The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers

Larry Holzwarth - November 15, 2020

In the late 18th century personal hygiene differed considerably from what is acceptable today. It also differed considerably based on an individual’s place in society, and the mores of the local community. Simply put, some bathed with regularity while others looked askance at the practice. Medical opinion regarding cleanliness and its links to health varied. For some, washing the hands and face several times a day was considered sufficient. Others insisted on a daily bath, or at the very least a sponging of the body using a wash basin and soap. Toothbrushes existed in the colonial period, though they were scarce. Most people cleaned their teeth with rags. Chewing cloves or mint sufficed for freshening breath.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Washington, meticulous about his appearance, believed in daily bathing. Wikimedia

Underclothes, shirts, and stockings could be washed, but the fabrics favored for coats and pants did not stand up well to handwashing. Outer clothes received brushing as their main form of cleaning. Of course, there were no antiperspirants, people fought body odor using perfumes and pomades. In the muggy heat of the American summer they likely proved ineffective. America’s Founding Fathers, locked in a sealed room during the summer in Philadelphia no doubt were an odoriferous bunch. They did, however, practice varying degrees of personal hygiene, based on their class, their wealth, and their personal moral beliefs. Here are some examples of the hygiene habits of the Founding Fathers.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Washington and many of his wealthier colleagues were devotees of expensive colognes and perfumes. Wikimedia

1. George Washington believed in daily bathing for both hygiene and health

In his youth at Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock, George Washington “bathed” nearly every day during the warmer months. His bath consisted of a dip in the river, a practice he continued at Mount Vernon. By the time of his long military service, Washington had developed the habit of daily bathing upon rising in the morning, using a wash basin, sponges, and rags to clean his body before dressing. A body servant assisted him in the process, to save him from becoming overheated from exertion. Being a wealthy gentleman, Washington had access to soaps less harsh than those available to the general public, as well as perfumes and eaux de cologne, both of which he purchased liberally.

Washington also believed in and practiced washing of the hands and face several times over the course of the day, including both before and after eating. Fastidious in dress and appearance, he detested powdering his hair, and did so only when social circumstances demanded. Because of his well-known false teeth, it is often assumed his dental hygiene did not meet even the standards of his day. Washington had an inveterate sweet tooth, and a particular fondness for maple sugar and syrups. It is likely his excessive consumption of sweets led to the loss of his teeth, though he cared or them and their eventual replacements (they were not of wood) as diligently as he washed and dressed.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Franklin advocated and practiced air bathing, often to the discomfort of guests. Wikimedia

2. Benjamin Franklin bathed in both water and air

A printer by trade, Franklin spent long hours in his youth scrubbing from ink his hands and under his nails. Franklin bathed through swimming naked in nearby streams, including London’s Thames River during his lengthy stay in that city. One of the first Americans to own and use a bathtub which offered full immersion, Franklin spoke of the virtues of soap and water, vigorously applied. Like Washington, he despised powdering his hair, and refused to do so even when presented to the King of France in 1777. It was an omission which enhanced his image as a common man of the people.

Medical professionals of the late 18th century considered exposure to the night air unhealthy, and in some cases even dangerous. As he did in so many areas, Franklin disagreed with the professed experts. He slept with open windows whenever possible, a habit which led to an argument with John Adams on one of their trips together. He also practiced a somewhat curious habit of what he called “air-bathing”. His air-baths consisted of him sitting before an open window, completely naked, for periods of up to an hour. He found the air-baths during the winter months to be particularly invigorating. He also had no qualms over receiving visitors during his air-bath, often to their consternation.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Jefferson had an aversion to warm water, believing it caused skin disorders. Wikimedia

3. Thomas Jefferson opposed cleansing himself with warm water

The use of warm water for washing parts of the body Jefferson found unpleasant, and even dangerous. Jefferson extended his belief to include the warm mineral spas favored by the gentry of Virginia. He believed that immersion in them, or in any warm water, led to boils. Jefferson washed daily, using cold water, though only parts of the body, rather than his entire person. He also subscribed to the theory that soap removed the natural oils of the skin, essential to the maintenance of good health. Jefferson was not alone in his belief, numerous medical professionals concurred, believing excessive bathing (as in daily) harmful to health.

