Revisited Myth # 110: The insult “Your name is mud” comes from Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Lincoln’s assassin for a broken leg.

February 5, 2017
Dr.Samuel Mudd

Dr.Samuel Mudd

Does the phrase ‘your name is mud’ or ‘your name will be mud’ come from Dr. Samuel Mudd who was known for helping John Wilkes Booth? My colleagues and I have been discussing this and I thought I would ask. Del Taylor, Program Coordinator, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons

Dr. Samuel Mudd was accused of helping John Wilkes Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and of treating his broken leg as he fled Washington after killing the president. He was imprisoned and then pardoned many years later. But the phrase has nothing to do with Dr. Mudd.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, dates the first written example of the phrase at 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, not an American one. It meant what it appears to mean–that your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do such-and-such.

 

 

COMMENTS:

Brian Leehan says:
April 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
Both make sense, but the 1823 written example clinches it, in terms of origin. I don’t ever recall seeing it written – only spoken. So, I always saw it in my mind’s-eye as “Your name will be Mudd.”

Reply
janice says:
April 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm (Edit)
i have heard this or even read it in books about the death of lincoln. thank you for this info

Reply
LYMHHM says:
May 1, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
But the Dr. Mudd myth is so much more colorful. Thanks to BF Gates, AKA Nicolas Cage, we now have a new generation of misguided souls concerning real history. Thanks for the post,

Reply
Mary Miley says:
May 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
And that’s the problem with most myths–they are memorable or funny or scary or sexy and more interesting, in some cases, than the truth. Oh well . .. .

Reply
M Rob says:
April 21, 2015 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
Phrase and word meaning evolve and become more significant as events dictate. A phrase originally coined in 1823 Britain could very easily have taken on an American flavor following the infamy of Dr. Mudd.

Reply
David says:
December 16, 2015 at 9:56 pm (Edit)
Sometimes there are historical events that redefine what an expression means. So, I completely agree with M Rob.

Reply
PMV says:
October 18, 2016 at 2:09 pm (Edit)
I agree with M Rob and David.

Reply


Revisited Myth # 108: People slept sitting up in bed for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.

January 22, 2017

Stuff02_R1

(Refer to Myth #8 about short beds.)

This week, we’ll deal with the sitting up part. This myth (which, I blush to disclose, I remember spreading to museum visitors back in the ’70s), often cites bad air as the reason for the belief that sleeping sitting up was healthier than lying down. Supposedly, bad air was heavier than fresh air, so sleeping with your head elevated kept your nose that much farther above the bad air.

Robin Kipps, supervisor of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary in Williamsburg and an expert in early American medical issues, spent hours searching through volumes of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century medical books before reporting, “There isn’t any evidence that [they thought] bad air was heavier or that they slept with their heads raised due to bad air. There is evidence that people slept with their heads elevated for medical reasons. If patients had an upper respiratory condition such as asthma or were recovering from a specific type of surgery, it was suggested that they sleep with their head elevated. Note it is not sitting up sleeping, it merely says with head raised.”

Sharon Cotner, senior medical history interpreter at the Apothecary who has studied medical history for thirty years, found published medical information of the period suggested that “under normal conditions, people should sleep on their side, with knees bent and head raised. Not sitting up.”

 

PREVIOUS COMMENTS

Pam says:
March 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm (Edit)
I would love to hear more on this — it makes me wonder how one explains the “sleeping box” (not sure this is a real term, just my description) one can see at a site like Crailo State Historic Site in Renselear, NY (which recreates a 17th-C New Netherland room) The dimensions of this sleeping cubicle would not permit a reclining pose for sleep, and the height of the box suggests that, rather than curling up on its floor, the sleeper would have his/her back against the side of the box.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm (Edit)
I’m afraid I can’t oblige–I know very little about Dutch customs. I, too, have seen the compartment beds built against the wall, not in the NY museum you mention but on visits to Holland. It was my assumption that this construction was for warmth, to deep out drafts.

Reply
Daud Alzayer says:
March 17, 2013 at 11:57 am (Edit)
The bit about good air and bad air doesn’t sound right to me, but I had thought there was a practice of sleeping propped up for health.

In fact, I even had a particular quote in mind, but going back and reading it realize that I was misunderstanding it. A newspaper described a man found dead in bed and said that, “It was supposed by the easy position which he lay he had no fit but an entire stagnation of the fluids.” Maybe the key here is that he was laying peacefully and therefore had no fit, vs my previous reading which was that his easy position caused the stagnation.

Reply
Bob Giles says:
March 28, 2013 at 10:43 am (Edit)
We visited Thomas Jefferson’s Home in Charlottesville, VA and they discussed this issue. Can’t remember the details, but
Maybe they can add to your presentation.

