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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‘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.