Jefferson enjoyed fairly robust health for most of his long life, though he frequently suffered through debilitating headaches. He seldom dealt with colds, a fact which he attributed to his daily hygiene routine. Upon arising and washing his hands and face, Jefferson bathed his feet in cold war daily. In a letter to a friend, he claimed to have washed his feet every day as part of his morning routine for more than sixty years. He preferred the spring water available at his Monticello home, though on his many travels made do with whatever his hosts could make available.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
One wonders if there was a hidden message in Washington sending Lafayette an entire crate of cologne. Wikimedia

4. Many of the Founding Fathers used cologne to mask body odor

In 1752, Dr. William Hunter, a lecturer on anatomy and surgery, opened an apothecary shop he called Dr. Hunter’s Dispensary. Situated in Newport, Rhode Island, already considered a resort for the more upscale among the colonists, it was an immediate success. Dr. Hunter imported mineral oils and scents from Europe, and eventually developed his own line of perfumes and colognes for both men and women. He identified them by number, Hunter’s Number 1, Hunter’s Number 2, and so on. Among the gentry, which included several of the Founding Fathers, he found a grateful clientele. His perfumes masked the body odors which plagued everybody of the time.

George Washington preferred Hunter’s Number 6, and became so fond of it he gave it to others as gifts. The amount of cologne worn can be inferred from his gift of Hunter’s Number 6 to the Marquis de LaFayette. The Marquis, a wealthy Frenchman with virtually unlimited access to colognes, received a crate of the stuff from his former commanding officer. The cologne became popular throughout the colonies and early United States through Washington’s tacit endorsement. Dr. Hunter’s Dispensary remains in business in the 21st century, as Caswell-Massey, based in Edison, New Jersey.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Samuel Adams’ indifference to appearance and personal hygiene drew the attention of his colleagues. Wikimedia

5. A clean appearance substituted for personal hygiene

For several of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson among them, an impeccably dressed appearance made up for a lack of personal cleanliness. Clean shirts, neckcloths, and stockings, worn under brushed and stain-free suits, went a long way to creating a favorable reception. Jefferson stressed the appearance of clothing in a letter to his daughter Martha, written in 1783. He made little reference to personal hygiene, no mention of bathing, and did not recommend to her she emulate his example of bathing his feet. Instead, he stressed she maintain an outward appearance without so much as a “pin amiss, or any other circumstances of neatness wanting”.

The Founders reliance on the appearance of clothing appeared when Samuel Adams was dispatched to the First Continental Congress. The often slovenly Adams paid little attention to either hygiene or appearance, and his supporters in Boston purchased new clothes for him to wear in Philadelphia. His unkempt appearance left unfavorable impressions on his more pristine colleagues. Samuel Adams cared little for his appearance, and even less about matters of personal hygiene. As such, he was more in line with the common artisans and mechanics of his native Boston than with his esteemed colleagues among the planters and lawyers of Congress. His once considerable influence in Congress waned following Independence, though he remained active in politics for many years.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Alexander Hamilton, considered a dandy by many, believed clean clothes protected his health. Wikimedia

6. Alexander Hamilton believed in the power of a clean shirt

Alexander Hamilton counted among the cleanest of the Founding Fathers. A perfectionist and what would one day be referred to as a workaholic, Hamilton practiced meticulous personal hygiene, at least in comparison to the standards of his time. He rose early, washed thoroughly, and used toothpowder to clean his teeth several times per day. After his morning ablutions were complete, he donned clean underclothes and “linens”, a term which referred to shirt, neckcloth, and the handkerchief carried in his cuff. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hamilton wore fresh linens every day, having them laundered after one use.

Hamilton believed clean clothes served as a barrier to disease, while soiled clothes attracted potential illnesses. At a time when even the most enlightened physicians considered diseases to be airborne, Hamilton believed clothes exposed to the air each day were a means of disease transmission. Hamilton developed the reputation of being meticulous in his appearance, as well of being somewhat of a lady’s man during his service with the government. During the hot, muggy, summer days in Philadelphia, Hamilton frequently changed his linen several times in the course of a day, whenever it came to feel less than fresh to its wearer.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
John Adams started the day with a splash of water and a glass of hard cider. Wikimedia

7. John Adams believed in washing upon arising in the morning

When John Adams tumbled out of bed, his first action of the day was to approach the wash basin in his room. Cold water, splashed on his face and neck while still in his nightshirt, started his day. Adams came to the belief that the colder the water, the more beneficial it was to his overall health. On frosty Massachusetts winter mornings, Adams frequently started his day by breaking the sheet of ice which had formed over the water overnight. He wrote the icy water invigorated his system, improving the circulation, which led to an overall warming of his so recently recumbent body. Though perhaps the spreading warmth came from the glass of hard cider he drank each morning, bracing for the day.

