Personal Hygiene in America

Ever wonder what life was like before running water and today's endless assortment of toiletries? The plumbing and products we take for granted were nonexistent in colonial days, and this absence was glaringly apparent to visitors. Early travelers to this country noted the overall unclean condition of Americans--as one English tourist remarked, "filthy, bordering on the beastly." After several centuries, much progress has been made and personal hygiene for Americans has reached an art form.

Colonists viewed bathing as more curative in nature than hygienic and therefore bathed infrequently in rivers and streams and occasionally in public baths and outdoor bathhouses. With the advent of the 19th century, Americans slowly began to bathe more. New furniture forms and accessories, such as tin tubs, washstands, and wash basins, were designed for use in one's home. These were located anywhere throughout the home, but were primarily found in kitchens and bedrooms.

Soap was mainly used for laundry and was often made at home, as evidenced by numerous homemade recipes. By the mid 19th century, Americans started using soap to clean their skin, and manufacturers quickly met the dual demand by producing a variety of toilet and laundry soaps. It logically followed that as Americans washed their bodies more often, they also became concerned with washing their clothes.

Every part of the body was eventually scrutinized, not just the skin. Early on, poor dental hygiene caused a number of ear, nose, and throat complaints. To remedy these maladies, Americans concocted recipes for homemade tooth powder and sometimes used twigs and table salt to brush their teeth before toothpaste and toothbrushes were sold. As new dental products were introduced, so were new hair care products and styles. At the end of the 19th century, American men came to view their bushy beards and mutton chops as just another place to harbor germs. A new business look of less facial hair for men became the fashion.

barber shopThe importance of etiquette books in spreading advice on cleanliness to Americans cannot be overlooked. Washing was once considered a privilege of the upper class. However, as these books became more accessible, the growing middle class used them as a blueprint in their quest for gentility and upper-class status. The gospel of hygiene then trickled down to the lower classes and immigrants in the late 1800s, when reformers taught them the rudiments of cleanliness in order to improve their health and assimilate them into the American way of life.

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, large cities across America undertook public works projects to build municipal water and sewer lines. These improvements in plumbing and sanitation necessitated that fixtures be attached to a maze of pipes. A separate room was now required to house these fixtures, making portable containers and accessories obsolete. As bathrooms were gradually added to homes, new innovations and inventions also offered a wide range of options, including pumping one's own shower.

Styles in bathroom décor also changed over time. At first, fixtures were fashioned in wood with elaborate marquetry to imitate furniture. Toward the end of the century, with the emphasis on hygiene reaching new heights and scientists preaching germ theory, the bathroom closely resembled a laboratory with white, washable porcelain surfaces. Color was later added to bathrooms as they became more commonplace to personalize and soften the earlier scientific feel. The ritual of personal hygiene was now entrenched in the routine of American life.

More Library Exhibitions...

All Rights Reserved