Summer Stinks!: The Odoriferous 18th Century

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

Virginia is a hot place during summer and even for much of autumn.  While we once wrote about how people in pre-air conditioned colonial times dealt with the heat in a previous blog post aptly titled, “The heat is beyond your conception”, I want to talk today about another bane of colonial Americans’ comfort in summer,  namely smells and particularly body odor.

Today, history comes scent-free.  We must study the past without using smell, one of our main senses, and, as we will soon see, that is probably for the better.

An 18th century summer smelled of human and animal waste, garbage, stagnant water, and body odor.  These odors permeated every breath taken by colonists, whether very rich or very poor.  Noted philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once complained about the aroma of “stagnant urine” the hung about the Palais Royal in summer.[1]

How did colonists attempt to deal with the ubiquitous human stink before deodorant and regular bathing?  What were the deodorizing options available to the likes of George or Betty Washington? What could they have possibly used to keep the dreaded stink of summer away or, at the very least, subdued?

Bathing

We’ve previously written about bathing in the 18th century in detail but toward the end of the 1700s, baths, or the immersion of the body in a tub of water, were becoming more popular with more affluent Americans.  As the intrepid Elizabeth Drinker wrote of her first experience in a shower, “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett [sic] all over at once for 28 years past”. [2] The wealthy tended to bathe more because they also had the luxury of milder soaps. Generally, the main soap available at the time was not normally used in washing the body because it was made of harsh cleaning agents.[3]  Additionally, few experts advised taking more than one bath a month for health reasons.[4]  There was actually a widespread fear that bathing could make you sick. Most importantly, very few people could devote time or energy to the immense task of fetching water and warming it for a bath.  People’s daily washing consisted of a splash of cold water from a basin usually in the kitchen or bedchamber.[5]  They washed the bits that showed namely the face, the feet, and the hands.  This daily washing helped George or Betty start off their day smelling fresh but it didn’t last long in the brutal Virginia summer.

Wash Basin in Bedchamber

Wash basin in Historic Kenmore’s bedchamber.

Wash Basin

Close up of the wash basin in Kenmore’s bedchamber.

Wash Basin Pitcher

Pitcher that goes with bedchamber wash basin.

Clothing

In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey advised brother, Edward, who was preparing to come to Virginia, that “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible . . . You must carry a stock of linen waistcoats [which were kind of like vests] made very large and loose that they may not stick to your hide when you perspire.”  Light and thin fabrics made of natural fibers like cotton and linen absorbed sweat from the body and dried relatively quickly.  Additionally, lighter undergarments could be washed more regularly than the outer garments which usually weren’t laundered.

Toward the end of the 1700s, a weekly changing of underwear was recommended and more frequent cleanings lead to more incentives for perfuming washtubs, chests and drawers.[6]  Besides laundering, people also infused garments with a lovely fragrance or sewed up sweet smelling sachets to put in their pockets.

The English Husewife contains an interesting recipe to perfume gloves that involved soaking them in a mixture of angelica water, rose water, cloves, ambergris, musk, lignum aloes, benzoin, and calamus.[7] Meanwhile, The Toilet of Flora provided instruction on using violet and cypress powder to make sachets that could be secreted in a ladies pocket.[8]

Even ornamentation and jewelry didn’t escape the quest to hide the stench of summer.   Recipes for perfumed chaplets and medals created a smelly paste substance that could be concealed in jeweled smelling boxes or worn as wax decorative medal.[9] Similarly, little sponges soaked in essential oils could be hidden in jewelry to give the wearer a sweet aroma.

Perfuming

As shown by all this perfuming of jewelry, clothes, and clothing storage, perfumes and waters were the most common way people in the 18th century tried to cover the stench of summer.  Perfumes are strong concentrations of scents that last for a long time while waters are the more diluted eaux de toilette or eaux de cologne.  All were available for purchase in colonial stores for those of means.[10]  Additionally, there were dozens of handy books that supplied many easy to follow recipes for various lovely smelling perfumes and waters.  The Toilet of Flora had about 6 perfume and 60+ recipes for waters.[11]

Toilet of Flora frontispice

Frontispiece and title page of a 1779 edition of “The Toilet of Flora”.

