My Beautiful Wickedness

How did early Americans bathe themselves?
July 9, 2007, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Another Google question that landed someone here.

With soap and a rag, in a nearby stream, river or lake, or using a bucket or trough.

Frequency? Not super-often, by today’s standards. The colonial period was smack in the middle of the so-called Little Ice Age and so the climate was considerably cooler than it is now. While there was plenty of firewood to heat up water, you had to cut it and haul the water as well, which was a lot of labor. In the 17th century, British migrants bathed less frequently than either African or Indian people. By the 18th century, with a greater attention to “refinement” and bodily control as an aspect of elite self-presentation, bathing and hair-dressing (attention to one’s “toilet”) became an important way to distinguish the gentle class from the lower sort. (For more reading on refinement, the work to consult is Richard Bushmen’s The Refinement of America, Michael Rozbicki’s The Complete Colonial Gentleman: Cultural Legitimacy in Plantation America, or Trevor Burnard’s The Creole Gentlemen of Maryland. )

Importance to the colonial encounter? Probably greater than you think. The Powhatan were grossed out at first contact with the English — they referred to them by the word “Tassentass” (translated roughly as “stinky dog-faced people”). The personal grooming of the English men (who favored beards and somewhat cropped hair) was at odds with that of the Powhatan, whose men plucked out beard hair and took pride in long well-tended and decorated hair). Bodily appearance and display, including the repair of clothing, whether one had tattoos, the frequency of bathing, the kinds of ornaments one used, the respective gender notions of the parties — all of that helped to inform the encounter between Indians and European immigrants. (Here, a good work to read if you want to know more is Karen Kupperman’s Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Cornell, 2000).

And if you’re a K-12 teacher looking for a good set of resources on colonial America, you can find pretty much anything you’d be looking for at this site. As always, use your judgment in determining what’s credible.


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What was it with that dirty, degenerate, Early Modern European period? How could they have fallen so far below the cleanliness standards set by their medieval ancestors?

Really, it makes you wonder, when Elizabeth I claimed to have bathed twice in her lifetime, and James I never at all (although he kept his fingertips smooth by rubbing them with a silk cloth). And Isabella la Catolica reportedly also never bathed; what had been normal behavior for her forbears was suddenly (to her) a sign of ‘Moorish’ degeneracy. OTOH, Marguerite de Valois complained bitterly that Henri IV didn’t bathe often enough, so someone clearly had some standards. Although that was the 16th century and she may have been influenced by the Scientific Revolution, I suppose.

And these were the people in charge, who could have had servants take care of everything. It’s such a wierd change.

Comment by nm

Right. I was thinking through this the other day and realized that not bathing was considered a form of penance for certain medieval Europeans…and I think that France remained more bath-oriented until the 17th century. At least, French painters of the 16th century (thinking Clouet) loved their naked ladies in bathtubs. Then again, showing naked ladies in the bathtub was an acceptable way to get to display naked ladies. So maybe that’s making too much of that.

There appears to have been a general turning away from the management of the “Galenic six things non-natural” and hygiene as a branch of medicine between the 16th and 18th century, when it was picked back up in formal academic circles as a issue of public policy. So as physicians concentrated on the treatment of disease, the concept of wellness and health might have foundered.

So, let’s think about some hypotheses to test:

1) Early mod Europeans weren’t any more scrungy than medieval Europeans; they simply came in contact with (much) cleaner folks and looked dirty by comparison.

2) Early mod Europeans experienced rapid population gains, urban migration, poverty and overcrowding — this probably contributed to the perception (and perhaps the reality) that urban populations could use some soap.

3) Early mod Europeans used personal cleanliness as a cultural signifier prior to the creation of race as a permanent, inheritable, biological identity.

4) It’s hard to generalize about early modern Europeans as a whole. The English were, in this as in so many other things, way behind the curve in the 16th century; the Irish were in the middle of a major invasion by the English and it’s hard to bathe and comb your hair when you’re running for your life. The French had a lot of turmoil. Spain? (I’ll let the Iberianist fill me in on what was going on in Spain after the Reconquista…which is when I switch over to their entradas in South and Central America!) Northern Europeans, not to mention the Dutch, appear to be every bit as well-scrubbed as their medieval forbearers and maybe moreso.

Others? Anything you can throw out right away?

Comment by bridgett

I’m not sure about this, but it would seem that if the French had a non-bathing period – at least for the gentry and above – it can’t have been very long. After all, Marat was killed while working in his tub. To the best of my knowledge, I know he was considered eccentric for the amount of time he spent in his bath (i.e., all day), but not for the fact that he bathed at all. This is during the Revolution, but it would seem to indicate the French bourgeoisie were bathing.

