My visit this past weekend to Patrick Henry’s home in Beaverdam, VA sparked an interest in investigating the history of bathing in America. We see in a lot of period pieces on TV, the beautiful damsels in their petticoats, and matching parasol, and think she must smell like fresh Lavender. We see the handsome genteel men in their elegant silk, velvet coats and frock and can’t imagine how good he must smell. Well, they didn’t, they really didn’t. Everybody and I mean everybody stank in early America. Some people in that day would carry a scented handkerchief in their sleeve and quickly bring it up to their nose to mask another’s BO, blissfully unaware that they themselves stank! Let’s just say that the whole of the 13 colonies was afflicted with BO.
Bath stations, bathtubs, & toilets were skimpy back in the day. Most took what I call cat baths, a little dab here and there, and mostly on hands and face. Huh? A few of the better homes had washbasins, and pitchers. The servants would bring in the water which was heated in the kitchen or laundry then lay out fresh dress shirts for the men. The shirts would conceal the sweat flowing on the inside, and keep the gentlemen’s outer wear nice and dry & stain free. If you were a woman, clean shifts were provided. But simply having clean underwear wasn’t going to keep that BO from escaping. But at least your hands were cleaned, and your face didn’t have the nasty stuff we wake up with.
What about those who insisted on bathing? Some had wooden tubs and it’d work fine, but it took work, which brings us up to one reason bathing was a luxury back in the day. The tub had to be lugged from the laundry or wherever it was kept. Water had to be hoisted from the well, and then heated up, and the tub filled. And they were lucky to find some homemade soap around the house to cleanse with. The colonials didn’t have towels like we have to today, so they had to find something to use to dry up after the bath. Now, another issue was to find a private area to do take the bath. As you can see, there was much ado which discouraged many. It was considered a luxury really. A few did manage to lavish in this luxury a couple times a year.
We must understand how bathing was seen back in the day to understand as well. For instance, many thought that bathing would destroy your natural oils and leave you wide open to all kinds of diseases. Of course, we know better today. Some colonials bucked the system though, some would take swims in rivers, or lakes, some even in winter. William Bryd II was known to do that in the James River in Virginia, much to his neighbors’ chagrin. One man in Williamsburg, VA, St. George Tucker installed the first copper bath. He put the tub in his dairy; the hot water came from the laundry, and the cold water from his well. No lugging the tub in some part of the house, and no hauling water. No sir, Tucker was not going to stink for anything.
In the New England states bathing was not even a thought. Temperatures dropped low in these states, no one was going to freeze their dirty butts Colonial America was dirty, but so was the whole of the British Empire at the time. You cannot compare these empires to that of the Roman Empire in terms of cleanliness. Romans lived to bathe. And who wouldn’t, their baths were built over hot springs, and spectacularly designed! They had pools which were cool, warm, and had hot water which was fed by wooden or earthenware pipes. Socializing was a big part of bathing in the Roman Empire. Deals were made in these bath houses, politicians made deals with special interest groups, and more. It sounds pretty much like what we have going on in Washington today, only in water.
So the next time you are reading a story that took place around this time, or see a period piece on TV, they may sound and look as if they smelled like roses, but in fact they stank like….fill in the blanks.