Reply
Mike Shoop says:
March 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm (Edit)
Stonewall Jackson, who was very health conscious, believed that sitting up in bed to sleep aligned his organs properly and created better overall health. I remember relaying that story as a docent at his Lexington home in the late 70’s, and am fairly certain they still tell it. The researchers there had found evidence that he believed this practice to be beneficial, just as he believed an ice cold bath each morning was also a good health practice.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
March 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm (Edit)
Many people believed the cold bath theory, including George Wythe of Williamsburg. Hot water was widely believed dangerous to your health. The debate usually was between tepid water, cool water, and cold. Brrrr!! And I’ve heard that Jackson also rode his horse with one arm raised above his head for health reasons. Not sure if it’s a myth or not. I’ll touch base with the historian at the Stonewall Jackson House and see what he/she has to say.

Reply
Meg H says:
June 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm (Edit)
I recently watched an episode of “History of the Home” with Lucy Worsley on BBC, and in it, the host sleeps in a rope bed one night. By the morning, the ropes have stretched and she looks as though she is sitting up. She goes so far as to tell the viewer that she is not able to lie flat because both her mattress and the ropes are sagging. Obviously, not everyone slept on beds with rope construction and feather-filled mattresses, but she goes on to explain that the actual mattress material shifts away from the body in the night. This probably would have been the case had the bed support been slats or even a solid piece of wood beneath the mattress. Here is a link to the episode (the segment I’ve cited starts at 13:53): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DIjQTavW6Y

 


Revisited Myth # 103: Civil War soldiers underwent surgery with no anesthesia.

October 1, 2016

 

civilwarhospital

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD, tries to debunk the widespread medical myth that anesthesia did not exist during the Civil War.

Gaseous ether and chloroform were both widely available and their therapeutic impact was well known in both Union and Confederate medical services. (Both had been used since the 1840s.) Major surgery was carried out using these anesthetics if they were available. It is estimated that greater than 90% of all major surgery was carried out with anesthetics. See http://www.civilwarmed.org/articles/myth_busters/

But neither ether nor chloroform was available before the 1840s, so Revolutionary War-era medical practices did not include the use of anesthetics.

Other medical misconceptions from the pre-anesthesia era abound. Ben Swenson, a historian and re-enactor who worked at Yorktown, VA, a Revolutionary War site, says visitors often approached him with incorrect assumptions. Something “we heard all the time that was patently false was that they would get soldiers rip roaring drunk before amputating an arm or a leg. There are actually a couple of misconceptions here. First, despite popular belief, they did not just take a hacksaw to peoples’ limbs. It was actually quite an intricate procedure involving skin and muscle knives, muscle retractors, saws, cauterizing irons, etc. And the alcohol thing is Hollywood history. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and they knew that. They would not have wanted their patient to bleed to death. Besides, being drunk doesn’t dull the pain, it only changes your reaction to it. So no alcohol. And no again, they didn’t give someone a bullet to bite on…when someone cuts into you, you scream, and that bullet goes down the gullet. A stick would probably have been used to keep someone from biting his tongue off.”

So the absence of anesthesia is a myth if it’s said to pertain to the Civil War, but true during the Revolutionary War.

 

Earlier Comments:

janice says:
January 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm (Edit)
well, thank you. yes, the movies have influenced my thinking. i never questioned this. also they make you feel that the conditions of surgery was barbaric. i remember seeing a house in a tour of a civil war battlefield that they indicated was used as a hospital for wounded. i wonder how few really lost limbs, after reading this.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
January 8, 2013 at 5:23 pm (Edit)
Soldiers certainly did lose limbs, but the circumstances were not as primitive as the movies would lead us to believe.

Reply
azambone says:
January 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
ALZ Comments: Another historical myth that frosts my clock. Like most historical myths, it believes that our ancestors were much, much less intelligent than we.

Reply
Carole Kingham says:
November 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Edit)
Being a Respiratory Therapist in my real world job, and a Confederate Doctor at events, I love the bite the bullet myth and usually address it when asked…my take is that pre modern age, teeth were not a thing to be taken lightly and without floride in the toothpastes were pretty soft in comparison to a hard lead bullet. A bite down on the bullet would probably lead to cracked and/or broken teeth, which would lead to a scream and probably inhalation of said bullet and fragments of teeth…causing a different form of lead poisoning, lol! And that anesthesia of both types were pretty available during the war.

Reply
Daisiemae says:
January 8, 2016 at 9:09 pm (Edit)
I was expounding upon this myth on Facebook when a Friend informed me that her brother-in-law owns a “Civil War bullet with teethmarks on it.”

