Who were the cleanest pioneers?
March 15, 2010 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Is there any historical record of American settlers or pioneers from the old west who were meticulously clean?

Just wondering if they were all a bunch of dirty, dusty people most of the time, or what. I can't imagine that they ALL were.

I do have stories (even some from my own ancestors) of very refined people, who I believe must have liked to wash up and feel clean. And some who came from very refined European society. But what I'm looking for are specific cleanliness-related accounts.

I realize that we didn't even remotely have the hygiene obsession then (pre-germ theory) that we do now, but I'm guessing at least some forward-thinking people had the idea that dust and dirt can be annoying and unsightly.

...or not?
posted by circular to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Charlie Utter

Utter cut a notable figure; although only five and a half feet tall, he is reported as being extremely meticulous in his appearance, highly unusual for that place and time. He had long, flowing blond hair and mustache, perfectly groomed, wore hand-tailored fringed buckskins, fine linen shirts, beaded moccasins, and a large silver belt buckle, and carried a pair of gold, silver, and pearl ornamented pistols. He would allow nobody into his tent, even Hickok, on pain of being shot; in his tent he slept under the highest quality blankets, imported from California, and carried with him mirrors, combs, razors, and whisk brooms. Most unusual of all, he was well known for his "bizarre habit" of bathing daily.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:16 PM on March 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

People presumably had OCD even back then, and for some of those people it manifested as being meticulously clean (see Nikola Tesla, for example).
posted by sallybrown at 12:17 PM on March 15, 2010

While I can't answer your question directly, I do wonder where you came up with the basic perception that settlers and pioneers were always dirty; why do you assume they were not concerned with cleanliness?

As a counter-anecdote, I spent some time in rural Kenya, and as a rule everyone I encountered was meticulously careful about cleanliness, hygiene, and grooming. Frankly, to a somewhat greater extent than I was, as a hippy-dippy American exchange student. Just because people lack access to indoor plumbing does not mean they are necessarily dusty, dirty people. You walk to the river, you carry a bucket from the town well, and you grab some soap powder from the town shop, and you get the wash done.

Obviously settlers on the move wouldn't have access to even these niceties, but there are rivers everywhere and home made lye soap was relatively easy to make and minimally perishable.
posted by rkent at 12:20 PM on March 15, 2010

Nearly any book about settling the American West that includes letters or diaries from the women in the party will at least mention cleanliness. In the Little House books, I remember a lot about laundry and house chores. In some places, water was at a premium, and so was used first for drinking/cooking and livestock, especially if they were traveling.

Read a book like this one (and check the bibliography for more like it) and you'll see lots about keeping things clean.
posted by rtha at 12:20 PM on March 15, 2010

Annie Oakley (Phoebe Ann Mosey), the hugely popular turn of the 20th century trick shootist, was well known for being fastidious about her person, and for having sharp words for those who joked or adversely commented upon her daily routines, or who didn't measure up to her standards of personal grooming. But there has long been speculation that her insistence on personal hygiene had darker roots.
posted by paulsc at 12:23 PM on March 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

The Little House on the Prairie books are full of references to fastidious cleanliness, including sweeping floors made of dirt and ironing while in a covered wagon.
posted by mynameisluka at 12:25 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just for reference the first American made bathtub as we know it was designed and built in 1883. It was an enamelized Kholer horse trough. Standard Manufactuing Company (now known as American Standard) went into the washbasin and water closet business in 1875. Slates Hot Springs in Big Sur (now the Esalen Institute) opened in the 1870's after Mr. Slate claimed the baths cured his arthritis.

Keep in mind that Little House on the Prarie, Annie Oakley and Nikola Tesla are not "old west" examples. Those are late 1800's early 1900's examples from East of the Mississippi. LHotP being a work of fiction from the 1930's; Oakley being from Ohio and performing in a Wild West show beginning in the 1880's; and Tesla immigrating to the US in the 1890's.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:58 PM on March 15, 2010

I've been doing a lot of research lately about life as a pioneer, and while I don't have any sources for you I do have a few things to add.

While people didn't bathe daily, they would change into clean underwear daily. Underwear included undershirts, and drawers for men and chemises and drawers for ladies. The underwear would capture most of the smelly body oils, and changing it out daily would keep the outer clothes fresh. Also keep in mind that these pioneers wore clothes made from all natural materials which breathe much more nicely than the synthetics we wear today. Sweat would be wicked away quite quickly and not given much of a chance to start to smell.

