The Fly …uh, Snail… in the Ointment …Pot

It’s flu season again.  And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest.  But what did George Washington do when he got sick?  Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.

Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet.  The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them).  Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured.  This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.

An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray

“An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray.” by James Gillray. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Option number two was to visit a pharmacy.  Now, we’re not talking Walgreens.  Think smaller and jars full of leeches.  Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted.  The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you.  For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.

Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman's urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774

‘Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman’s urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774.’ by Gottfried Locher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home.  Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe.  There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia.  Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up.  One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”.  The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:

“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”

One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.

We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots.  At least half a dozen have been identified thus far.  Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home.  Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.

Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines.  The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots.  However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm.  Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  2001.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  Early English Delftware from London and Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.  1977.

Mellor, Maureen.  Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  2000.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  University Press of New England, Hanover and London.  2009

 

 

‘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.

Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s

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 first in a series of “Colonial Grossology” posts that we’re offering on Lives & Legacies.

Archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have recovered a variety of hair care artifacts, including over 200 wig hair curlers.  These baked clay curlers were used exclusively to curl wig hair, and formed part of the Washington family’s regimen of wig maintenance.  The regimen included several practices that might seem strange or gross to us today.

Artifacts from Ferry Farm related to eighteenth-century hair care.  A) A woman’s bone hair brush, used on natural (not wig) hair.  B) An earthenware wig hair curler, made c. 1740-1780.  C)  A bone grooming or “lice” comb.  D)  A bone razor guard, used by men to shave their facial hair and to shave the head to accommodate a tight-fitting peruke.

Artifacts from Ferry Farm related to eighteenth-century hair care. A) A woman’s bone hair brush, used on natural (not wig) hair. B) An earthenware wig hair curler, made c. 1740-1780. C) A bone grooming or “lice” comb. D) A bone razor guard, used by men to shave their facial hair and to shave the head to accommodate a tight-fitting wig.

Powdered wigs, or ‘perukes’, were highly fashionable among gentlemen of the 1700s, and a few affluent households even insisted that their butlers and coachmen wear them.  Some gentlemen, including George Washington, opted not to wear a peruke.  To remain fashionable these men often styled their own hair to resemble a wig.

George Washington, 1796, by Gilbert Stuart [Public Domain].  His hair was pomaded and powdered by his personal valet.

George Washington, 1796, by Gilbert Stuart [Public Domain]. His own hair, not a wig, was pomaded and powdered by his personal valet to look as if he were wearing a wig.

Human hair was often used to make these wigs, but horsehair, cow, goat, yak, and sheep hair provided economical options for consumers on a budget.  Owners of perukes made from human hair were often anxious about their quality:  it was a widespread concern that the hair of criminals, cadavers, prostitutes, or even plague victims was used to construct wigs.

Throughout the 1700s, whether it was a person’s own hair or a peruke, pomade or pomatum was applied before wigs were powdered.  The word ‘pomade’ derives from the Latin word for apple, “pomum,” – since early recipes incorporated apples.   One recipe combined a pound of sheep suet (fat) with one pound of pig suet.  Sixteen rosewater-boiled apples were added.  Fragrance then enhanced this mixture, and might include some combination of rosewood oil, bay leaves, bergamot orange, or Macassar oil.  Such fragrances helped to lengthen the interval between hairdressing sessions and counteracted any rancid odors.

Powder was typically made from wheat flour or dried white clay.  Beanmeal or cornflour was also used.  Powder was often enhanced by fragrances, such as those of orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender.

A hairdresser or personal valet added the powder, which was freshly applied every morning, or each time a wig was donned.  The combination of lard and powder produced rigid curls and stiff hair styles.  Powder made hairstyles heavier: as much as two pounds heavier for the large periwigs popular until the 1730s[1]. A few households featured ‘powder rooms:’ a small room set aside for the application of powder.  A power bellows, a ‘carrot’[2], a swan-down puff, or comb was used to dust hair with powder.  White or grey powders were especially popular, but adventurous consumers might use black, blue, lavender, pink, red, or yellow.

A gentleman being powdered by his valet.  A cone protects the gentleman’s face during the process.  Powder was made from starch, often wheat flour, or powdered white clay.  The Toilette of the State Prosecutor’s Clerk, c. 1768 by Carle Vernet.

A gentleman being powdered by his valet. A cone protects the gentleman’s face during the process. Powder was made from starch, often wheat flour, or powdered white clay. The Toilette of the State Prosecutor’s Clerk, c. 1768 by Carle Vernet.

Hairdressers could remove wigs to apply pomade and powder in a separate space, a convenience for wig wearers that men who only wore their own hair likely envied.  Men who did wear their own hair used a hairnet to preserve their pomaded locks overnight.  Each morning[3], a valet combed out the previous day’s pomade and dirty powder, before applying fresh pomade and powder.  This process could take an hour or more.  Many hairstyles remained undisturbed for weeks.  Headscratchers were kept close at hand: they allowed people to itch their scalps without disturbing their hairstyle too dramatically.

An ivory-handled head scratcher and closeup [inset]. Personal collection. Used with permission

The beginnings of this fashion trend were inspired by disease and lice.  Most people did not wash their hair very often.  Syphilis was rampant in Europe throughout the colonial period.  Symptoms such as hair loss, scabs, and rashes could be partially hidden beneath a voluminous wig.  The prevalence of highly contagious head lice, and the difficulty in exterminating them, also encouraged the adoption of false hairpieces.  In order to insure a good fit, gentleman shaved their heads, eliminating the hairs upon which lice thrived.  While cleaning lice from one’s own hair could be time-consuming, wigs could be conveniently removed – and boiled to eliminate pests and dirt.  However, if wigs were not properly maintained, they could become a haven for a variety of pests.

To us today, the wearing of wigs covered in animal fat along with wheat flour or dried white clay may seem bizarre or disgusting or both.  Still, to the people of the time the reasons behind the practices made perfect sense.  Which of today’s perfectly sensible fashion choices might our descendants living 200 years in the future find strange or gross or both?

Laura Galke
Archaeologist, Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

 

[1] Periwigs took as many as ten heads of hair to produce.
[2] This was a carrot-shaped, wooden tube from which powder was blown onto the hair.
[3] Ideally fresh pomade and powder were freshened each morning.  Frugal gentlemen might wait a week or more.