That seems to have been the extent of his daily hygiene. New Englanders typically frowned at leisurely bathing, as befitted their luxury hating Puritan forebears. Baths usually took place once a month or so among the working class, and perhaps as often as once a week among the elite. While in France, Adams wrote disapprovingly of the habit of long soaking baths among the French, and sniffed at Franklin’s enjoying the practice. Adams did pay attention to the appearance of his clothes, stung by his political enemies referring to him sneeringly as “His Rotundity”. His personal hygiene, in the standards of his time, was more or less of little note, much like his Presidency.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Privies behind Independence Hall received the bodily wastes of the Continental Congresses convened there. National Park Service

8. Hygiene after use of the privy was less than pleasant

What the Founding Fathers used to clean themselves after using the privy – their term for outhouses – depended in large part on where they lived. Farmers and those who dwelled in small towns frequently resorted to corn cobs. Their effectiveness can only be imagined. In larger cities people resorted to newspapers, the leaves of books, or more frequently, old rags, which were then tossed into the privy pit. Some contained a rag or sponge on a stick, stored in a basin of water in which each the user rinsed it. Most privies were located outside, in blocks, for use of anyone, while larger homes had their own located in their backyard gardens.

There were indoor facilities in some buildings, small closets which contained a seat installed over a chamber pot. Emptying the pot required the servant allotted the task to carry it to one of the privies outside, though frequently they were simply dumped in the gutters, which also carried the waste of horses, mules, and pigs. The cities in Revolutionary America could be smelled from miles away, and the formerly pristine rivers carried wastes, many of them of the toxic variety, far downstream. Technology for more advanced sanitation and hygiene simply did not exist at the time of the Founding Fathers, who made do with what was available to them. Early in the first administration of George Washington the problem of sanitation in cities rose to the fore among civic leaders across the United States.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Like many of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin refused to wear a wig or powder his hair. Library of Congress

9. Powdered wigs were not weapons against lice and fleas

It is often reported that the fashion of men wearing wigs came about as a means of preventing the spread of fleas, lice, and other pestilence. The first to wear a powdered wig, and create the fashion icon which it became, was Louis XIII of France. Louis adopted it to cover his bald head. It quickly became fashionable for both men and women as a symbol of status. Among the Founding Fathers, wigs were less popular than commonly believed. Washington refused to wear them, and only powdered his own hair (which was red) when the dictates of ceremonial fashion required it (white hair was viewed as a symbol of wisdom and dignity). Jefferson, another redhead, wore wigs reluctantly, preferring to simply powder his own hair. In France, he changed his view and frequently sported flamboyant wigs.

Wigs did sometimes pick up undesirable guests within their tresses, requiring them to be sent to a wigmaker or hairdresser for removal. The image of the Founding Fathers sitting around wearing wigs replete with pestilence is a false one. By the end of Washington’s first term as President, short hair for men gained approval of those who dictated fashion, and wigs became symbolic only. Within a few more years they were worn chiefly by doormen and other domestic servants, particularly in the wealthier homes of the American South. James Monroe was the last American President to wear a powdered wig at his inauguration. By the way, the adoption of ostentatious wigs by the elite led to the term “bigwig” entering the English language.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Thomas Paine’s hygiene drew derogatory remarks from friends and foes alike. Wikimedia

10. Thomas Paine was noted by contemporaries for his disdain for personal hygiene

Thomas Paine brought with him a history of failure when he came to America from England in 1774. As a tax collector he was fired, rehired, and fired again for dereliction of duty. He failed as a maker of corsets, and left two former wives behind him when he obtained a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin usually exaggerated the abilities of the men he recommended for employment. In Paine’s case, Old Ben merely stated his value as a, “clerk, or assistant tutor in a school”. Paine’s greatest service to the Revolutionary cause came from his pen, though he also served in the Continental Army in the ranks. His 1776 pamphlet The American Crisis opened with the memorable phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls”.

