Recently my husband commented that the shampoos and such in our bathrooms smelled like fruit and are nice. That brought forth images of rose petals on the floors of our ancestors to sweeten the smell of homes of yore. Hum. What else did my ancestors endure due to lack of hygiene products and unawareness of germs?
Deodorant: Egyptians used scented waters of cinnamon and such to allay odors. Americans evidently just smelled, a lot. I guess those with adequate monies likely drowned themselves in perfumes, but those folks on the prairie, for example, likely did not. The first mass produced deodorant was MUM in 1888, a zinc oxide compound product. I actually remember using this product in the 1950s. I used it for my underarms, but have heard that some used Mum to battle dreaded foot odor too.
Toilet Paper: Toilet paper was, as we know it, not invented until around 1880. Before that it was rustic. Old rags, leaves and moss, the left hand (the “unclean” hand to some), stones, grass, corncobs and such were used to wipe, along with paper, including the Sears Roebuck catalog. One website jokes about the catalog being called by some as the Rears and Sorebutt catalog. The Farmers Almanac had a hole punched in it for outhouse hanging to more easily tear off wiping pages. A Mr. Gayetty decided to sell flat paper sheets that contained aloe in 1857 and he had his name printed on every sheet, but when the rolled type paper came along in 1880, no name was printed, not even Scott. This paper contained the occasional splinter and advertising by Northern Tissue in 1935 said their paper was splinter-free. Americans were getting cleaner and sweeter smelling by the year.
Lice: In other articles I have written about chemistry, I mentioned that we used to play with Mercury, an element that rolled into silvery balls easily. It was used in some dental work too. According to Revolting Facts about the 18th Century, Europeans used mercury to cure head lice. Hope they did not die from lice treatment!
Bed Bugs and Straw Mattresses: Normal. Lived with it.
Cold Winter and Long Johns: Boxer John L. Sullivan is often credited with wearing “long johns” in the late part of the 1880s. He fought bare knuckled and his long handles warmed him while boxing in cold air. Pioneers and many others sewed on their long johns (with necessary flap a/k/a trapdoor) for the winter. Rank! Really rank odors, for sure. My first awareness of this was from a tour guide at Vance’s Birthday in the mountains of North Carolina. A wonderful place to visit, often.
By the way, women wore layers upon layers. They were covered neck to toes and usually with a hat. Gradually the layers lessened, but head to toe clothing remained in fashion. My husband’s grandfather used to share his experiences as a boy looking at women’s ankles when they lifted skirts to go up a step.
Women and Shaving: Not! Why bother with all those layers!
Bathing: Many believed bathing caused illness by letting diseases invade the body. Some bathed with clothes on. Multi-tasking!
Odors indoors and outdoors: Chamber pots used inside could be quite smelly at times and would not necessarily be emptied immediately. Some people just emptied them out the window rather than in the outhouse. Outside the farm animals and horses kept things smelly. Men walked next to the curb, to keep their fair women free of unwanted splatters of who-know-what. Of course, if your nose is accustomed to such smells, they would not be as abhorrent as this may sound. We lived next to a dairy farm and only when they spread the manure over the fields would we go, “Phew!”
Dental Hygiene: This sounds like another article. But twigs, toothpicks, wiping teeth and gums with a cloth are no doubt on the list. Wonder if baking soda is? When we were kids, Mom would have us brush our teeth with baking soda when we were short on toothpaste. Photography showed the rare tooth in the 1800s. Was it due to poor teeth, or was it due to slow, very slow, flash powder?
There is room for comments at the bottom of this webpage. I would love to hear your comments and your knowledge of 19th Century ancestral hygiene.