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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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