Years later a friend visited Paine’s apartment in Paris after the writer departed for the United States in 1802. He later wrote, “I never sat down in such a filthy apartment in the whole course of my life”. He went on to describe it as “There was not a speck of cleanliness to be seen”. In an earlier description of Paine’s personal habits, the same writer mentioned the “brimstone odor” emitted by the writer. Another described Paine as “loathsome in appearance”, always in need of a bath and clean clothes, which he seldom obtained. One by one, the revolutionaries he supported, including Jefferson and Monroe, abandoned him, with multiple references to the revulsion in which he was held. Paine died in New York in 1809. Only six mourners attended his funeral.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
William Lee, Washington’s manservant, is believed to be the man wearing the red turban in this Trumbull portrait. Wikimedia

11. Shaving was seldom an everyday event

As portrayed in art, the Founding Fathers were clean-shaven at all times. This is simply because when sitting for portraits, they appeared in their best clothes, most of them bewigged, and having been closely shaved. Few men shaved themselves. The wealthy owned their own razors and other shaving equipment, such as soap and brushes to apply it, but their manservants attended to the shaving. Razors and soap were both expensive, the best imported from Europe. The less well-to-do among the Founders relied on barbers, who performed their work in their shops as well as calling on their clients in their homes and lodgings.

Washington, also meticulous about his personal appearance when in public, shaved daily, usually in the hands of his manservant, William Lee. Washington referred to him as Billy. One of his shaving sets is on display at his Mount Vernon home. John Adams also preferred to be clean-shaven, his less attentive to hygiene cousin Samuel did not. For the most part, men shaved later in the day if at all, rather than as part of their morning routine. Franklin advocated daily shaving, as well as the need to acquire and maintain a good razor, despite their prohibitive cost. Others disagreed. The use of hot water when preparing to shave was considered dangerous to the overall health, and cold water shaving was common among men of the late 18th century.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
A Currier & Ives engraving of Patrick Henry speaking before the well-dressed Virginia House of Burgesses. Wikimedia

12. The Founding Fathers were not typically covered with vermin

A longstanding myth of Early America is that vermin such as lice, ticks, and others permeated the homes and bodies of all but the wealthiest. Lice, fleas, and other pests are said to have been present in their clothes, their beds, and their wigs. The image is false concerning most of the Founding Fathers. Nearly all of them were men of considerable influence and gentility. Most traveled to their meetings in Philadelphia in private carriages, and while there stayed in the more upscale rooming houses, or as guests in private homes. Upon arrival, several did require their wardrobes be fumigated to remove vermin, picked up along the journey to America’s largest city.

Travel in 18th century America was slow, and required several successive night’s stays in taverns, inns, and roadhouses. Often mattresses were shared by boarders; John Adams and Benjamin Franklin shared a bed during one journey which led to a memorable debate between them. On these stays, travelers often encountered lice, bedbugs, and other vermin due to the less than savory practices of the innkeeper. Many of the latter advertised the cleanliness of their facility, some with less truthfulness than others. Upon arrival at a planned destination for an extended stay, it was common to fumigate items to ensure no undesirable companions were acquired during the trip. An alternative was to ship wardrobes separately, so fewer clothes came into contact with vermin during the journey.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Hancock’s wealth can be inferred from his clothing in this 1770 portrait by John Singleton Copley. Wikimedia

13. John Hancock was as meticulous in appearance as Washington

John Hancock, commanded one of the largest fortunes in America in 1775, and actively lobbied for command of the Continental Army, though he lacked military experience. Atypically for New Englanders, he believed in daily bathing, replenished his cologne throughout the day, and frequently refreshed his linen. Both a legal merchant and a smuggler, particularly of rum and wines, he spent long periods of each day attending to his toilet. As such he was considered somewhat of a dandy by several of his colleagues, and his influence within Congress waned, despite serving as President of the Second Continental Congress.