Maybe Henry IV had bathing issues due to his Huguenot heritage? Maybe the Elect are to be seen by being soberly dressed and smelled by not indulging in too much washing? I never did get to my catechism classes before fleeing my Calvinist homeland.

Also, I’ve never been there, but doesn’t Versailles have bathing facilities?

As to the hypotheses, certainly the role of urbanization would seem to make a lot of sense. Access to both water and fuel would be more difficult in an early modern city than it would in the countryside. Certainly the much higher death rates in those cities would seem to support this notion.

I seem to recall that early modern European sailors said you could smell a city before you could see it on the horizon.

… and yes, we Dutch have always been a clean and superior folk (well, there is this one uncle of mine…)

Comment by Gerald

“stinky dog-faced people!!!!”



Comment by Nick Dupree

The Chinese sometimes call Americans “big-nosed ghost people”

Comment by Nick Dupree

OK, hodgepodge of responses coming in no particular order:

Henri IV and Marguerite de Valois: the problem was probably more a spectacularly bad marriage than anything else. Henri liked to go hunting (i.e. galloping all over on horseback, getting all sweaty and, evidently, horny) and then come back to the chateau and have sex at once. Marguerite thought that her men ought to bathe before approaching her. She probably demanded that she have a good time as part of the proceedings, but this is nowhere recorded. Henri and Marguerite were both known for getting lots of outside women/men, and didn’t seem to have run into this problem with any of them. I was just being salacious by mentioning them at all.

Versailles not only has no bathrooms, it has no toilets. The royal family could use chamber pots (and Louis XIV famously expected his ministers of state to report to him while he was using one) but the nobles had to piss in the corners, and the smell was a regular source of complaint. This really does represent a change. Medieval castles and early Renaissance chateaux had toilets of a sort: at the crudest, some sort of latrine setup, but often nearby streams were diverted to provide a sort of flushing of the receptacle, and I’ve even read about one seadise castle that let high tides in to flush the tubes. But Versailles (and the other royal castles modeled on it, and the great private houses modeled on them) was deliberately built without. That’s because the king — excuse me, The King — was intended to be seen as something better than human, and the palace was intended to be a backdrop for the royal glory. It’s all very much part of the baroque, absolutist mindset.*

I suppose it’s possible that a proto-version of this is what motivated the Catholic Monarchs to sneer at bathing, but the late 15th century seems very early for that. And public baths were such an immense part of urban and royal life in Iberia up to that time that it’s hard to figure. I think it’s more likely that 2 things were involved in the shift there (which may never have gotten much past the royal family — this is so far past my period that it isn’t funny, and I just don’t know). One was a pose of extreme religiosity, in which not bathing may have been adopted as a sort of perpetual mortification of the flesh. Isabel was, shall we say, not beyond thinking in those terms, and making sure that everyone knew it. The other was the very deliberate nation-building that was going on. ‘Spain’ had to be invented, and was defined largely in terms of what it wasn’t: not Jewish, not Muslim, not Italian, not French. It would have been fairly easy, given the Jewish and Muslim ritual bathing requirements, to come to view bathing as non-Christian and therefore something that ‘Spaniards’ shouldn’t do. And to stretch the guessing and maybes out even farther, Isabel’s daughter might have brought a bathing is immoral idea to England with her when she went to marry Arthur and then the future Henry VIII, and it might have caught on there.

So it’s possible that the idea that bathing is unclassy filtered down, until fasions changed and bathing became the upper-class thing to do.

But, Bridgett, I kind of like your idea that outside of certain wierd royal families who had issues, people outside of cities bathed as much as they ever had (or at least until absolutism came in, and maybe even then), and just ran into other people with different habits. BUT I’m going to suggest that the “Europeans are stinky” idea came from different diets as much as from different bathing facilities. People who routinely eat differently do smell odd to each other. I’ve got an Indian friend who always smells (to my nose) funny for a week or so after he’s been on a long visit home. To his middle class family, where he showers every day. And we’re talking something you smell sitting at a table with the guy; he’s not someone I snuggle up with. I would imagine that Europeans and native Americans all must have smelled quite distressing to each other.

*The funny thing is that after a while the idea that there had once been toilets in castles was forgotten. Only there were those mysterious holes leading to what looked like not much of anywhere in a whole bunch of castles, and they had to be explained. So someone invented the idea of the ‘oubliette’ — this tube to nowhere down which medieval people must have dropped their enemies, the barbarians — and the Gothick revival was on.