Before continuing, we should define some terms to help navigate the confusing and complex world of perfumery.

PERFUME is made of essential oils or an aroma compound as well as fixatives and solvents.  ESSENTIAL OILS are oils from a plant usually extracted through distillation.  Compared to fatty oils, they are lighter and tend to evaporate without a trace. A perfume usually contains 15 to 20% pure essence.  A perfume’s FIXATIVE helps the scent last. Today, we use synthetic fixatives but, in the 18th century, popular fixatives were benzoin (aka gum of Benjamin) labdanum, storax, ambergris (basically whale vomit), castoreum (the castor sacs of a mature North American beaver), and musk (the glandular secretions of the musk deer).   Lastly, a perfume’s SOLVENT dilutes the perfume oil. The most common solvent being some type of alcohol/water mix but coconut oil or liquid waxes like jojoba oil can be substituted. Perfume is very strong and lasts for about five to eight hours.

EAU DE TOILETTE is light-scented cologne with a high alcohol content, 5 to 15% perfume essence and is usually scented with something floral or fruity like lavender, lilac, orange or lemon.  An eau de toilette has a light scent that lasts around 3 to 4 hours. EAU DE COLOGNE is composed of two to four percent perfume oils in alcohol and water.  The first eau de cologne was made in Cologne, Germany in 1709 and contained many different citrus oils.  An eau de cologne has a light scent that only lasts a couple of hours.

One particularly perfume recommended in The Toilet of Flora contains musk, cloves, lavender, civet and ambergris.[12] While it likely smelled nice, it was probably expensive to make so would not have been an item produced for everyone.  Nor did some think that perfume was appropriate for a woman of good repute to wear at the time. They instead recommended eau de rose or eau de lavender as a more appropriate alternative.   As one guide stated, “In no circumstances should real perfume be applied to the skin.  Only aromatic toilet waters – distilled rose, plantain, bean, or strawberry water – and eau de cologne were permissible”.[13]

Perfume Bottle

Portion of an 18th century perfume bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Needless to say, while perfume and waters masked some smells, they were not viable deodorizers for many who couldn’t afford the luxury.  George Washington, being a practicing gentleman, probably used an eau de toilette in the morning when washing.  It is believed that George regularly purchased bottles of scent from Dr. William Hunter’s apothecary in Newport, Rhode Island, the forerunner of today’s Caswell-Massey.  Of the 20 scents Hunter offered, George settled on Number Six and even bought some bottles as gifts.  Number Six is still available for purchase today so that even you can smell like George!  Betty probably used an eau de toilette or scented soap in the morning. It would have been inappropriate for a young lady to wear a perfume, but she may have worn it on special occasions as a married woman.

No matter if they used a scent, laundered clothing, or bathe, the fact remains that an 18th century summer just stunk.  People tried to mask it with whatever concoctions they could invent but it took another 100 years before deodorant and antiperspirant were invented to save humanity from the smell of itself during the hot humid summer months.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1986: 27.

[2] Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Mar. 1988): 1214.

[3] “Wash-Balls” in The Toilet of Flora, London, 1779: 199-207.

[4] Corbin, 178.

[5] David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, Daily Life in the Early American Republic, 1790-1820: Creating a New Nation, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2004: 46.

[6] Corbin, 179.

[7] G.M., The English Huswife, J.B., London, 1623: 142.

[8] Toilet of Flora, 196.

[9] Toilet of Flora, 6

[10] Nivins and Warwick advertisement, Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), Apr 4, 1766, pg 4, col1; https://research.history.org/CWDLImages/VA_GAZET/Images/PD/1766/0021hi.jpg

[11] Toilet of Flora, 50-114

[12] Toilet of Flora, 57.

[13] Corbin, 183.

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Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

‘Not Having Been Wett All Over at Once, for 28 Years Past’: Bathing in Early America

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  This the second in a series of “Colonial Grossology” posts that we’re offering on Lives & Legacies.

At least once during his youth at Ferry Farm, probably in July 1750, George Washington went “washing in the river.”  We know this because Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel were arrested and tried and one of them was even flogged for stealing valuables from his clothes while he was in the Rappahannock.  Of course, it seems quite safe to assume that young George swam in the river on many more occasions than this one moment chronicled in court records.