Hancock stands as an example of wealth allowing for better hygienic practices. Bathing by immersion in water presented difficulties for those who could not employ servants or exploit slaves. Water had to be carried in buckets to a tub large enough to accommodate the bather. In many cases it required heating, for those willing to defy the perceived dangers of warm water. It required the effort of several servants to allow the master to bathe. Only men of considerable wealth could enjoy daily bathing, and then usually only in the warmer months. Hancock’s luxurious habit of daily bathing would not have been possible if not for his wealth. He carried one of the largest retinues of servants with him to Philadelphia, housing then at considerable expense. Among them were a barber, a cook, a tailor, and a personal laundress.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
In 1775 Washington ordered better hygienic practices among his troops, though many ignored him. Wikimedia

14. Washington wrote regulations dictating the hygienic practices of his army

As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington imposed several regulations to control hygiene among his troops. He commanded the soldiers in the ranks to change to a clean shirt at least once per week. Men were to appear at daily musters with clean hands and faces, their officers ordered to inspect them for compliance. The rambunctious troops Washington inherited in New England resented many of the orders, and chose to ignore them. Washington personally toured the camps around Boston, demanding cleanliness among the troops and in their shelters. Violators found the Commandijng General meant for his orders to be obeyed, with harsh punishments meted out.

Military encampments throughout the war needed a source of water, usually a running stream, nearby. During the warm months men often refreshed themselves by swimming, but the use of soap and water to wash their bodies remained unpopular. There was little soap available other than homemade lye, harsh and unpleasant. Many of Washington’s junior officers subscribed to the medically accepted theory that soap stripped the body of essential oils, which protected it from disease entering through the skin. The men also considered laundering garments as unmasculine, a task performed by women. Those who could not afford the services of a camp follower simply ignored the requirement to wear clean clothes.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Though in many ways Dr. Rush was ahead of his time, he agreed with Jefferson on the dangers of hot water. Wikimedia

15. Dr. Benjamin Rush found Washington’s regulations incomplete

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a report at the behest of Congress entitled, “Directions for preserving the health of soldiers: Addressed to the officers of the Army of the United States”. The report makes clear the doctor’s own view of personal hygiene. Rush wrote, “Too much cannot be said in favor of Cleanliness”. He recommended bathing of the entire body several times per week, the hands before and following eating, and frequent changing of linen. He also recommended blankets be hung in the sunshine whenever possible, rather than kept in rolls in tents, and straw mattresses replaced with frequency.

Rush recommended daily combing of hair. According to Rush, uncombed hair accumulated a buildup of dried perspiration, which in turn, “by becoming putrid sometimes produces diseases.” Rush advocated shorter hair for soldiers, rather than the long hair tied into queues in the fashion of the day. Interestingly, by the end of the 18th century shorter hair became fashionable for men in America, and the queue rapidly faded from American life. Rush undoubtedly practiced the hygiene habits he recommended for soldiers, as well as for his patients. Yet he also viewed bathing in heated water dangerous, supporting the use of cold baths as healthful.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Laundries did their best, but clothes seldom became truly clean. Wikimedia

16. Newly laundered clothes were not exactly April Fresh

Laundries and housewives did the bulk of the washing of clothes, with the servants of the wealthy performing the task in their homes. Besides the harsh soaps available, laundresses employed several other weapons in their war against stains and dirt. Stains were scrubbed with pumice, sand, and other abrasives, and further treated by additional elements in the hot wash water. There the clothes were agitated with a long-handled paddle. Among the additives were onion juice, lemon juice, and even urine, which acted as a bleach. Items which required starch, such as neckcloths and cravats, soaked in water previously used to boil potatoes. In the South water used to cook rice substituted.

Clothes were hung, outside when possible, to dry. During the cold months they hung in attics, near the chimney for heat. When Abigail Adams moved into the White House, she used the then uncompleted and unfurnished East Room to hang her laundry. While drying the clothes picked up the various smells of their immediate surroundings, including wood smoke, cooking aromas, and if outdoors the smells of the gutters and all they contained. By the time they were ready to be donned by their owner they carried all of the various odors of the cleaning/drying process. Wardrobes and clothes chests of the wealthy frequently held cachets of herbs, spices, and scented oils to combat the smell of “fresh” laundry.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
A set of Washington’s false teeth, possibly made of ivory and silver. Mount Vernon

17. Dental health included mouthwashes and toothpastes

Although there were toothbrushes of various designs (Washington used one on his dentures), the main method of cleaning the teeth included toothpicks and soft cloths. The Founding Fathers who could afford them purchased tooth powders, which mixed with water to form a paste which they applied to their teeth. Several rinsed their mouths throughout the day, using nostrums including salt water, warm water imbued with the scent of bay leaves, mint leaves, cloves and other spices, and even garlic. Salt applied with a dampened cloth scoured stains and removed tartar, grinding down the enamel at the same time. Nearly all of the Founding Fathers had personal experience with toothaches during their lifetimes.

