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

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.

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 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