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
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