What Was The Hygiene Of America’s Founding Fathers Like?

These days the minimal bathing routine includes a shower or bath, brushing one's teeth and hair, and washing one's face. Most of us have access to running water and indoor toilets, but what if we didn't? Or didn’t believe in using water to bathe? A scant 200 years ago, our founding fathers’ hygiene habits were anything but standardized.

The level of hygiene for our founding fathers was entirely dependent on their personal views of cleanliness. George Washington and John Adams loved bathing. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dictated their personal standards of cleanliness to their daughters. On the other end of the spectrum, Ben Franklin preferred to stand disrobed by the window and give his body a good airing out. Whether or not his neighbors' preferences aligned with his own is a matter lost to history.

Photo: The Library of Congress / Flickr / No Known Restrictions


John Quincy Adams Bathed Daily In The Potomac
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    John Quincy Adams Bathed Daily In The Potomac

    Can you imagine a sitting president taking a skinny dip in the Potomac every day? John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, took his bath every morning in the Potomac River. Despite a near-drowning and having his clothes almost disappear with the tide, Adams never lost his fondness for his daily baths. 

    He once wrote to a friend, "I follow this practice for exercise, for health, for cleanliness, and for pleasure - I have found it invariably conducive to health, and never experienced from it the slightest inconvenience." Adams often swam from the age of 50 up until his passing in 1848, at age 80.

  • George Washington Was Pro-Bathing

    General George Washington spent a lot of time away from home during the American Revolution, and he realized that in order to keep the environment disease-free for himself and his soldiers, healthy guidelines needed to be set in place.

    Washington believed that clothing should be changed several times a week, hands should be washed frequently, proper bathroom facilities should be used, and faces and feet washed. Washington was afraid of illness ravaging the camps due to unclean conditions, so he often lobbied Congress to help improve it.

  • Thomas Jefferson Washed His Feet In Cold Water Every Morning

    Thomas Jefferson habitually washed his feet in cold water every morning. In two separate letters, one to a friend and one to a physician, the writer of the Declaration of Independence claimed that he never caught colds because of this morning ritual.

    But Jefferson was not a fan of warm water. In fact, he believed that bathing in "warm or hot mineral water brought out boils."

  • Jefferson Invented An Indoor Toilet
    Photo: Rembrandt Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jefferson Invented An Indoor Toilet

    Thomas Jefferson was quite the inventor. One of his inventions was an indoor toilet that looked similar to a box, where the waste would collect in a drawer for his servants to remove.

    When Jefferson built his residence, Monticello, three small privies were in the blueprints. The toilets were not much bigger than a modern toilet seat and all drained down to a common tunnel. Two were located in the stairwells and one inside his bedroom. Jefferson referred to them as "air closets" and they did not utilize any running water.

  • George Washington Was A Fan Of Cologne

    The first President of the United States was fond of a particular scent from Caswell-Massey, an apothecary still in business today.

    The cologne, Number Six, is described as a strong musk with notes of citrus, neroli, bergamot, rosemary, and amber. George Washington liked the cologne so much he gave a crate of it to the Marquis de Lafayette.

  • Benjamin Franklin Shook His Bits Out The Window During His Morning Air Baths
    Photo: David Martin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Benjamin Franklin Shook His Bits Out The Window During His Morning Air Baths

    A swimmer in his youth, Benjamin Franklin was fond of physical activity, and occasionally invented new ways to exercise. Part of his daily routine included airing out his body for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the weather, in front of a window in his home.

    Despite the fact that the norm at the time was to use cold water for bathing, Franklin said he preferred to "bathe in another element… cold air." Franklin would often spend this time reading or writing.