I said that whatever marks are present on this bullet must have come from something else.

Does anyone have any light to shed on these supposed bullets full of teethmarks?

Reply


Revisited Myth #97: British soldiers wore red coats because they wouldn’t show the blood.

August 28, 2016

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . . I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget. Not 100% sure on that one.”

Shoot03_r2You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.

Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.

350px-British_old_infantry_uniforms

Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.

Even Wikipedia says, “There is no known basis for the myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.”

My article on cochineal and the color red appeared in an issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.

http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/summer12/dye.cfm

 

PREVIOUS COMMENTS:

Grace Burrowes says:
October 13, 2012 at 9:30 am (Edit)
I also suspect that once the artillery started firing, and smoke hazed over the battlefields, red was simply VISIBLE, making it less likely a soldier would be killed by friendly fire. Once the hand to hand fighting began, the downside of increased visibility (to the enemy) would have been moot since national affiliation would have been obvious up close.

Reply
PJ Curran says:
October 13, 2012 at 10:36 am (Edit)
In a conversation with a young “Redcoat” at Old North Bridge this summer I was informed that the reason for red was to identify the lines when the muskets began to generate smoke, an explanation similar to the previous response.

Reply
Caitlin McRae says:
October 17, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
When you say inexpensive synthetic dyes have been available for more than a century, do you mean aniline (sp?) dyes from the turn of the century…? Would love to know more of that kind of history.

Caitlin McRae cnmcrae@gmail.com

Reply
Mary Miley says:
October 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Edit)
So would I, but I’m afraid I know very little about the chemistry of modern synthetic dyes. The first were created in the mid-1800s and soon crowded out the old plant-based and insect-based dyes that had been used for centuries.

Reply
Edward Werner Cook says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm (Edit)
William Henry Perkin discovered Mauve in 1856 in August Von Hofmann’s Laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. After Prince Albert died Hofmann went to Berlin in 1863 where Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter was Crown Princess of Prussia. By the 1877’s dye industry in England was dead and became a German monopoly. At the end of the 19th century it was these same synthetic dye companies who had the skill to make synthetic drugs with the dye firm later known by the name of the founder Fredrick Bayer synthesizing Aspirin in 1897. The rest is, as we say, history. The giant firm I G Farben means “Common Interest in Dye Colors” and was at height the 4th largest company in the world.

You’ve Got Red On You « The BS Historian says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Edit)
[…] from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for […]

Reply
James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:10 am (Edit)
There is an interesting correlation with the development of chemical dyes, which led to progress in industrial chemistry in general, which caused competitions and conflict between England and Germany and that, among other things,
led to the the tensions that blossomed into WW I – The idea of red not showing blood, may have had some origins in the painting of the deck of the Shipboard surgery in the days of Wooden ships and sail ( or is that a myth , too?!)

Reply
Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:44 am (Edit)
I’ve read about that relationship between chemical dyes and WWI–fascinating. BUt I’ve not heard that statement about red decks, so don’t know if it is a myth or not. Sounds myth-like . . .

Reply
James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
I was aboard USS Constitution a few years ago when it was dis-masted in dry-dock having preventative maintenance performed. I inquired of a sailor if they were going to paint the decks red and he said they only did that in the sick bay. I do not know if we can rely on this ( I am tempted to just call the commander of USS Constitution and just ask him!)
Anyway I came up with some info:

“The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable.”

From http://www.exeterflotilla.org/history_misc/nav_customs/nc_customs.html

“In the artillery decks, the bulkwarks and the carriages of the cannons were often painted in red, to dissimulate the presence of the blood during combat.”
From http://shippictures.byethost22.com/anatomy%2004.htm

“The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of ‘overlap’, a word of Dutch origin meaning ‘that which runs over the hold’. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship’s surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck.”
From http://www.readyayeready.com/tradition/customs-of-the-navy/1-shipboard-terms.htm

BUT this one is not in agreement.

“Interior bulkheads were often painted red, not to cover up blood and gore during battle (most of which wound up on the deck anyway) but rather for decorative purposes and because red ocher pigment was relatively cheap.”
From http://www.steelnavy.com/MeteorFrigateDianaJL.htm

What do you think?

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Hmmm. Interesting. I do know this: reddish-brown paint (iron oxide or sometimes called Spanish brown) was cheap and easy to make yourself, like whitewash. Neither is real paint, which was expensive, tricky to make, and rather a trade secret. (Painters made their own concoctions and kept formulas in the family.) If that’s the “red” paint used on the floors, as suggested in the final quotation which mentions red ocher (which is iron oxide), then I side with the final quotation.

