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
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:

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“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