The Rappahannock River at George Washington's Ferry Farm.

The Rappahannock River at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Document showing the outcome of a court case involving George Washington.  Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel stole valuables from Washington's clothes while he was "washing in the river." Carol testified against McDaniel, who was convicted or petty larceny and "flogged fifteen lashes on her bare back."

Document showing the outcome of a court case involving George Washington. Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel stole valuables from Washington’s clothes while he was “washing in the river.” Carol testified against McDaniel, who was convicted of petty larceny and “flogged fifteen lashes on her bare back.”  Spotsylvania County Court Records, Order Book 1749-1755, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

The court records say he was “washing in the river.” But was he bathing to get clean or swimming just for fun?  It’s hard to say.  In the 1700s, swimming was “rarely intended for hygienic purposes,” though, of course, it made a person clean.  Cleaning was not swimming’s intended purpose, however.  People went swimming largely to cool off during hot weather.  Still, the word “washing” in the court documents seems significant.  If Washington was bathing with the purpose of getting clean, his dip in the river was somewhat unusual for more than the fact that he fell victim to thieves.[1]

How often did Washington and his fellow colonial Americans bathe to get clean?  The question’s answer is more complicated that you might imagine.

First, the answer largely depends upon what we mean by the word bathing.  If we mean head-to-toe immersion in water and scrubbing with soap to get clean, then bathing was quite infrequent.  In the 1700s, many people feared immersing the body in water as a sure way to get sick.  American settlers came from Europe, where bathing occurred in public bathhouses for much of the early modern period.  Before the late 1800s, people did not understand that germs caused disease.  Instead, when they got sick, people sometimes blamed the bathhouses and bathing.  For much of the 18th century, this suspicion towards bathing “reflected medical theories about the dangers to a healthy body of extremes of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness.  Any extreme might disturb the delicate equilibrium of the body’s humors, temperature, and moisture.  Compared to the shock of immersion in water, dirt upon the skin seemed benign.”  In fact, some people believed dirt helped keep you healthy by “reinforcing the skin.”[2]

Second, an immersive bath was simply a lot of hard work.  Unless you had servants or owned slaves to do that hard work, you carried water to the tub from your water source, perhaps a well, a spring, or a nearby stream, two buckets at a time.  Multiple trips would be necessary.  To warm the water, you had to use precious firewood to build a fire.  Building the fire and getting it started were not simple tasks either.  The incredible effort it took to bathe also explains why, when baths did actually occur, the same water was used by multiple people in the household.  The father bathed first, the sons next, then the mother and daughters, and finally the servants.[3]  To add to these practical difficulties, “tubs specifically made for bathing did not make an appearance in America” until the very late 18th century.[4]  As a result, daily cleaning for most of the colonial era was “accomplished by washing the face and hands . . . in one’s bed chamber, with a basin and a relatively small amount of water.”  We today might refer to this method as a sponge bath.

Most early Americans washed daily using water from a pitcher and basin. Ornate sets similar to the one depicted would have been found in the homes of the wealthy like Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Most early Americans washed daily using water from a pitcher and basin. Ornate sets similar to the one depicted would have been found in the homes of the wealthy like Fielding and Betty Lewis.

“A bath in which the entire body was submerged, or showered with water, was generally taken for reasons of pleasure or preventive health maintenance, and in some cases, as a type of remedy for a particular affliction.”[5]  Immersive bathing for pleasure and health occurred in resort cities and towns at the sites of warm, mineral springs.  For example, George Washington, Fielding Lewis, and kin frequently trekked to Bath, Virginia (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) and both gentlemen owned property in the mountain resort.

For most of the 1700s, washing from a basin remained the most common method for getting clean on a daily basis.  Indeed, it was so much the norm that when Elizabeth Drinker, a wealthy Philadelphia women, tried the new shower her husband built in the backyard, she wrote in her diary: “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past.”[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004: 190

[2] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009: 19-21.

[3] Brown, 209.

[4] Mays, 190.

[5] “Bathing,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/bathing [accessed February 10, 2015]

[6] Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Mar. 1988): 1214.