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Why Pilgrims Arriving in America Resisted Bathing

November 21, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Early American colonists rarely bathed, instead they believed other practices, like regularly changing their undergarments, qualified as good hygiene.

When the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in the early 17th century, they didn’t smell terrific, according to Native American accounts. Unlike the Wampanoag, these Europeans didn’t bathe regularly. A surviving member of the Patuxet nation named Tisquantum (or “Squanto”) even tried and failed to convince them to start washing themselves, according to a 1965 biography.

“Bathing as you and I know it was very, very uncommon [among western Europeans] until the later part of the 18th century,” says W. Peter Ward, a professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia and author of the new book The Clean Body: A Modern History.

This went for people of all social classes. Louis XIV, a 17th-century king of France, is said to have only taken three baths in his entire life. Both rich and poor might wash their faces and hands on a daily or weekly basis, but almost no one in western Europe washed their whole body with any regularity, says Ward. The Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans who followed them may have even thought that submerging their whole body in water was unhealthy, and that taking all of their clothes off to do so was immodest.

“The idea of being clean wasn’t closely associated with water in the 17th century anywhere in the western world,” Ward says.

READ MORE: What’s the Difference Between Puritans and Pilgrims

Although bathhouses did exist in the colonies, they were not for bathing in the modern sense. Rather, bathhouses were thought of as a kind of medicinal cure, or else a place for wealthy people to relax. In the 1770s, the royal governor of the Colony of Virginia used his bathhouse to cool down on a particularly hot day. And the handful of baths Louis XIV took? Those were on the advice of a doctor, to treat his convulsions.

“Cleanliness, to the extent that people thought about it in the 17th century, had much more to do with what we now call underwear than anything else,” Ward says. Colonists kept themselves “clean” by changing the white linens under their clothes. The cleaner and whiter the linens, the cleaner the person—or so the thinking went.

“It was thought that the linen underwear was what really kept the …read more


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