Comment by nm

Hmmm…yes, American Indian cooking relied on things like stewed ramps for seasoning. Ramps are famous for making your skin stink for weeks afterwards…
and the various greases that they used to dress their hair did go “off,” probably making them smell like rancid meat. I know that English thought that the 6 Nations representatives smelled “smoked” because the headmen sometimes gathered in a council house with a lot of fires to deliberate….

Something to keep an eye out for in the primary sources.

Comment by bridgett

The early Germans put butter on their hair. This distressed the heck out of the Romans, who put olive oil on theirs. Isn’t there a shampoo today that advertises itself as having animal placenta in it? Gosh, humans are odd.

Comment by nm

Catherine Zeta-Jones reportedly spends $400 a shampoo, coating her locks down completely with a combination of truffles and Beluga caviar…gaaaah. So the “they use weird foodstuff on their hair, yuck” is still going strong.

Comment by bridgett

I do not know if this is true, but I have read that the guys who were in the Long Range Reconnaisance Patrols in the Vietnam War used to eat nothing but Vietnamese food because otherwise their body odor would alert the enemy.

Could the European smell have something to do with the increasing amounts of animal protein (and fat) that began to enter Western diets.

Comment by Gerald

Hmmm…Kat was the one who mentioned the “hunting and need to smell like your prey” thing. Maybe she has some ideas about that. The usual way that early Am historians discuss livestock is a) the intro of the horse and the transformation of the Plains economy (which is irrelevant to this discussion) and b) the ways in which “proper” (the way they did it) livestock cultivation was understood by the English as a marker of civility. One was what one ate and wild meat made wild men — really, they believed that one could racially transform (become Indian) by engaging in any number of different behaviors, one of which was eating products of the hunt. Of course, what the difference was between eating pigs that ran in the woods and deer eludes me, but much of early modern English culture is baffling.

Comment by bridgett

Well, if one ate like the natives one would start to smell like them, and smell was a huge ethnic marker back then. Witness the so-called foetor judaeus. So smelling like The Other would have been equivalent to becoming The Other in some ways, no?

And horsies are never irrelevant.

Comment by nm

I heard y’all were talking about the crazy crack-smoking cousin, so here I am. ;-p

Kat was the one who mentioned the “hunting and need to smell like your prey” thing. Maybe she has some ideas about that.

It’s not the “needing to smell like your prey” as much as the “needing to smell undifferentiated from nature” that’s the big thing with hunters. The Shawnee Indians–of whom I have the most knowledge and whose practices I reference the most–revered and esteemed hunting greatly. They also shunned organised society, preferring to keep to themselves as much as possible. Many of their religious practices can be tied back to that desire to be a part of the land around them, to have an undifferentiated odor, so they would not be vulnerable.

Comment by Katherine Coble

Foetor judaeus? Latin’s a little rusty, but does this mean “the odor of the Jews”? You mean that they believed that Jews had a particular smell? Wow. This I did not know. Could you tell me a little more?

There has been a growing field of research in social history about the history of the senses — in the US it’s been mostly sight and sound, as far as I know. Alain Corbain wrote something twenty years or so ago about smell and 19th c France. Anthropologists Classen, Howes, and Synnott argue in a book titled *Aroma* that smell was pre-modern and odorlessness is modern. Howes has also written a piece on “Sensorial Anthropology” that sounds like it would be cool and probably builds on Corbain’s work on the history and anthropology of sense perception…maybe I’ll track this down in all that spare time of mine.

If you’re interested, the latest issue of Social History features an article by Mark Smith that’s part explanation, part historiography, part meditation on methodology:

Smith, Mark M. (Mark Michael) 1968-
Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History
Journal of Social History – Volume 40, Number 4, Summer 2007, pp. 841-858.

If you have Project Muse at your institution, you can download it…or maybe I can distribute it in the good old-fashioned by post way if you’re interested.

Comment by bridgett

I had a reply written and then WordPress ate it and I don’t have the patience to recreate it.

Shorter version: yes, there was (still is, among some) the idea that Jews have a special smell. Evidently we can get rid of it by drinking Christian blood. The idea first shows up (without the blood-drinking remedy) in the classical world, gets popularized in an aside by Caesarius of Heisterbach in the 12th century, gets attached to other versions of the blood libel a couple of centuries later, and shows up in Luther, Hitler, and some contemporary antisemites. I don’t think anyone has done a thorough study of it, because it’s a pretty stable trope, with the exception of the medieval addition of vampirism.

Comment by nm

Whoa. So Jews are also responsible for the Red Cross calling me every fifteen minutes during the holiday weekends telling me that my blood type (A+, naturally…I so smart) is really really needed? I had no idea. So that’s where the whole “blood sucker” slur comes from too, I suppose. I had guessed that
it was part of the whole anti-Semitic money-lending thing, but it’s clearly deeper than that.

