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.

George Washington’s Troublesome Teeth

It’s probably the myth that is more enduring and widespread than any other about George Washington.  At some point from someone, you have heard that George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood.  It is not true.  In reality, his dentures and dental tribulations were more complex than the familiar myth says.  The true story, even when it is uncertain, reveals much more about his life and about life in general in the 18th century.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798)

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798). Washington’s dental troubles are even apparent on his face. As the result of his dentures, he kept his mouth closed tightly and the false teeth caused the area around his lips, his lower jaw, and his chin to protrude slightly. Credit: Clark Art Institute

George Washington had a tooth pulled for the first time in 1756 at the age of 24.  Four years later, George Mercer described Washington’s appearance in a letter, saying “His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.”   By the time of his first inauguration as president in 1789, George had only one tooth left.

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821)

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821) Credit: National Gallery of Art

The causes of George’s dental problems will never be known with certainty.  According to John Adams, Washington himself “attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth.”  Furthermore, Adams hints at one additional potential factor: the common use of mercury in medicine during the 18th century.  Adams described how his doctors gave him sizable quantities of mercury when he was inoculated for smallpox.  The result was, he said, “that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger.”  Adams complained that his doctors “rendered me incapable  …of speaking or eating in my old Age, in short they brought me into the same Situation with my Friend Washington.”

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

For what it’s worth, nineteen-year-old Washington contracted smallpox in November 1751 during a stay in Barbados.  Constantly attended by Dr. John Lanahan, he was sick for 25 days before finally fighting off the deadly disease.  We have no records to tell us precisely how Lanahan treated Washington.  If we consult pages 28-29 of A Rational and Mechanical Essay on the Small Pox published in 1735 by Dr. William Hillary, we find a three-phase course of treatment for pox sufferers. “The first, by bleeding in the first Stations of the Disease; when the Fever is violent: The second by introducing the Practice of Purging, (and Bleeding) in the most dangerous Circumstances attending the second Fever.”  The third phase was employing all known methods to reduce inflammation.  All phases were typical medical practice at the time.

The purging phase of smallpox treatment is when mercury may have become involved.  The most popular concoction to induce purging in the 18th century was called calomel.  It “was a white tasteless powder which consisted of mercury chloride. When taken in small doses calomel led to the evacuation of the bowels.  If taken over time or in heavier doses, calomel induced heavy salivation, bleeding gums, mouth sores, tooth loss.”  Again, in describing his own brush with smallpox, John Adams noted that his doctors “salivated me to such a degree” with “Milk and Mercury” that all his teeth became terribly loose.

Young Washington survived his smallpox attack but literally carried the scars of the illness for life.  Back at Ferry Farm in January 1752, Mary Washington twice purchased some ointment from Dr. Sunderland (Sutherland?) to deal with George’s pox-caused facial scars.  The same bill also included a “mercurial purging” for someone. [1]  We should not definitively conclude that medicinal mercury caused George’s life-long dental troubles.  Like most things in history, his difficulties probably had a mix of causes common to the 1700s, including diseases and  “ poorly balanced diet . . . as well as genetics.”

Regardless of the reasons for George’s defective teeth, Washington ultimately proved “very wise about the message an image can send, and knew that . . . he had to look the part of a leader… which meant at least having teeth.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Now Incomplete Set

A set of Washington’s dentures as once owned by the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, Dental School, University of Maryland. This older image shows both the lower and upper portions. Only the lower portion of these dentures is now present and on display at Baltimore’s Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry. Credit: National Museum of Dentistry

Baker's Ad in the VA Gazette

John Baker advertised his services as a Surgeon Dentist in the January 2, 1772 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

Accordingly, as he lost more teeth, George replaced them with partial dentures and then eventually full dentures.  Surgeon Dentist John Baker, who we first wrote about here, became George’s regular dentist in 1772.  Baker stayed at Mount Vernon in October 1773 and received two substantial payments of £8 total from Washington that same month.  Baker was the first to make false teeth for George, creating a partial denture of ivory for wiring to his natural teeth.

