Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like In The Wild West?  

Melissa Sartore
439.6k views 13 items

Hygiene in the American Wild West was probably about what you'd expect - unhygienic.

Men and women who made their way west across the North American landscape contended with harsh weather and difficult terrain - a less-than-ideal situation for finding a place to bathe. With the journey to new lands came a perpetual quest to find clean water, something that could be a matter of vital importance.

In difficult conditions, the practicalities of survival often outweighed concern for cleanliness. Days or weeks without a bath, living in close quarters, and the lack of adequate facilities all contributed to a life characterized by foul smells, constant disease, and a generally squalid existence.

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Photo:  Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Beds Could Be Full Of 'Seam Squirrels' 

Not all beds in the American West were made of straw and hay, but many were. Such bedding wasn't changed often, leading to infestation by lice and other critters. Lice, or "seam squirrels," were just one of the troublesome groups of insects that could make life in the Wild West less than hygienic. Flies found their way into foodstuffs and human waste; mosquitoes flocked into poorly insulated buildings.

Rose Pender, a visitor to the American West from 1883 to 1888, recalled one night when she tried to sleep, "Bugs abounded, so I got very little rest." 

Very few people had screens on windows, so bugs would make their way from homes to outhouses and back again, leaving remnants of whatever they'd picked up along the way.

Outhouses Were Home To Odors -... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Was Hygiene Like In The Wild West?
Photo:  Magicpiano/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
Outhouses Were Home To Odors - And Bugs

Outhouses were part of frontier life, though some people simply relieved themselves in the woods. Outhouses were built near houses and homesteads, however, in the interest of convenience and safety. A hole would be dug and a wooden structure erected above it. Once the hole was full, it was simply covered up, and the wooden structure was put over another hole, typically dug nearby. 

The outhouse was not a pleasant-smelling site and people would often try to mask the odor with lye or lime. Bugs were common, especially flies and black widow spiders; the latter often inclined to bite as individuals sat down on a wooded seat. 

Toilet paper didn't exist in its modern form, so people used whatever they could find; leaves, corn cobs, and grass were common.

Clean Water Could Be Difficult... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Was Hygiene Like In The Wild West?
Photo:  William Makepeace Thayer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Clean Water Could Be Difficult To Come By

Water was an essential part of survival in the Wild West, but finding clean water wasn't always easy. Sometimes the outhouses built by homesteads upstream contaminated water, something that wasn't always known by individuals who used the nearby water.

More acutely, stagnant water attracted flies and other insects that would leave waste and excrement as they hovered over puddles. Still another problem was collecting rainwater into cisterns - water that was clean until dust and other contaminants got mixed in. 

To preserve water, people would refrain from washing dishes and clothing or use bathwater for that purpose. Often, entire families used the same tub of water, a weekly occurrence if they were lucky. When Rose Pender visited the West, she delighted in the "refreshing bath," a "luxury" she had not had for 10 days.

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Photo: Harrison Given/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Soap Was Made From Animal Fat Or Plants, If At All 

Frank Clifford, a man also known as John Menham Wightman and John Francis Wallace, wrote a memoir about his time in the American West. An associate of Billy the Kid, Clifford provided details of the soap-weed Mexican women used to wash their hair. Soap-weed was from the yucca plant and, according to Clifford, he had his "hair washed with soap-weed root" many times. The shampoo left "the hair soft and clean and lustrous."

While some people used soap-weed, settlers made soap out of animal fat, something they also turned into candles. Homemade soap was harsh and could cause skin irritation, but there wasn't a huge emphasis on making it either way. Body odor was considered a natural part of life. Similarly, the belief that too much cleanliness opened pores to germs and disease gave people little motivation to bathe.