So was part of the original reading of Dracula a comforting (to Christians) anti-Semitism? The whole aversion to the crucifix, etc? Dang.

Comment by bridgett

As to Dracula, I think that’s a complete coincidence. I mean, he goes right for the jugular, whereas we supposedly had all this ritual and nailed our victims up on crosses and all that.

And you could have it worse. You could have O- so they call you whenever they’re short of any kind of blood. But I’m pretty sure that we’re not responsible for the Red Cross, since they have this little bias problem of their own….

Comment by nm

My husband has O blood — twice the volume of calls. Is there a special sanguinary cocktail for that — the Universal-tini? Gah, sometimes I don’t want to believe that humans can be so glorious and so idiotic simultaneously.

Comment by bridgett

humans can be so glorious and so idiotic simultaneously.

The very existence of Knott’s Berry Farm would seem to bear out this hypothesis.

Comment by Katherine Coble

Bwahahaha. I knew this discussion had to be leading to some important climax. And I think Knott’s Berry Farm has to be it.

Comment by nm

they said Jews smell bad?

Comment by Nick Dupree

Isabella of Spain

Comment by Nick Dupree

oops, it wouldn’t embed….

Comment by Nick Dupree

Does Isabella look smelly to you? She looks smelly to me.

Comment by bridgett

Hey, she’s a woman demonstrating literacy. What’s wrong with that?

Comment by nm

it’s hard to believe a woman can live over 50 years and never bathe!

Comment by Nick Dupree

I have thought a little bit about the “Catherine of Aragon (Isabella’s daughter) might have brought the idea to England…” — Catherine wound up so very much despised in the English court that I just don’t see that having a long-term cultural effect there. But there may be a more general effect from those that returned from the Crusades, maybe…

Comment by bridgett

OK, now I’m confused. When are we talking about? The only 16th century Crusades were in the Baltic.

Comment by nm

I was thinking — idly and sleepily – that there had to be a general drop off throughout Europe rather than a precipitating event in one place, so I was casting about for something (like the expansion of transatlantic empire, DUHHHHHHHH….second thoughts, better thoughts) and sleepily came up with the Crusades. You know, because they happened “back then.” Sometime. A long time ago.

So that was just me being dumb out loud. (As opposed to being dumb quietly, which is something I do a lot.)

Comment by bridgett

Just some thoughts during my bout of insomnia.

UNESCO studies on poverty in Africa in the 1980s noted that many poor urban women were spending 3 HOURS each day just getting water. This was because water sources were distant and they often had to stand in line. I can see this happening in the rapidly growing slums of early modern European cities. Water is also extremely heavy. Carrying enough of it to submerge an adult body – even partially – is going to be a chore. Couldn’t this contribute to a situation where people in cities might be just as likely to “wash up” as anyone else, but less likely to fully bathe?

Fuel was by no means as big an expense for an urban household as food in this era, but it was still an expense. The deforestation of Europe was well advanced by this period. In fact, I was reading something a couple of months ago that included a quote from a 12th century French Bishop (I think) who was complaining that no one could find suitable lumber for large-scale building anymore – except at ruinous cost. Firewood, charcoal, and coal had to be shipped into these cities. A family member had to go buy it and haul it back. Given the tight margins facing these people, isn’t it possible that the time and expense of getting enough fuel to heat up water for bathing was enough of a disincentive as to make it less common – especially given the general inflation of prices throughout the early modern period.

Finally, I would swear I had read somewhere (maybe Carlo Cipolla?) about health regulations in many cities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that closed public baths in reaction to outbreaks of the plague.

Comment by Gerald

Well, we have already stipulated that much of washing was just some splashing with water and soap. I’m sure that trend intensified after the demise of the public bath house (yes, 15th and 16th centuries for that). Deforestation was a problem, but in England and northern France coal was available to replace it. The story you’re thinking of was told by Abbe’ (how do you do diacritical marks in WordPress?) Suger, the abbot of St. Denis near Paris. Since the point of his story was that he ‘miraculously’ found trees tall enough to do the building he wanted to do, it’s interpreted to mean that deforestation had been noticed by the 12th century but wasn’t far enough along to be a real bother, at least around Paris.

By the 16th century, though, with the exception of parts of central and central/eastern Europe, the great European forests were gone. So you have no bath houses, no wood, add rapid urbanization after the 1580s. Yeah, you’re heading for generations of non-bathers.

