Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like During The Great Depression?  

Melissa Sartore
12.4k views 10 items

When you think of hygiene during the Great Depression, you might automatically assume the widespread unemployment and poverty resulted in a generally dirty and unkempt population. However, while many people were forced to live in unsanitary conditions, in truth, the Great Depression was as much a time of struggle as it was a period of innovation for keeping clean. 

During the 1930s, maintaining a clean body and home was a point of pride. With economic and social hardship all around, cleanliness was something that was relatively controllable. Anxieties about hygiene also carried over to concerns about finding work - something advertisers seized upon with gusto. The development of new products and marketing strategies aimed at cleanliness demonstrate how much people truly valued staying clean. 

The Modern Version Of The Tampon Grew In Popularity
The Modern Version Of The Tamp... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Was Hygiene Like During The Great Depression?
Photo:  Canadian Nursing Association/Wikimedia Commons/No Known Copyright Restriction

As far back as Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, women used tampon-like implements made out of papyrus, wool, lint, and other absorbent fibers. During the late 19th century, inserted devices were used to administer treatments to female reproductive organs but were rarely used to absorb "vaginal and uterine discharges," much less menstrual blood. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, expanding media and academic interest in menstruation opened larger conversations about women's hygiene. New technologies developed, many of which were intended to be cleaner and more convenient than using rags. Kotex sanitary napkins were developed to meet the needs of working, traveling, and elegant women alike during the 1920s.

Dealing with the "challenges" of menstruation advanced still further in the early 1930s. Modern tampons were created by Dr. Earle Hass. Haas developed a device made out of cotton that could be inserted with an applicator. Cotton was replaced by synthetic rayon and, in 1936, Tampax was born. Owned by Gertrude Tenderich, the Tampax Sales Corporation advertised in newspapers and magazines throughout the late 1930s.

In the 1940s, an alternative tampon hit the market: the non-applicator version branded as o.b. (an abbreviation of the German phrase ohne binde or "without napkins") tampons. 

Tampons were advertised as providing freedom to women while eliminating the "hazards, risks, embarrassment... even humiliation" of menstruation. 

Women Used Lysol As A Form Of Birth Control
Women Used Lysol As A Form Of ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Was Hygiene Like During The Great Depression?
Photo:  Lysol (Canada) Ltd./Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Lysol, a disenfectant popular during the early 20th century, became associated with maintaining clean relationships during the 1920s. A woman who used Lysol as a douche was said to protect "her zest for living, her health and youthfulness," while maintaining her youth for the good of her marriage. With douching a common method of birth control at the time, Lysol was used to prevent unwanted pregnancies, as well.

Advertisers played into fears about "feminine hygiene" by depicting women who used Lysol as successful and responsible wives and mothers. The implication was that Lysol's germ-eliminating properties could wipe out sperm. Unfortunately, the harsh chemicals in Lysol, especially cresol, often resulted in pain and inflammation. Lysol douches could even take the lives of women.

Perhaps more importantly, Lysol was ineffective at preventing pregnancy. One research study conducted in 1933 found that almost half of the women who used Lysol as a contraceptive became pregnant. 

Toothbrushes Became More Sanitary And Affordable
Toothbrushes Became More Sanit... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Was Hygiene Like During The Great Depression?
Photo:  Federal Art Project/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Toothbrushes existed for centuries before the Great Depression, but they underwent massive changes during the 1930s. Prior to 1938, toothbrushes could be anything from a stick rubbed on one's teeth to a bunch of boar bristles collected for the same purpose. Dupont de Nemours changed all of that when he developed the first toothbrush with nylon bristles in 1938. 

Marketed as Doctor West's Miracle Toothbrush, it cleaned better, lasted longer, was cheaper, and contributed to an increased awareness in oral hygiene. Simultaneously promoting patriotism and consumerism, the advertisements reminded women that oral health was essential to maintaining the home front during WWII. Soldiers fighting in the conflict were also given toothbrushes, and they continued to brush their teeth once they returned home.

The 'Dirty Thirties' Were Layered In Dust
The 'Dirty Thirties' Were Laye... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Was Hygiene Like During The Great Depression?
Photo:  Arthur Rothstein/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In drought-plagued parts of the United States better known as the Dust Bowl, layers of dirt and grime could be found on everything. Dust made its way into homes, stuck to skin, and caused breathing difficulties for men, women, and children. Many people were forced to leave their homes in states like Oklahoma and Kansas, but some settlers endured. Caroline A. Henderson and her family remained on their Oklahoma farm, and she described the pervasive dust to a friend on the East Coast:

Wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the accumulations of wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is an almost hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over.... [E]verything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor. I keep oiled cloths on the window sills and between the upper and lower sashes. They help just a little to retard or collect the dust. Some seal the windows with the gummed-paper strips used in wrapping parcels, but no method is fully effective. We buy what appears to be red cedar sawdust with oil added to use in sweeping our floors, and do our best to avoid inhaling the irritating dust.

The grime didn't only affect the lives of Midwesterners. According to The New York Times, dust reached the city and lodged "itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New Yorkers" in May 1934.