The tooth loss continued, however.  In 1783,Washington asked Baker “for some of the Plaister of Paris, or that white powder with which you take (in wax) the Model of the Mouth for your false teeth—and directions how to mix, & make use of it—When you have done this, I can then give you such a Model as will enable you to furnish me with what I want.”  It seems it was time for another new set of dentures.

A month later, though, Washington took on a new dentist: Jean-Pierre Le Mayuer, who probably made him another partial denture.  Additionally, Le Mayuer practiced the relatively common 18th century dental technique of transplanting, in his words, “good living teeth in the Room of those which were broken or otherwise decayed.”  At first, Washington seemed skeptical about the practice.  He needed to replace his teeth but “(not by transplantation, for of this I have no idea, even with young people, and sure I am it cannot succeed with old).”  Eventually, his mind seemed to be changed somewhat by Richard Varick’s testimony of Le Mayuer’s skills.  That said, there’s little recorded describing the care Le Mayuer provided Washington.

Despite George’s skepticism, Le Mayeur’s use of human teeth in his practice was not unusual for the time. A patient’s own pulled teeth might be used in their dentures.  Teeth from other people, especially the poor and enslaved, were bought and even harvested from the dead for use in dentures or transplanting.  In fact, “Wherever Dr. Le Mayuer practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads ‘Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.’  While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated ‘slaves excepted.’”  Did this mean Le Mayeur would not pay for teeth from slaves or is it a Frenchman’s corruption of the word “accepted”?  It seems, in fact, he was willing to pay for the teeth of enslaved people for, in May 1784, Lund Washington, who was managing Mount Vernon while George commanded the Continental Army, recorded just over £6 “cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.”

Washington definitely used human teeth in his dentures but we do not know if they were teeth from slaves.  He probably did use his own in some dentures.  Back in 1782, when John Baker was still his dentist, George wrote to Lund Washington instructing him that “In a drawer, in the Locker of the Desk which stands in my Study, you will find two small (fore) teeth; which I beg of you to wrap up carefully, & send inclosed in your next Letter to me. I am positive I left them there, or in the secret drawer in the locker of the same desk.”  It is believed “Washington hoped that these original teeth could be used within new dentures that were being fitted for his use.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Complete Set

Washington dentures made by John Greenwood. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

John Greenwood

Engraving of John Greenwood by Roy Peintre. Credit: Library of Congress

“The only complete set of Washington’s dentures that still survives . . . is made of animal and human teeth, lead, and ivory.”  John Greenwood, who served as Washington’s dentist throughout the 1790s, made them out of hippopotamus ivory, horse or donkey teeth, human teeth, gold wire springs, brass screws, and lead.  Greenwood left a gap in this set for the one remaining tooth Washington had left.  Inevitably, that tooth finally had to be pulled and Washington presented Greenwood with this tooth as a gift, which hung on his watch chain inside a glass locket.

 

George Washington suffered a lifetime of dental troubles.  The causes of those troubles and the attempted solutions were typical of the 18th century and teach us much about both Washington’s life and the lives of his fellow early Americans. The real story of Washington’s false teeth, even when uncertain, reveals more about his life and his times than any stale wooden myth.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 103.

Dental Care 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.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

The 100th rule of the famed Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior  copied by George Washington as a school boy advised people to “Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done wt. a Pick Tooth.”  This advice proved necessary two centuries ago because “the most common means of cleaning teeth was by rubbing them with a cloth dipped in a little salt and water.”[1]  As long as this happened away from the dinner table, all would be well regarding propriety.

Dental care has improved greatly in 200 years but the seeds of modern tooth care can certainly be seen when looking back to colonial days.

Bristle toothbrushes are an age-old invention of the Chinese.  Today’s brushes are remarkably similar in shape and design to ones used in centuries past.  The pig bristle is now nylon and the animal bone is now plastic.  Archaeologists have found bone toothbrush heads — two of which date from the 1820s — during excavations at Ferry Farm.  Even without their handles, they look quite familiar even to the modern eye.

FF Toothbrush Heads

Bone toothbrush heads excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Instead of toothpaste, early Americans brushed with tooth powders. To clean teeth, these powders contained abrasives like alum, ground seashells, bone, eggshells, brimstone, baking soda, and even gunpowder. To freshen breath, powders included cinnamon, musk, or dragon’s blood.[2]  If dragon’s blood sounds strange, tobacco merchant William Hugh Grove claimed tobacco ashes were “excellent to clean teeth!”  These powders were not hard to make yourself and were even available for purchase in cities.