Society considered strong, white teeth a sign of overall health and strength. Scouring with abrasives did more harm than good, and enamel weakened by cleaning fell prey to caries. Those who could no longer stand the pain of toothaches had little recourse other than extraction. Barbers, doctors, and even blacksmiths performed the extractions in the absence of dentists. The Founding Fathers, for the most part, attempted to practice dental hygiene, though their attempts often caused long-term harm. Washington suffered his first extraction at the young age of 24. By time he became President he had only one real tooth remaining, despite his records indicating large expenses to care for his dental health.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
The smoking of tobacco amonh Americans of the late 18th century was ubiquitous. Wikimedia

18. The Founding Fathers nearly all used tobacco

Tobacco formed the first cash crop of the British colonies, joining furs and salted fish to provide much of the return to investors in Britain. By the time of the American Revolution nearly all of the Southern Founding Fathers owed their wealth to tobacco. Yet not all of them smoked tobacco. Nonetheless, tobacco smoking was widespread among the Founders, usually through long clay pipes, which cooled the smoke as it traveled from the bowl to the mouth. George Washington likely did not use tobacco himself, though he tolerated smoking in his homes. By the time of the Revolution it wheat had replaced tobacco as his major cash crop.

John Adams and James Madison, as well as the latter’s wife Dolley, smoked tobacco in both pipes and cigars. In the early 19th century, chewing tobacco came into vogue, and both the new Senate Chamber and that of the House of Representatives were equipped with spittoons and ash receptacles. Foreign diplomats and dignitaries expressed dismay at what many called the unhygienic and unhealthy practice of tobacco use. Jefferson appears to have abstained from tobacco. Franklin quit smoking in mid-life. Nonetheless, even the abstainers were subjected to large amounts of secondhand smoke in the taverns, barrooms, homes, and offices of the day, including during the debates of the Congress and the Constitutional Convention.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
A recreation of the revolving clothes rack invented by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

19. The Founding Fathers practiced hygiene in their homes and offices

The men who gathered in Philadelphia to form the Continental Congress, the Congress of the Confederation, and the Constitutional Convention nearly all shared the same tendency. They preferred order and cleanliness in their workspaces and residences. There were a few exceptions, notable because they drew comment from their contemporaries. John Adams kept his papers orderly, his personal items always in their proper place, and his books shelved when not in use. He demanded and received cleanliness at all times, refusing to allow his working area to become dusty or disordered.

John’s cousin and fellow Bostonian Samuel Adams presented an opposite image. His disheveled appearance, with wig askew and ink stained fingers, drew comments from the more meticulous members of the Congress. His rooms often reflected the same disorder, clothes strewn about haphazardly, papers and books among them. Jefferson traveled to Philadelphia (and later France) bearing with him a revolving clothes rack of his own invention. The rack allowed him to view several shirts and waistcoats for his selection each morning as he dressed. Jefferson sought order and cleanliness in all things, reflected in his personal appearance and that of his rooms.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
Handy advice could be had from several editions of The Complete Vermin Killer during the time of the Founding Fathers. Archives.org

20. Books appeared discussing hygiene during the late 18th century

Americans of the Revolutionary Era had available to them several books discussing the need to prevent the spread of vermin. One, aptly titled The Complete Vermin Killer, received periodic updates, with the new editions presenting improved methods of extermination and infestation prevention. Bedbugs presented a problem, and in the down filled mattresses favored by the well-to-do nearly impossible to eradicate. The Complete Vermin Killer recommended the use of straw mattresses, easily and cheaply discarded should they become infested. For those who insisted on the more expensive and luxurious down mattresses, it offered methods of extermination and prevention.

