Active History: Bathing and Washing

Erin Pilarski, Education Curator


Believe it or not, early American colonists resisted bathing often. Bathing was very uncommon until the later part of the 18th century. In the past, colonists kept themselves clean by changing their white linen undergarments. The undergarments were believed to be a cleaning agent itself; absorbing the bodies dirt and sweat. The whiter and cleaner the linens under their clothes, the cleaner the person – or so they thought. This went for people of all social classes. It is said that King Louis XIV, a 17th century king of France had only taken three baths in his entire life. THREE.


Now, the Native Americans that colonists encountered had different priorities in terms of hygiene. They bathed in open rivers and streams. Their teeth were in better shape than colonists, as they used wooden chew sticks to clean them and fresh herbs like mint to freshen their breath.


Lack of hygiene was not only a smelly issue, but it posed a real danger to the Native Americans. Unwashed colonists passed along bacteria and viruses that the Native Americans had no prior exposure to, and therefore no built immunity. These diseases caused illness and even death.


Over time, cleanliness of the body improved – a little. Pioneers in the 19th century would clean themselves more often the colonists; maybe once a week or twice a month. Though they were cleaning themselves more, it was common that the family would share the same bath water instead of dumping out the dirty water and refilling with clean water after each use. They would use lye soap; a type of soap made from water, ashes, and lard. If overused, it would start to burn the skin.


Back then, people may have been unaware of how bacteria and viruses (germs) spread but now, due to public awareness and doctor recommendations, we know ways to combat these pesky, unwanted issues. One way combat them you may ask? Washing your hands.


If you would like to participate in a short experiment showing the effects of soap on germs, click on the video below! Great for ages 3 and up!

Germs stick to the oils and grease on our hands (sounds gross, but it is totally normal). Water alone will not remove much of the germs on our hands because water and oil do not like each other, so they will not mix. Soap, however; likes both water and oil.


When you wash your hands with soap, the soap molecules act as a mediator between the water and oil molecules, and bind with both of them at the same time. Then when you rinse everything off, the soap carries away the germs with the water.


For the most effective hand washing, you must use soap and you must be thorough. Work up a lather because the friction helps lift dirt and oils from your skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How long you should scrub depends on how dirty your hands are, but most health authorities recommend at least 20 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.


Thank you for visiting today! Keep on learning!

-Miss Erin