Comment by nm

The early Germans put butter on their hair. This distressed the heck out of the Romans, who put olive oil on theirs. Isn’t there a shampoo today that advertises itself as having animal placenta in it? Gosh, humans are odd.

I can’t add much to the historical bits of this conversation (you know, the important ones..), but I can attest to this. Placenta (generic; doesn’t specify what kind of placenta) is a fairly common hair product additive right now. You can find it, along with cholesterol, protein gel (again, it doesn’t tell us where the protein is from..), and various other oddities in the “ethnic” section of your local haircare place.

(Then again, if you stay in the white parts, you’ll notice that pretty much every item has food of some sort in it, including a good number of milk and honey based products. I’m not sure regurgitated bee food, mashed up plant ovaries, various leaves and grasses, or liquids squeezed out of perinatal animals is much grosser than protein or cholesterol, really. And protein and cholesterol aren’t all that weird in comparison to the bazillionty permutations of petroleum and lye that make up most non-botanical haircare products. Though the placenta does weird me out.)

Cholesterol actually feels really good, and leaves your hair soft, supple, and surprisingly non-greasy. (You leave it on for like 15 minutes then wash it out, usually.. or you use it like a hot oil treatment) Protein-based gels vary wildly (as gels are wont), but the one I linked gives you a really nice, hard hold… which is good if that’s what you need. (It does have limitations though… you need to have dark hair to use it, because it’s deep brown…and you can’t use it on pressed hair unless you’re really deft, because it’s water/alcohol based and will undo any heat treatments in seconds… and it’ll flake if more heat is applied after it’s on there.) I haven’t tried anything specifically advertising it’s placental content, but I’d imagine it can’t be all that different from the rest of everything.

Y’all can carry on your historical conversation now. 😉

(Oh, and nm, as for the diacritical marks… are you on a mac or a PC? Here are PC instructions and here are mac instructions. The Mac ones will work with any program that will allow you to insert text; the PC ones are generally kind of program-specific.)

Comment by magniloquence

Archaeologists dig up Roman bath complex

By MARTA FALCONI, Associated Press Writer
Thu Jul 19, 11:03 PM ET

ROME – A large 2nd-century bath complex believed to be part of a wealthy Roman’s luxurious residence has been partially dug up, archaeologists said Thursday.

The exceptionally well-preserved two-story complex, which extends for at least five acres, includes ornate hot rooms, vaults, changing rooms, marble latrines and an underground room where slaves lit the fire to warm the baths.

Statues and water cascades decorated the interiors, American archaeologist Darius A. Arya, the excavation’s head, said during a tour offered to The Associated Press on Thursday. Only pedestals and fragments have been recovered.

Arya spoke as students and experts were brushing off dirt and dust from ancient marbles, mosaic floors and a rudimentary heating system, made of pipes that channeled hot air throughout the complex.

“The Romans had more leisure time than other people, and it’s here in the baths that they typically spent their time,” Arya said. “Because you could eat well, you could get a massage, you could have sex, you could gossip, you could play your games, you could talk about politics — you could spend the whole day here.”

Comment by Nick Dupree

This is cool.

It reminds me: there are still a couple of shvitzes left in NYC. One of them used to have a sign in the window saying they served sushi. I always wondered about whether the steam would cook the fish.

Comment by nm

You know, there is a helluva book waiting to be written here – “‘Wash Me And I Shall Be Whiter Than Snow’: A Comparative Social History of Bathing and Hygiene from Roman to Modern Times.”

I’d bet we could even get on The Colbert Report…

Comment by Gerald

If we did re-enactments we definitely could. This is a good idea, you know. I’d kind of prefer ‘Wash Thyself Therefore’ for the main title, but this can be worked out.

Comment by nm

Ruth. Definitely better.

Comment by Gerald

Because it’s suggestive, you know: oooh! a book about how cleanliness is next to sexiness!

Comment by nm

Give it a nice racy bath painting on the dust jacket and NYT Bestseller list, here we come!

Comment by Gerald

Oooh, I’m thinking a collage with some wall paintings from Pompei, medieval miniatures of knights/ladies bathing (I think the Cantigas de Santa Maria also had some illustrations of bathing for medicinal purposed), early modern woodcuts of bath houses, and the painting of Gabrielle d’Estrees and her sister in the bath. You know, the famous one where her sister is pinching her nipple. If we had that right beneath the title, and could get funding for a display at Barnes & Noble, and there’s the marketing campaign.

Comment by nm

So we have the title and the dust jacket design. The rest should be easy. I’m sure my adviser Dee McCloskey would tell us we could “just knock this out in a weekend.”

“The rest is just scribbling.” (Amadeus)

Comment by Gerald

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