Gunpowder, spread over the bedstead and ignited, with the smoke retained through sealing the room, killed bedbugs and other vermin, according to the unknown writer. A solution of boiled vinegar and glue offered a less incendiary preventative. For head lice, a concoction of butter and pepper, boiled together and allowed to cool before applying and retaining overnight, covered with a nightcap, offered a cure. Boiled mustard seed liberally sprinkled around the rooms of a house deterred fleas from settling in, “deemed an infallible remedy, in ancient times”. Crushed pepper, pounded into the clothes, was said to be a deterrent to moths, saving the clothes from damage. Undoubtedly it added yet another aroma to the prevailing scent of the wearer.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
All of the men in Trumbull’s painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence are superbly dressed and coiffed. Wikimedia

21. The Founding Fathers were exceptional for their hygiene, rather than exemplary of the norm

The personal hygiene practiced by the Founding Fathers reflected their status in society and class. They were, with very few exceptions, men of wealth, education, and immersion in culture. Most of them could read Latin, many of them Greek, and some even Hebrew. They read the ancient classics in their original tongue. This was hardly the case with the common people whom they professed to represent, and whom they largely mistrusted. The average citizen of Philadelphia they encountered on their walks about the city did not possess either their education or their wealth. Nor did they share the Founders’ attention to personal hygiene.

They had no servants to bathe and shave their masters, nor launder their clothes, nor fumigate their beds and furniture. In the outlying towns and villages, few citizens had the financial wherewithal required to obtain fine soaps and the scented lotions of Europe. Even the more common remedies recommended for hygiene related issues were outside the reach of the general public. Baths were limited to the warm months, often just once per week, with all members of the household sharing the same bathwater, one after the other. The lofty ideas of cleanliness expressed and practiced by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and the other Founders simply remained unattainable to the people they represented.

The Unique Hygiene Habits of Our Founding Fathers
John Adams and Benjamin Franklin debated many weighty issues, including the hazards of night air. Wikimedia

22. Some considered the night air injurious to health

Several of the Founders, including Dr. Rush and other medical professionals of the day, considered the night air to be particularly dangerous while sleeping. The practice of sleeping in closely shut rooms, with windows closed, was widely accepted as requisite for health. Bed curtains existed for the same purpose, protecting the inhabitant from the dangers of night air. Doctors believed the air carried diseases which entered the body in repose through inhalation. Benjamin Franklin, the proponent of air baths, disagreed. His view led to a memorable confrontation with John Adams during a journey they undertook together in 1776. They were forced by circumstances one night to share both a room and its bed.

Adams wanted the window closed, in accordance with accepted medical practice. Franklin wanted it open. Franklin explained that it was his personal belief that people developed colds not from exposure to the night air, but from air in closed rooms contaminated by other people. Adams conceded, but later wrote Franklin, “began a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration”. Franklin’s talking put Adams to sleep. In the morning the two Founding Fathers, polar opposites in nearly all things, continued their journey, with neither the worse for wear from their exposure to the perils of night air. When Adams later traveled to France, he asked the captain of the ship in which he sailed to ensure the air vents to his sleeping quarters were opened whenever possible.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“His Excellency’s Daily Schedule”. Article, Moland House Historic Park. Online

“Ben Franklin Slept Here”. Simon Worrall, Smithsonian Magazine. March, 2006

“A Day in the Life of Thomas Jefferson”. Article, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“George Washington Shopped Here: A History of Caswell-Massey”. Bloomberg. September 11, 2000. Online

“Papers of Thomas Jefferson”. Julian P. Boyd, ed. 1950

“Alexander Hamilton”. Ron Chernow. 2005

“John Adams”. David McCullough. 2001

“Inside the Hunt for Artifacts Buried Under Philly’s Oldest Properties”. Louis Greenstein, Philadelphia Magazine. February 13, 2019

“Colonial Fashion Trends: What the Founding Fathers Wore”. Article, Constitution Facts. Online

“Rediscovering Thomas Paine”. Richard Bernstein, New York Law School. 1994. Online

“Travelling Razor Case”. Exhibit and Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Traveling the Roads of Early America with Jefferson”. Mark Boonshoft, New York Public Library. August 12, 2015. Online

“The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock”. William M. Fowler Jr. 1980

“Disease in the Revolutionary War”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“‘Rush’: The Other Founding Father from Philadelphia Named Benjamin”. Melissa Block, NPR. September 2, 2018

“Laundries: Largest Buildings in the 18th Century Backyard”. Michael Olmert, Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Autumn, 2009

“A History of Dental Troubles”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“TOBACCO”. Susan DeFord, The Washington Post. March 14, 1997

“The Complete Vermin Killer (1777 edition)”. Online at Openlibrary.org. 1777

“Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America”. Kathleen M. Brown. 2011

“When John Adams Slept with Benjamin Franklin”. Article, New England Historical Society. 2020. Online

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