On January 2, 1772, ‘surgeon dentist’ John Baker took an ad in the Virginia Gazette “to inform the Gentry that he is now at Mr. Maupin’s, in Williamsburg, and will wait on them.”  His ad is worth examining at length for its fascinating glimpse into dental procedures of the time.

VaGazette

Page 3 of the January 2, 1772 edition of The Virginia Gazette. Baker’s ad is near the top of the far right column.

Baker Dentist Ad

Ostensibly, Baker could cure “the SCURVY in the GUMS, be it ever so bad.”  He did so by scrapping from the teeth “that corrosive, tartarous, gritty Substance which hinders the Gums from growing, infects the Breath, and is one of the principal Causes of the Scurvy, which, if not timely prevented, eats away the Gums, so that many Peoples Teeth fall out fresh.” We each have essentially this same procedure performed every six months when we visit the dentist for a cleaning.

Furthermore, Baker said he “prevents Teeth from growing rotten, keeps such as are decayed from becoming worse, even to old Age, makes the Gums grow up firm to the Teeth, and renders them white and beautiful.”

In a passage familiar to any modern cavity suffers, the ad notes that Baker “fills up, with Lead or Gold, those that are hollow, so as to render them useful; it prevents the Air from getting into them, which aggravates the Pain.”

Baker even transplanted “natural Teeth from one Person to another.”  The use of human teeth as replacements for extracted teeth as well as in dentures was quite common in the 1700s.  Indeed, teeth collected from thousands of the dead after the Battle of Waterloo were used in dentures for years.  Before Waterloo, “teeth were frequently acquired from executed criminals, exhumed bodies, dentists’ patients and even animals and were consequently often rotten, worn down or loaded with syphilis. The prospect of an overabundance of young, healthy teeth to be readily pillaged from the battlefield must have been a dentist’s dream.” 

Surgeon Dentist Baker extracted whole or partial teeth, even if they were “ever so deep sunk into the Socket of the Gums.”  Once extracted, the tooth was cleaned of infection and, if necessary, filled.  Then, it might be placed back in the same person, into another person, or in a set of dentures.  Some teeth even ended up in the archaeological record.  An extracted human tooth was uncovered during excavations at Ferry Farm.  From the upper jaw, the tooth belonged to a person of European descent and featured an incredibly large cavity. That said, the nerve was likely dead by the time this tooth was pulled. We know it was pulled because of a broken root. There is no decay from the top of the tooth and it has little wear, indicating it belonged to a younger person.  The tooth was discovered in the plow zone[3], meaning that it could not be dated historically.

FF Tooth 1

Human tooth excavated at Ferry Farm shows an incredible cavity.

FF Tooth 2

Human tooth excavated at Ferry Farm.

Using toothbrushes for preventative care, treating gum disease through cleaning, and filling cavities with lead or gold all represent some commonalities between past and present dental care.  While seeds of modern dentistry can be traced to the 18th century, significant advances have been made in replacing single teeth and in using dentures.  Even if past dentists had some of today’s treatments, however, it seems safe to bet that they still would have been unable to stop the terrible tooth trouble suffered by George Washington throughout his life.  We now have picture of 18th century dentistry.  In a future post, we’ll examine George’s famously troublesome teeth.

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, Inc., 2004: 191.

[2] Dragon’s blood was a red powder obtain from any of several different plants and used as a folk medicine.

[3] The plow zone is the area of soil that is churned up during plowing.  This churning destroys soil stratification or layering, which is the first method archaeologists use to date objects.  This dating is based on the principle that the deeper an artifact is found in the soil, the older the artifact is.   Plowing mixes up the artifacts and makes dating challenging.

Of Chamber Pots and Close Stool Chairs

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.