I think the idea that Pioneers were smelly and dirty mostly comes from accounts of the actual trip West. Most of the time water was at a premium, and bathing would not be easy. The trip only lasted a few months however, and in my opinion would be similar to modern camping. I know that on camping trips I'm definitely not as clean as I am at home! The accounts that I've read about the settlers once they've reach their destination tell about the great pains that women went through to get and keep their homes and families as clean as possible.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2010

Never Done is another interesting book that has information about cleanliness standards.
posted by lakeroon at 1:00 PM on March 15, 2010

sweeping floors made of dirt

The dirt was packed hard.
posted by jgirl at 1:03 PM on March 15, 2010

You want Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing. Covers all of western history so certainly not specific to your time and place, but very informative on the changing conceptions of what it means to be clean, and things like when it became de rigeur for US houses to have a bathroom.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:06 PM on March 15, 2010

I was going to mention the Little House books as well (though you would have to double-check the veracity of every detail). I was just telling someone about the absurd scene in Little House on the Prairie where the Wilders literally do not have a roof above their head, or walls, or any structure, because Pa has only just decided where to build their house. And Ma gets out her iron, heats it up in the fire, and proceeds to iron clothes. And that's not even unusual—there's constant reference to washing plates, clothes, etc. I don't know how representative this was.
posted by chinston at 1:38 PM on March 15, 2010

LHotP being a work of fiction from the 1930's;

Biographical fiction at best; Wilder was writing her memories of her pioneer childhood.
posted by anastasiav at 1:52 PM on March 15, 2010

rkent: “While I can't answer your question directly, I do wonder where you came up with the basic perception that settlers and pioneers were always dirty; why do you assume they were not concerned with cleanliness?”

You make a good point – it's possible to be clean in any circumstance – but... it's simply true that in the old West people were quite dirty. People regularly got diseases and sicknesses from their lack of clean habits. There are records of rotten food or food that wasn't washed properly that led to sickness as well.

I should say that I'm trying to find it, but I fear it's one of his books which I don't own - one of the greatest historians of the West that I know of, perhaps the greatest, is a man named David Lavender, author principally of probably the most heartbreaking and painful history book I've ever read, Bent's Fort. He records at one point in his work that it's actually quite remarkable how really dirty the West was at the time – this was during a time, he says, when most of the world was actually quite clean and hygienic as far as clean food and bodies go. People in the eastern United States were generally quite sanitary, didn't get diseases from dirty or spoiled food, and regularly washed themselves.

Moreover, as you point out, rkent, this can't be blamed on the circumstances of the West; both food and the facilities to clean it were readily available there, and people quite easily could have washed themselves very regularly. You can't say that people just didn't know that they should wash themselves or their food, either – people in the East did anyway, and people in Africa and everywhere else in similar circumstances knows well enough that you have to wash yourself and your food. It's not that strange.

When it comes down, Lavender concludes that it must have been a curmudgeonly attitude combined with a strange sort of stinginess. Lots of people seem to have thought that cleanliness costed more, and preferred to serve food that was as cheap as possible to maximize profit; and people seemed to embrace dirtiness as part and parcel with the idea of moving west. Either way, it's an interesting question.

I'll keep looking in my books and see what I can find.
posted by koeselitz at 3:12 PM on March 15, 2010

It strikes me, by the way, that "pioneers and settlers" is a pretty broad brush. Strictly speaking there were a broad variety of different sorts of people involved in the West between 1800 and 1900, and they had very different habits. The people that folks generally designate "pioneers" are actually the very last of these, those who came west in the middle and late parts of the century, almost all of them around or after 1870 and 1880. Before that, the largest burst of immigration came in the mid-1840s. These big bursts of immigrants are, in the popular imagination, the most typical pioneers; and they, by and large, were the dirty ones. But this had a profound effect on the circumstances of the West; it meant that the amenities, the hotels and restaurants and saloons and general public places in the West were often quite dirty. As I said above, the reasons why this was so often the case are something of a mystery, although there are indications that it was just because people didn't seem to care.

But at the same time, as is often pointed out, public places were not necessarily central to the life of the old West, and plenty of life happened outside them. Specifically, most native American societies were quite clean, and had been for a long time; their established societies were orderly and hygienic, and didn't have the problems the white towns did. Moreover the 'mountain men,' the trappers, didn't have the luxury of being filthy as it could be deadly, and were generally too nomadic for dirtiness to accumulate; they traveled in small bands and didn't stay for very long in one place, following the hunt for beaver.

