We all know that washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm soapy water is the key to prevent disease from spreading. But back in Colonial America, lots of people didn’t have access to soap or water. In fact, most historians think average Americans bathed just a few times a year. That means you probably get haircuts more often than early Americans took baths.
If your skin is getting dried and chapped from all this handwashing and hand sanitizing, trust us when we say early Americans had it way worse. Hygiene was basically non-existent for early American colonists and when they did get around to cleaning themselves, it wasn’t nearly up to our standards. Overall, it was all pretty gross.
Life in Colonial America had a lot going on – from forging independence from the United Kingdom to early settlers exploring the lands wanted to call home. With all the exploring and war-waging, sometimes it was tough to keep up with personal hygiene. In fact, bathing wasn’t that important at all.
Sometimes people went months without bathing
Forget about one shower a day or even one shower a month. Most early Americans probably went entire months without setting foot inside water. That’s because it took forever to gather enough water for a bath – not to mention wasting all that precious firewood. When a person finally made it to the tub, it’s likely that they bathed in the same water as everyone else who lived in their house. Talk about gross.
But even in warm months, most early Americans shied away from taking baths. Lots of people thought taking too many baths might make a person get sick.
No one used soap in Colonial America
Today’s fitness wearables have alerts programmed in to tell you when you’ve washed your hands long enough to kill germs and bacteria. Most people in America bathe once a day and wash their hair at least that often, too. But people in Colonial America didn’t have wearables, much less running water or indoor plumbing. So there was no one telling them how long to wash for, or even that washing every day was important.
Social status wasn’t really tied to hygiene, or how good a person smelled or how fresh their clothes were. In fact, most working-class people barely had enough clothing to change from one day to the next, so they just wore the same outfit on repeat. That makes early Colonial Americans the original Capsule Wardrobe enthusiasts. Most people had just two outfits – one for everyday wear and one for special occasions and Sundays.
So people just wore the same clothes every day and didn’t both washing them or their bodies. Besides that, the whole soap making process took forever and was super time consuming so unless you had some soap lying around, you probably weren’t itching to take a bath.
And then when you did, the lye soap popular back in the day probably dried your skin out and left you rashy anyway – so maybe it was best to stay away from baths. Today’s handwashing definitely gets annoying but it’s definitely better than the alternative in Colonial America.