What Was Hygiene Like On Pirate Ships?

Pirate ships were dirty - there's no way around it. The life of a pirate was fraught with danger and disease, but the pirates themselves did find ways to clean themselves and their surroundings - at times. 

Maintaining hygienic practices on a pirate ship was an uphill battle. Lack of access to clean water, combined with confined living spaces, led to the rapid spread of disease. Harsh elements and inadequate nutrition further contributed to generally poor health. Baths, laundry, and oral hygiene were at a minimum, even with a somewhat surprising amount of medical resources. 

Life on a pirate ship wasn't for the faint of heart - or for those with a sharp sense of smell. Here are some of the gritty details of what life was like on a pirate ship. 

  • Teeth Were Cleaned With A ‘Chew Stick,’ If At All

    Pirates are not known for their stellar dental health, and with good reason. If pirates did anything at all to care for their teeth, it included chewing on a stick made of wood.

    Chew sticks date back to the ancient world and were a common means of cleaning one's teeth well into the 18th century. Finding access to new chew sticks while at sea wouldn't have been easy, however. In that case, pirates simply went without any sort of oral care. 

  • If Pirates Bathed, They Had To Use Seawater

    One thing pirates did have regular access to was water. But bathing didn't involve freshwater; that was saved for cooking. When it came time for pirates to clean themselves, they most likely jumped into the ocean.

    That said, it wasn't common to take a bath - especially since leaving the ship was dangerous, and salt water can irritate the skin. Pirates were also said to be fearful of sea monsters.

  • Some Ships May Have Made Soap From Whale Blubber

    During the burgeoning whaling industry of the 18th century, pirates and privateers were known to attack whaling ships for the resources they contained.

    Whales have been hunted and used for millenia. As early as the 10th century, commercial whalers on the Azores islands processed whale blubber for a variety of purposes. Oil, lubricant, and soap were all derived from whale blubber, something pirates may have seized or made themselves on board. 

    However, making soap out of whale blubber was incredibly unpleasant. Hunting a whale was exhausting work, and processing the animal was smelly and difficult. 

  • The Bathroom, Called 'The Head,’ Was Just A Hole In A Plank

    Pirate ships didn't have toilets. Instead, they had "heads," which were basically holes cut into planks that emptied into the water. Royal navy ships had heads for common sailors up front with facilities for officers further back. It's unlikely pirates made such a distinction.

    The plank and hole were usually located at the bow, or head, of the ship, and the name stuck. The term is still used to describe toilets on ships, among other places, today. 

    During a storm, sailors and pirates might use a pot instead of the plank and throw the contents over the side when the weather was more agreeable.

  • Medical Care Often Involved Amputation And Pillaged Ointments
    Photo: Newell Convers Wyeth / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Medical Care Often Involved Amputation And Pillaged Ointments

    Whether due to battles, brawls, or ordinary shipboard accidents, pirates would regularly treat cuts, burns, illnesses, and the like. Ships usually had a medicine chest containing ointments, salves, and even surgical equipment. When a ship belonging to Blackbeard - AKA Edward Teach (d. 1718) - was discovered off the coast of North Carolina, its medical chest revealed scissors, screws (possibly for tourniquets and bloodletting), and mortars and pestles for preparing ingredients. 

    According to The General History of the Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, Blackbeard basically obtained these items for ransom. Being low on medical supplies, the fearsome pirate detained every ship in Charleston, South Carolina, until he got what he wanted from the government. Johnson claims the chest he was given in exchange for his captives included goods with a value "between three and four hundred pounds." 

    While Johnson's General History is sometimes disputed as a reliable source, it does provide insights into pirate activity. Former pirate and Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica Henry Morgan (d. 1688) was said to allocate large sums of money for medical supplies. Disease and danger were all around, so pirates insisted on having tools for amputations and medicine on hand. 

  • Most Of A Pirate’s Time Was Spent Cleaning Their Ship

    Pirates spent a significant amount of time cleaning their ships, inside and out. Everyone on the ship had assigned chores to carry out, and men toiled through their days scrubbing decks, making repairs, and cleaning their blades and side arms.

    Every couple of months, the ship would find a safe place to careen (be tilted onto its side) so the bottom could be scraped. Removing barnacles and mollusks prevented the hull from becoming infested with shipworm - sometimes called the "termites of the sea."