Roger W. Fuller says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm (Edit)
Having been personally injured accidentally by a bayonet at a reenactment, in which I bled onto a red British regimental coat I was wearing, I can assure you, red does not cover up blood stains. Blood looks almost black in comparison when on period-dyed red woolen cloth.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm (Edit)
Yikes! That’s what I call a primary source!

Reply
Jan says:
September 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
Actually, what I’ve read suggests that *black* was the most difficult and expensive dye to produce consistently in a way that would not fade or run.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_dye#The_rise_of_formal_black

Reply
James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 27, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Edit)
Well I went and called USS Constitution and the man there just called me back- Mr. Brecher I think it was, and we discussed the painting of the deck red- he said that almost all the decks are natural pine, which are ‘holy stoned ” ( sanded with a piece of sandstone)so they would be the natural pine color, with the bulkheads whitewashed- BUT that the deck of the cock pit, – where the wounded were treated – IS CURRENTLY painted red, BUT he has no historical reference for why this is done, and does not know why it has been done nowadays. I asked if the sailors who are assigned to the ship as guides tell the people that was because the red would not show the blood, and he laughed and said that they do have a training period for the sailors and expected that that was not done.

That is where the thing is now. Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced of whether or not the decks were or were not painted red because of the blood. Until I do more research and stumble upon some CONTEMPORARY source, . I could put forth a theory- which is that since the deck in the cockpit would have blood on it and since the decks were holy stoned pine the blood would soak in and so that deck was painted and since the Spanish brown was cheap the deck was therefore painted that reddish brown.

Reply
Jeff Neice says:
September 29, 2013 at 2:26 am (Edit)
the old red barn, milk paint, was very thick and solid. Perhaps, they used something like that to seal and preserve the floors better in the sick bay.

Reply
Mary Jean Adams says:
July 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm (Edit)
It reminds me of an old joke about a sea captain who wears red because it doesn’t show the blood. However, when faced with overwhelming odds, he asks his mate to bring him his brown pants.

The joke is funnier when not being told by me.

Reply
Zain says:
August 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm (Edit)
Thanks for solving this myth i always wanted to know the truth

Reply
RIchard Howe says:
December 10, 2015 at 3:25 pm (Edit)
I was told that the officers had Scarlet uniforms because they were more visible on the battlefield so that the rank and file could see them giving orders. In Europe at the time,it was considered “uncivilized” to shoot the officers! The American Revolution put an end to that!

Reply
stephanusmurlinis says:
May 23, 2016 at 10:02 am (Edit)
It was my understanding that the red coat appeared during the English Civil War. While the cavaliers used blue uniforms, the Model Army used red. Is it correct?

Reply
picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:32 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Defense Issues.

Reply
Patrice Ayme says:
June 9, 2016 at 2:50 am (Edit)
The Spartans supposedly used red to hide their wounds. Centurions of the Roman army carried spectacular head dress, parallel to their shoulders, above their helmets, to be seen from afar.


Revisited Myth # 77: Everyone died young in those days.

March 11, 2016

DSCN1861

This week we are fortunate to have a guest blogger, Katie Cannon, to debunk one of her pet-peeve myths. Katie has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums, and recently completed a Master of Arts in Museum Studies through the University of Leicester. She is especially fond of living history, she says, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.

You hear this one all over the place: “Everyone died young back in the old days,” or “You were lucky if you lived to age 40,” and so forth.

You can crunch some numbers and certainly come to this conclusion, but the big problem with this is infant mortality. If you include the (generally high) infant mortality rate of early America, life expectancy plummets. However, if you calculate life expectancy past infancy and childhood, people in historic periods could expect to live to ages not that different from today.

In Massachusetts in 1850, an infant at birth could expect to live 38-40 years. Pretty bleak, right? But, if that same infant survived to age 20, he could expect to live another 40 years, to age 60. Quite an improvement! Compare that to the Center for Disease Control statistics for 1998, in which a person’s life expectancy at birth was 76, and at age 20 was 77, hardly any difference because we’ve managed to sharply decrease mortality in infants and children. And remember, “life expectancy” does not mean everyone suddenly drops dead at that age. There are plenty of people today who live past 77, just as there were plenty in 1850 who lived past 60.

Here, for example, are the ages at death of the first 10 presidents of the United States, from oldest to youngest: 90, 85, 83, 80, 79, 78, 73, 71, 68, 67. Most of them were older than the life expectancy in 1998! And, since those are all men, here are the ages of their wives at death (John Tyler married twice, so there are 11 women accounted for): 89, 81, 77, 74, 71, 69, 62, 61, 52, 36, 34. Almost half made it into their seventies at least; of those under 70, five died from disease (including 2 strokes) and one from the complications of childbirth. True, in general they were not as long-lived as their husbands, but it’s still a far cry from the bleak “dead-at-forty” report you may have heard.

