“People in colonial times never took baths!”

Posted on October 1, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , |

Oh, this is vintage Truth v. Myth.

How often you hear the lives of people in olden times completely subverted by some tour guide, narrator, or instructor claiming that they never took baths. I was once taken on a tour of a historical house where the tour guide informed us that in the 19th century, country people simply sewed themselves into their one-piece long underwear for the winter, never took it off, and so never bathed (or, apparently, used the bathroom).

These stories imply that people living before the 20th century, be it 1800 or 1800 BCE, were gross and somehow completely accepting of torrid personal filth. It’s condescending, to say the least.

So okay. Time to look this over.

Let’s think about the American colonies in 1750. If you lived then, you were most likely living on a small family farm. The house had four rooms: kitchen, two bedrooms, parlor. Your family lived there, let’s say six people, and let’s say you had two extra workers living in.

When would you take a bath? You are busy working from sunup to sundown. How would you take a bath? You would need someone to help you, by heating water over the fire and minding it so it didn’t get too hot, then carrying it into the parlor, since there wouldn’t be room to set up a tub in the busy kitchen. So now two people are taken off their vital chores to set up and to take a bath. It will take several pails of water to even half-fill the tub, so someone will have to go to the well to get a lot of water (three people now involved in the bath). It takes a while to get and to heat all that water, so you’ll have to set aside about an hour.

The parlor is in use, too, and people are constantly coming in and going out, so privacy is nil. You have to be willing to have everyone see you naked. And if it’s not summer, then it’s going to be freezing in the parlor as you bathe. Once the bath is over, you need at least two people to help haul the tub outside and dump it out.

Now we get an idea of why people in colonial times didn’t take a lot of baths. But they were, of course, very clean, because they washed up at the wash basin.

In the bedroom was a pitcher and a bowl and a towel, and soap. You stripped to the waist and washed your upper body, then put your shirt back on and stripped off (or lifted your underskirt) to wash your lower body. Voila! Simple, fast, easy, private, and clean. You could wash off at the wash basin several times a day if you wanted.

So no, people in colonial times didn’t take a lot of baths. But that doesn’t mean they simply didn’t notice or care about odor or dirt, and were content to be filthy. These are your ancestors, you know! It behooves us to cut them the same slack we cut ourselves, and to think outside of our life-of-easy-appliances-and-running-hot-water boxes.

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