As I said above, it was the later parts of the century, and the proliferation of public places and towns, that led to real dirtiness in the West.
posted by koeselitz at 3:44 PM on March 15, 2010

"... Those are late 1800's early 1900's examples from East of the Mississippi. LHotP being a work of fiction from the 1930's; Oakley being from Ohio and performing in a Wild West show beginning in the 1880's; and Tesla immigrating to the US in the 1890's."
posted by Pollomacho at 3:58 PM on March 15

Fair enough, I suppose, Pollomacho, if your sliding history window for "West" is set, permanently and inflexibly, to certain decades in the 19th century, that best line up with your personal vision of the American "West." Clearly, as late as 1812, and into the 1840s and 1850s, Ohio was pretty far in the "West," insofar as most Americans, and the British and their mercenaries who burnt Washington in the War of 1812, were concerned, since many Congressional land grants of the era, to say nothing of British military ambitions, were made in states and territories like Ohio, since grants in the so-called "Indian Territories" of the farther West lands claimed by the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, were regarded in the early part of the 19th century as uninhabitable, and therefore worthless, to eastern (New York city) bankers, even after the publication of Lewis & Clark's Corp of Discovery trip of 1803-1804.
"... At the beginning of the War of 1812, Fort Stephenson (Sandusky) was built on the west bank of the river. The fort enclosed about an acre of ground. Major George Croghan, with 250 soldiers, successfully defended this fort (August 3, 1813), against a British and Indian force of over 1,300. This victory earned Croghan, who was Gen. George Rogers Clark’s nephew, the brevet rank of Lt. Colonel. ..."
Indeed, the present northern border of Ohio was not decided, in its conflict with the Territory of Michigan, until 1836.
"... Finally, on June 15, 1836, the controversy ended when the President of the United States approved An Act to establish the northern boundary of Ohio, and to provide for the admission of the State of Michigan into the Union upon the conditions therein expressed. The boundaries prescribed for Michigan took away all the land south of the Harris Line, 400 square miles. Michigan received 9,000 square miles (which now is its Upper Peninsula) for its loss. Also, it was admitted to the Union on January 26, 1837 as part of the compromise."
To suggest that the rural western Ohio of Annie Oakley's youth, (who, being born in 1860, her father a veteran of the War of 1812, and who at the age of 8 or 9, lost her birth family, in 1868 or '69, to the cruel administration of the rural Ohio poor farm system), is somehow not a legitimate source of the "pioneer" sensibility originally requested by the OP, is to pretty much eschew, entirely, the successes of her life, and her rise from the worst kind of personal servitude, to the heights of world re-known, regardless of any personal quirks and sensibilities her early history may have, in the latter epoch of her life, revealed.
posted by paulsc at 5:48 PM on March 15, 2010

Canada, not the US, and rather later in time (early 20th century)--but I recall in Robertson Davies' reminiscences somewhere he mentions the smell of his old school--children were sewn into union suits in autumn and un-sewn from them in spring.
posted by Logophiliac at 1:22 AM on March 16, 2010

paulsc: “Indeed, the present northern border of Ohio was not decided, in its conflict with the Territory of Michigan, until 1836.”

Er – returning somewhat to the point, one might note the western terminus of the Second Cholera Pandemic; it was carried from New York along the Ohio and then the Missouri river between 1830 and 1836, when it reached the Pacific coast via travelers and settlers along that route. It moved swiftly, and many who lived along those routes settled in for the winter of '32 to wait out the pandemic. As always, the prairies were relatively clean and free of disease. But, as I said above, in the cities of the West many diseases hung around for decades, and cholera returned, this time even worse than before. David Lavender describes the scene strikingly – and I'll quote this at length, because I think it's an interesting picture of two different worlds in the West:
So far as the plains were concerned, the main thing brought by the [gold] rush [of 1849] was a new horror—cholera. The disease was not unknown along the eastern end of the Oregon Trail (Whitman had fought it there in 1835, three years after it had ravaged New Orleans), but this year its virulence surpassed prior experience. In St. Louis, at the height of the epidemic, the death wagons were carting off sixty to eighty persons a day. Barrels of tar, sulphur, and other reputed disinfectants were burned on the street corners in hopes that the dense, stinking clouds of smoke would "dissipate the foul air." A hundred-dollar fine was imposed for bringing fresh vegetables or meats into the city from the country, and emigrants were quarantined in a special compound. From St. Louis the disease moved upriver to Independence and Westport, then rode westward with the California-bound caravans. Hundreds of graves began to dot the Oregon Trail.