The big killer, as you may have noticed, was disease. The age of antibiotics changed many things, and today far more infants are expected to reach adulthood, so the average life expectancy has indeed gone up. But, old folks were not an endangered species in early America!

Sources:
U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States.
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/lt98internet.PDF


Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit on bullets to combat pain.

January 17, 2016

Unknown-1

Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 


Revisited Myth #61: Back then, people bathed once a year.

October 26, 2015

5045_french_copper_bath_tub_1

Other versions of this myth include: “Brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up their body odor,” and “People bathed twice a year, in May and October.” All nonsense.

Personal habits are notoriously difficult to document—when was the last time you noted in your diary that you took a shower? If the verb “to bathe” means to sit in a large tub of hot water and wash, then Myth #61 might be considered true. Almost no one bathed that way until the 20th century when the miracle of indoor plumbing brought gallons of hot water directly into a tub with no more effort than it took to turn a tap. Before that, hot water required too much labor to allow even the upper classes with servants or slaves to fill up a tub every day and soak in it–although some did, as evidenced by large tubs like the one above. Men could bath in rivers and lakes as part of their swimming recreation; women seldom did. Bathing in warm mineral springs and seaside resorts began to spread in the early 19th century, at first for the wealthy, but later for middle classes as well.

Just like today, habits varied. Some people washed daily and others did not. Some washed hands and face daily; others took sponge baths daily. Inventories and photographs commonly show a wash stand in bed chambers. People washed as they stood or sat in a small tin tub with a few inches of water or stood on a floorcloth beside the wash basin. And there are some written references to bathing. In the eighteenth century, William Byrd II wrote in his book, HISTORY OF THE DIVIDING LINE (1741), that he was relieved to bathe after several days in the wilderness. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia was writing about soldiers but his recommendations could have applied to any American when he said that they should “wash his hands and face at least once every day, and his whole body twice or three times a week, especially in the summer.”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people visited public baths in towns and cities. Even a city as small as Richmond, Virginia, had one in 1832 and possibly earlier. There were several public baths in Richmond in operation until the last closed in 1950. John Zehmer of the Historic Richmond Foundation wrote in his new book, THE CHURCH HILL OLD & HISTORIC DISTRICTS, that the Branch baths served 60,000 bathers a year. “The cost [in the early 1900s] was five cents for adults and three cents for children. The bath was popular with judges, doctors, lawyers, and all classes of people because it was so much better than what was available at home. The development of indoor plumbing led to the closing of the public baths . . .”

Primitive “shower baths” came into play in the middle of the 19th century for the well-to-do to install in their homes. Virginia’s governor installed one of these in the basement of the executive mansion in the 1840s. This newspaper advertisement dates from 1847. 

shower bath 5

Still, most early Americans took sponge baths, standing beside their washstand with its pitcher and bowl of water or in a small tin tub with a few inches of warm water, usually in their bedchamber. Servants or slaves, if one were wealthy enough to have them, brought buckets of water from the pump, heated it in kettles on the stove, and lugged it up the stairs to the shallow tub. Otherwise you did the chore yourself. Ladies often preferred to put the tub by a fireplace. Some people bathed in the kitchen, nearer the stove—less privacy but less carrying. Many who were willing to wash their bodies while standing in a basin were unwilling or unable to immerse themselves fully in a large tub.

Interestingly, bathing and washing didn’t necessarily include the use of soap, at least not until the 19th century. Kathleen Brown writes in her book Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, p. 244, that the association of bathing with soap began in the 1830s, representing “a new fastidiousness about body odor that increased the labor required to achieve decency.”

One thing’s for sure, people washed their hair less often than we do today. A women would have had to spend half her daylight hours sitting by the fire or in the sun to dry her long tresses. Hair styles reflected this reality. Until the 1920s when American women began cutting their hair short for the first time, most braided, knotted, or twisted up their long hair and wore it under a cap or bonnet. The invention of the electric hair dryer allowed a greater variety of styles.

In the 1870s, the discovery of germs helped boost the idea of cleanliness in Europe and America. Modern indoor bathrooms with a sink, tub, and toilet in one room, gained popularity from the 1920s on. But even then, by 1940 (just before World War II), only half of American homes had this sort of modern bathroom.

Accuracy might best be served by saying that, while people bathed less frequently than most do today, they did not necessarily wash less frequently.


%d bloggers like this: