bathing, there wasn't much more involved. Individuals would use a basin, cloth, and maybe a sponge, wiping themselves off wherever they could find privacy. Baths could be relatively common, but soap was not used.

    Another technique was swimming, but dips in a nearby stream or lake were more for cooling off rather than getting clean.

    Bathtubs, reserved only for those who could afford them, were often only large enough for a sponge bath.

  • Protestantism Conflated Uncleanliness With Sin

    Protestantism Conflated Uncleanliness With Sin
    Photo: Nicolás Enríquez / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Doctors were conflicted on personal hygiene, with some practitioners believing bodily oils and the like were important to maintain health. Others believed cleanliness was essential to keep disease and illness away. To compound those attitudes, bathing practices and ideas about cleanliness in colonial America were heavily influenced by religious ideology.

    Puritans associated a lack of cleanliness with the devil and sin, connections that also had social implications. Cleanliness was directly connected to morality, and individuals who bathed were less likely to take part in sin, commit wrongdoings, and be poor. Water was purifying from head to toe, with the "filthiness of person engender[ing] filthiness of mind."

    Clean bodies, clean clothes, clean households, and clean settlements all contributed to spiritual health. Puritans struggled with the idea of bathing having negative implications for morality, however. Public baths, most specifically, were thought to contribute to disease and sexual impropriety

  • Teeth Could Be Pulled By Any Number Of People

    Teeth Could Be Pulled By Any Number Of People
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    With no real dentists in colonial America, having a tooth that needed to be pulled meant a visit to the barber, surgeon, apothecary, or even the blacksmith. To deal with toothaches before such an intervention was needed, people used natural remedies like figs, chamomile, alcohol, and opium to numb the pain.

    There was little concern for keeping teeth clean while they were still in one's mouth, although replacing a pulled tooth was common. At times, the extracted tooth would simply be put back into the socket. 

    More commonly, dentures and implants were used. New teeth were taken from poor individuals willing to sell their healthy chompers, wood was shaped to fit, or ivory and metal were used. The most famous denture-wearer of the colonial period, George Washington, wore dentures made out of metal, wire, and animal teeth. His mouthpiece, however, constantly caused him pain and distorted the shape of his face.

  • Powdered Wigs Were The Solution To - And Cause Of - Lice

    In colonial America, members of the middle and upper classes wore powdered wigs. Men and women alike donned wigs made out of human and animal hair, while often keeping their own hair very short. As lice was common, shaving one's head also helped prevent bugs from infesting hair. Wigs themselves were vulnerable to bugs, however, and to keep them clean and presentable, individuals sent them out for regular treatment or had slaves and servants "dress" them.

    Ideally, wigs were cared for weekly, but it was a costly process and people sometimes went weeks or months without getting a proper cleaning. Wigs could be boiled to get rid of lice, and they were often covered in fragrances that repelled bugs. Some common scents included bergamot, bay leaves, and sassafras. Powders and oils also hid the smell of the person - and the hair itself - but pomades used to style wigs attracted insects that would get stuck in the sticky substance.

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

    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.