Louis XIV, 17th-century king of France, is said to have only taken three baths in his entire life, but were colonists and other 17th-century folk really as filthy as some say?
The answer depends on how one defines clean. It is unlikely that colonists bathed on a daily or even a weekly basis. Some believed that stripping the skin of its natural oils left a person vulnerable to disease, not to mention that filling a washtub without the help of indoor plumbing was likely a laborious task. When her husband built her an outdoor shower, Elizabth Drinker, an 18th-century Philadelphia Quaker woman reportedly wrote in her diary “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over at once, for twenty-eight years past.”
It is likely that Drinker simply refreshed herself with a damp cloth each morning, as was common practice. The English Housewife, a ladies’ instructional guide from the 17th century explains that “Rosemary water (the face washed therin both morning and night) causeth a fair and clear countenance.” Another instructional manual entitled The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery includes remedies for “A Water to take away wrinkles in the Face” and a “Dentrifice to whiten the Teeth.” Both these examples show that people cared about their appearances and practiced some forms of basic hygiene even if they were not bathing often. Furthermore, baths were thought to have therapeutic qualities. The English Housewife also recommends bathing in rosemary water to treat gout and infertility. Even if colonists were not bathing for hygienic reasons, they still had opportunities to clean their bodies. While colonists were certainly not clean by 21st-century standards. they tried their best with what they had available.
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Ferryfarmandkenmore, /. “’Not Having Been Wett All Over at Once, for 28 Years Past’: Bathing in Early America.” Lives & Legacies. Historic Kenmore, March 26, 2015. https://livesandlegaciesblog.org/2015/03/25/not-having-been-wett-all-over-at-once-for-28-years-past-bathing-in-early-america/.
Little, Becky. “Why Pilgrims Arriving in America Resisted Bathing.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 21, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/american-colonists-pilgrims-puritans-bathing.
MacCausland, Beth. “Spring Cleaning: Hygiene in Colonial Times.” Graeme Park. The Friends of Graeme Park, April 8, 2017. https://www.graemepark.org/spring-cleaning-hygiene-in-colonial-times/.
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife. Edited by Micheal R. Best. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986.
“Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.” Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Winterthur Museum. Accessed April 6, 2020. http://www.winterthur.org/collections/library/library-exhibitions/personal-hygiene-in-america/.
Woolley, Hannah, Active 1670, and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection. The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery: containing. London: Printed for B. Harris and are to be sold at his shop, 1675. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/75320945/.