The Wild West
Living in the Wild West wasn’t easy. Men and women traveled across North America and struggled with harsh weather and rough terrain. Because traveling was difficult and it was hard to find clean water, many people walked around filthy. It wasn’t just the bathing schedules that made the Wild West a pretty nasty time to live. Here are 13 examples of hygiene habits during the Wild West.
Beds Could Be Fill of Seam Squirrels aka Lice
During the Wild West, many beds were made of straw and hay. This often led to them becoming infested with what was known then as seam squirrels, and what we know today as lice. If the bed was set up in a poorly insulated building, people also had to worry about mosquitoes being attracted to human waste in the house. A woman who visited the Wild West from 1883 to 1888, Rose Pender, recalled trying to sleep one night, but because there were so many bugs, she got very little rest. Also, people didn’t have screens on their windows back then, which meant that bugs would travel back and forth from the home to the outhouses and back again. This was a very unhygienic and unsanitary way to live.
Outhouses Were Homes To Foul Odors and Bugs
While some people in the Wild West went to the woods to relieve themselves, many had an outhouse. Outhouses were built close to the home to make going to the bathroom safe and convenient. Inside the outhouse, families dug a hole. When the hole was full, the family would cover it up and dig another. This often meant moving the outhouse from time to time.
The outhouse smelled horrible, and may people would try to mask the odor with lime or lye. Flies and black widow spiders would make the outhouse their home, and would often bite while a person was going to the bathroom. Because toilet paper wasn’t available back then, people would use leaves, cobs, or grass. It was just a messy situation.
It Was Hard To Find Clean Water
Water was essential for the people of the Wild West to survive, but it was hard to find. If a house located upstream built an outhouse, the waste would contaminate the clean water nearby. Stagnant water attracted flies and other insects, and these bugs would leave behind excrement and waste. The people would try to collect rainwater in cisterns. This would keep the water clean until dust and other contaminates got mixed in. People tried to conserve water by not washing the dishes, not washing their clothing, or washing their clothes in their dirty bathwater. Families would often bathe just once a week, and they would all share the same bathwater.
If Soap Was Made, It Was Made With Animal Fat and Plants
A man named Frank Clifford wrote about his time in the American West. He was an associate of Billy the Kid, and he described having his hair washed with soap-weed, made by a Mexican woman. She would make the shampoo from a yucca plant, and after she washed his hair, it would be soft, clean, and lustrous.
People often made their own soap out of animal fat. They also used this fat to make candles. The soap was harsh, and it was also used for candles. It caused skin irritation. Many people would avoid using soap because they believed that being too clean would open their pores to germs and other diseases. People in the American West thought that it was healthier not to bathe very often. This made for many smelly people, especially during the hot summer months.
Oral Healthcare Often Required a Tooth Extraction
In the Wild West, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss didn’t exist. If a person got a cavity or if their tooth rotted, it would be pulled. Since they didn’t have modern dentistry back then, people had to visit the barber or a blacksmith to remove the tooth out. Patients were given whiskey to take the edge off, and tools that resembled pliers were used to pull the tooth.
In an effort to keep their teeth healthy, people would visit stagecoach stop-offs and public establishments where they could use a community toothbrush. They also picked food out of their teeth with knives.
Communal Towels Were Used To Wipe Off Beer Foam
Saloons in the Wild West didn’t have stools, but they did have rails on the bottom to lean on. They also had spittoons. Along the top of the bar, there was either an additional rail or a series of hooks. These were installed to hold towels that men would use to wipe the beer foam from their mouths. When patrons would use these towels, it often spread germs and diseases.
The Wild West Was Dusty
Dust was a widespread problem in the Wild West. Dust storms and heavy winds would often pick up dust and sent large clouds into the air and into homes. Not only was the dust threatening to the settlers, but also their cattle. Sarah Atherton described her journey to the American West. She traveled with her husband, Jed, and their children. She says that there was dust everywhere, and her eyes burned terribly. Sarah Raymond Herdon traveled from Missouri to Montana Territory during the late 1860s. She described her journey, saying that the dust was so bad that it was almost keep-deep in places. She says that when the group stopped for the night, the boys’ faces were covered with dust. She added that the dust-filled their noses and their eyes, and it took plenty of water to get their faces clean.
Spitting Was So Common That It Had To Be Outlawed
There were saloons all over the Western frontier, and they all had spittoons and cuspidors in the front of the bar. Men who chewed tobacco would often spit, and it would end up on the floor. The spit often became covered with sawdust, which caused people to come down with pneumonia and tuberculosis. This became a significant issue for those who rented the floors of saloons to camp for the night. Many would sleep on the floors that were covered with germs and bacteria.
To prevent these serious diseases, many places banned spitting. For example, if you were caught spitting on the train platforms or in the train stations, it was punishable with a $500 fine, a year in prison, or both.
Cholera and Other Diseases Were Major Problems
Laundry, plumbing, and dishwashing often took place in the water that was used for drinking. This made it very common for the disease to spread through camps and settlements. During the 19th century, a group of Mormon migrants came down with Cholera, and they saw it as a punishment from God. The disease also wiped out a large number of Native Americans. While this was a widespread condition, it didn’t claim as many Native lives as smallpox did. Back then, no disease in a camp was a miracle. People were dying due to this disease, and it all had to do with poor hygiene and dirty water.
People In the Wild Wheat Used Whiskey and Castor Oil for Hair Care
People used whiskey for a number of things in the Wild West. They used it to disinfect and for pain relief. They also used it to wash their hair. People in the Wild West would combine whiskey, caster oil, and lavender. After washing their hair, the people would wash it out with rainwater or with water softened with borax. When women would wash their hair, they often combed it thoroughly, then curled their hair using heated pencils.
Women Were Often Cleaner Than Men
Cowboys, soldiers, and other men in the Wild West often went long periods of time without bathing. They were so busy during the day, and when they did take a bath, it would be in a stream or a river. This worked out fine during the hot summer months, but during the winter, it was impossible, so men rarely bathed. Women washed their faces every morning. They would often go to a spring or a stream to wash their faces and take a drink. Since they had no privacy, they didn’t take complete baths on a regular basis, but they were much cleaner than men. Women also washed their clothes more often than men. Soldiers and cowboys didn’t have much time and usually only one set of clothes, so when they washed their clothes in a stream or river, it wasn’t often.
Cultural Backgrounds Influenced Hygiene Practices
In 2005, a group of archaeologists found a pair of tweezers at a dig site in Deadwood, South Dakota. There was a large Chinese population that lived in Deadwood, and it is believed that the tweezers were used daily. The Chinese didn’t shave. Instead, they tweezed their facial hair. They also used the tweezers for smoking opium, but they believed the tweezers they found were for hygiene purposes.
Some Men Wore Their Hair Long
Some of the best-known figures from the Wild West had long hair. James Butler, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Armstrong Custer all wore their hair long. Custer would use cinnamon oil to make his hair smell nice. When cowboys visited towns, they would often treat themselves to haircuts and shaves. They would also pay for a hot bath, fresh clothes, and home-cooked food. Many would purchase scented hair tonic along the way.
During the late 19th century, long hair was out, and men started cutting their hair regularly. It is believed that men began to wear their hair shorter as a rejection of antebellum norms. When men began to cut their hair short, Native American men continued to wear theirs long.