Far out on the plains the epidemic began to burn itself out, but not before a Cheyenne village had visited a camp of emigrants who were drying meat beside the Platte. As the Cheyennes moved on southward, mysterious cramps began to seize men and women. They fell from their horses, went into convulsions, died. The survivors had no idea what was the matter. In terror they fled toward the Arkansas, and when the deaths stopped they supposed they had outrun the invisible enemy. Recovering confidence, they crossed the river to a conclave of prairie tribes celebrate a new peace between the Osages and Kiowas.

So lucrative a trade spot might have attracted William [Bent], but he had gone to Westport with the caravan and had taken his eldest boy, eight-year-old Robert, with him. Perhaps he had a notion of continuing to St. Louis, but the plague drove him away from the settlements. Meanwhile Yellow Woman [William Bent's wife] had gone to the tribal conclave with her aged mother and her stepchildren—Mary, George, and the baby Charles. It was a fine gathering—lots of feasting and trade. Yellow Woman picked up an iron kettle she needed, then everyone gathered to watch the Kiowas farewell dance.

In the middle of the drumming a big Kiowa warrior keeled over, writhing and clutching at his belly. The medicine men carried him into a lodge, where he expired. A curious Osage elbowed through the crowd to take a look, groaned suddenly, and then collapsed. Now White Face Bull, one of the Cheyenne chiefs, recognized the curious slayer which had followed the party from the Platte.

"The Big Cramps!" he yelled. "Everybody run!"

Panic swept the encampment. Shrieking Indians scattered in every direction. Some did not tarry long enough to tear down their lodges. In mortal terror Yellow Woman assembled her family. Eleven-year-old Mary was big enough to ride, but George and baby Charles were piled into a mule-drawn travois with a keg of water, some dried meat, and bread. As fast as the horses could go, the Cheyennes streamed toward the Cimarron, the travois bumping and the children screaming with fright until exhaustion put them to sleep.

All along the way people died, but darkness finally forced the unreasoned flight to pause. While they were making camp, more perished. One warrior donned full war dress, mounted his best horse, and rode through the village, calling for the cowardly enemy to come into the open and fight. There was no answer. As he stepped from his horse, convulsions seized him and he died in his wife's arms.

During the night the children's grandmother, old Grey Thunder's widow, died in agony. Yellow Woman persuaded some friends to help her hastily put the body in a tree scaffold, and at dawn the wild flight began again. Completely bewildered, afraid of each other, afraid even of the dry wind that whispered across the sand, the group split into smaller and smaller segments. Finally Yellow Woman slipped away from everyone else and took the children to the fort.
Bent's Fort, pages 336-338

As I said, it isn't exactly the happiest book I've ever read. Lavender goes on to describe how William Bent, whose brother and business partner had been brutally murdered two years earlier, abandoned the fort soon after he and Yellow Woman and the children met there, burning it to the ground in defiance of the US Army, who had offered huge sums of money to use it as a base for its Indian wars. At the end of the book, William Bent, an old man, has to watch heartbroken as his sons, faced with the choice between being white men and red men (since the United States had flatly decided that no man could be both) turn in disgust and become Indian warriors, though the odds are impossibly against them, rather than put up with the injustice any longer.

Anyhow – hope this has been at least interesting. Cleanliness in the West is a compelling question. I think it's fair to say that the cleanest people in the West were, first of all, the natives; and second of all, the people who lived with and among them, the early traders and trappers of the 1820s-1840s. The dirtiest were the stereotypical "pioneers," the people who came West seeking new lives but not necessarily knowing what they were getting into. And the cities were centers of dirtiness.
posted by koeselitz at 1:51 AM on March 16, 2010

To suggest that the rural western Ohio of Annie Oakley's youth

Ah, but you see there is the problem. We're not talking about Oakley's rough-hewn impoverished youth, we're talking about her adulthood in which she was a late victorian woman of means. It's great that you talk about Ohio of the 1830's, but Oakley did not live in Ohio of the 1830's. She lived all over America and Europe during Reconstruction, an era of growing obsession with cleanliness. This is the time in which washbasins are being imported from Czech porcelain mills by the clipper-full and horse troughs were being enamelized (shockingly even farther west in the NW Territories - Wisconsin) lest a lady feel the rough metal on her backside. So my scale is neither rigid nor inflexible, I just don't think she's the best example.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:57 AM on March 16, 2010

I've read several references (most recently in the Worst Hard Time) of how clean and fastidious German immigrants kept their homesteads in the central American plains.
posted by Rash at 11:13 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for the great answers! Loved reading about Charlie Utter, but then this huge CITATION NEEDED mental block started forming when I got to the end of that para. :-)
posted by circular at 11:37 PM on March 18, 2010

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