In over five years working in historic house museums, it has come up in conversations with visitors more than one might expect and far more than the 18th century Virginia gentry would have thought proper. After passing through drawing rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms, the youngest in a tour group often realizes, with very little shyness, that “There’s no bathroom! Where did they go to the bathroom?” Veteran historic house visitors will often notice a certain object on the floor near a bed and, in hopes of not being overheard by others on the tour, quietly ask if the object is what they think it is. As a museum educator, I’ve come to embrace discussing how colonial Americans did their business because those acts are fundamental to being human. Discussing them reminds us that the larger-than-life characters who lived two centuries ago were just like us.

Outhouse

A simple outhouse.

So, just how did early Americans go to the bathroom? Many visitors imagine they used an “outhouse.” It seems that few colonial Virginians, however, had outhouses or privies, as the structures where known in the 1700s. These buildings were much more common in other colonies. A privy was a small wooden structure usually built behind the house with a floor built over a good-sized hole dug into the ground. Inside the structure, a wood plank served as the seat and a round hole cut in this plank allowed the waste to fall down into the pit. Privies sometimes featured multiple holes (including smaller holes to ensure children did not fall into the pit) but, of course, little privacy.

While certainly important to their early American users, privies also yield important secrets to today’s archaeologists. Seeds ingested when colonial people ate passed from the people into their privies and actually survive to be excavated hundreds of years later. These seeds tell archaeologists what kind of fruits and vegetables people were eating. Even eggs from parasites that lived inside colonial people were deposited into the privy pit when they went to the bathroom. These eggs also survive and reveal what kind of illnesses people suffered from 200 years ago. A lot of people had stomach worms!

When someone living in the 1700s woke to the call of nature in the middle of the night, that person didn’t necessarily want to go outdoors and use a privy. Who wants to walk outside when it’s raining, snowing, cold, and dark, after all? Instead, you simply used a chamber pot resting next to your bed. Chamber pots came in a variety of shapes and sizes and could be made from ceramic or metal.

Chamber pot tucked under the bed in The Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Chamber Pot

A porcelain child-sized chamber pot.

It actually was quite common for the chamber pot to even be part of a special chair called a close stool, which looked like an ordinary chair but, in fact, its hinged seat lifted up to reveal a chamber pot.  The collection at Kenmore contains a chair originally made in the 1700s and then modified in the early to mid-1800s into a close stool chair.

The chamber pot and the close stool chair were probably enough for most colonial Americans, a good majority of whom never bothered to build a privy. No privy dating from George Washington’s time has been found at Ferry Farm, which means he and his family probably used only chamber pots and/or close stool chairs. In fact, archaeologists found fragments of a stoneware chamber pot in the Washington house cellar during excavations in 2008 and 2009. It features hand-painted cobalt blue floral design and dates from the mid-18th century. In the photos below, the pot is upside down and resting on its rim.

At Kenmore, Fielding Lewis’ probate inventory lists a “close stool chair and pan” among the house’s upstairs furniture. When George or Fielding used the pot or the chair, either they themselves or, more likely, their enslaved house servants tossed the waste outside. People emptied their pots in a variety of convenient places: into a pit for just that purpose, into the nearest body of water, onto their vegetable garden as a fertilizer known as “night soil,” or just out the nearest window. What could be more convenient!

On plantations and farms, waste flying out of windows wasn’t necessarily an immediate danger to other humans. People living in crowded cities and towns throughout the colonies and Europe still emptied their pots in much the same way as their rural counterparts. They just tossed the waste into the street. Some localities did have rules about disposal. In Edinburgh, for example, residents could only empty their chamber pots “after 10:00 p.m., upon the sound of a drum, and only once they had shouted a warning of ‘Gardy-loo!’ (‘Mind the water!’) to passerby.”[1] The southern French city of Marseilles required residents to give three warnings before emptying. In nearby Avignon, however, people walking in the street at night had to make their presence known by shouting.  New York City passed an ordinance in 1724 making it illegal to dump waste into the street. Residents had to walk to one of the rivers to dispose of their waste.

Privies, chamber pots, close stool chairs, night soil, rampant stomach worms, and waste lying in the street. Relative to today, the 18th century was not a terribly clean or healthy time. While not a pleasant topic, the ‘gross’ bathroom tools and customs of two centuries ago can teach us much about the everyday lives of early Americans and, ultimately, their most important lesson may simply be that our ancestors were human too.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, pg. 28.