Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Unwashed Masses

I came across a very small article over the weekend discussing, of all things, how our ancestors brushed their teeth. The writer came to the conclusion that they basically didn't and I quit reading at that point. I am not going to stand in front of anyone and say that people in the 18th and 19th century showered every morning and used their OralB before heading out. But I always bristle at the "our ancestors were ignorant, smelly dullards" conclusion.

Europeans in general and seamen in particular weren't "clean" on a day to day basis the way modern Americans would think of the word. Regular baths didn't happen aboard ship or by land in colder climates. On a ship, fresh water was dear and used predominantly for drinking or the sick, who did rate a bath now and again. In colder climates, New England and Canada for instance, heating water for a soaking bath was a prohibitive chore that rarely happened. Besides, a full bath was rumored to make a body sick. In warmer climates, where a tub of water could be left out in the sun the way one might warm up the kiddy pool water to wash the dog in suburbia these days, baths were far more common. They were one of those "decadent luxuries" Yankees were shocked by when they showed up in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century.

People did sponge themselves off with wet towels or - yeah - sponges, however. A typical morning routine, even aboard ship and especially for officers, included washing the torso and face followed by a shave. Waters such as rose water, lavender water and Hungary water were relatively inexpensive and were splashed on the face, in the hair and under the ol' pits before dressing. The sailors who could swim did so whenever possible, especially in fresh water estuaries and cays where the muck could be rinsed off without the harsh abrasiveness of salt water on skin. Living cheek by jowl with your fellow man may have meant that a certain level of personal hygiene was required more than ignored.

Even aboard buccaneers, pirates and privateers, men were careful to keep the parasites at bay if at all possible. Fleabane, an herb that grows like a weed in most temperate climates, was dried and sprinkled on clothing, hammocks and cots. It was also rubbed into the hair of men and animals to keep down the fleas and lice. Some ships surgeons would shave a man who turned up with head or body lice, a humiliating process that included every hair accessible. Since sailors were particularly fussy about their long flowing locks - which they washed and braided about once a week - making sure Bones didn't find lice was a kind of mania aboard such ships.

On land and far from home, nature offered up a surprising variety of remedies for the unkempt. Sprigs of certain trees could be cut and frayed at the end to form a primitive toothbrush. The frayings also served as floss. Wine or, in a pinch, urine was used as a mouthwash. The castings of certain tropical ants still are a remarkable mosquito repellent. A buccaneer just had to find the colony and rub the detritus all over his bare skin. Distasteful perhaps but better than malaria or yellow fever.

Back in port, a man could pay for a hunk of lye soap and a bath at some establishments. The story goes that the saloons on Grande Terre and Galveston both offered baths that were insisted on prior to the sailors visiting the ladies upstairs. The Laffite boys ran clean houses, even in the wilderness.

Which brings me back to tooth brushing. Contemporary descriptions of both Jean and Pierre Laffite speak specifically of the brothers' teeth. They were small, even and very white. Adjectives used include "remarkably" and "unusually" for the glowing grandeur of these two outlaws' chompers. How did they do it? Most probably genetic luck combined with a simple remedy that has been around since Elizabethan times and one, dear Brethren, that you can try today.

Toothbrushes, made of wood, ivory or bone with boar bristles were introduced in Europe in the late 16th century. Elizabeth I used one regularly. By the American Revolution they were quite common and, though there would have been people who ignored oral hygiene (there are today after all), available to most people. To go with the brush, there were tooth powders. One simply wet their brush, dipped it in the powder and went to town. Myrrh, cinnamon and particularly sage (the secret to whiter teeth) were used in the powders as well as abrasives like ground eggshells or dragonsblood resin.

The sage tooth powders in particular had a long history and were probably used by the likes of Henry Morgan and Laurens de Graff (who, as an aside, was renowned for his beautiful, blond hair, washed regularly). Want to give sage tooth powder and other historical grooming goodies a try? Click over to Ageless Artifice and review their offerings. (My thanks to Isis' Wardrobe for previous and current posts on this wonderful site.) You can get Hungary water, cold cream, tooth powder and a toothbrush to go with it, plus so much more all made with authentic, period correct recipes.

I imagine the percentage of "unwashed masses" today is probably equal to the percentage of yesterday. And so it goes on back through history. Our ancestors were very much the same as we are. To think of them as less is, I believe, to do them a grave disservice. The fact is at least some of them may have been more.

(The painting at the header is from Don Maitz' Pirate Calendar, 2009)

12 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nicely done. A shot across the bow to all of those lazy "time traveling historical novelists" who can't fathom that our ancestors could possibly be just like us and not some primitive knuckle-dragging morons...

"This is my BOOMSTICK!"

Nice links too. Those could have been a "booty" post... I love painting at the header as well. Very funny.

About the only thing I balked at was the "urine... used as a mouthwash"... Sorry, I'm not gonna go there, Bear Grylls.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I'm a huge advocate of treating our ancestors as we would treat our neighbors. I find that the vast majority of historical fiction writers are.

And never say never. After two weeks in the Darien Gap, you might be surprised what you would do to get the fuzz off your teeth. I'm just saying.

Timmy! said...

I wouldn't have to worry about the fuzz on my teeth since I doubt that I would be able to keep anything in my stomach anyway...

Undine said...

Oh, I agree that our ancestors were not, on the whole, the uncaring, filthy slobs depicted by so many people today.

Still, even after reading your post, I maintain that as much as I loathe our modern world, I would never live in any era in the past, for one reason and one reason only. That reason can be summed up in two words: Indoor plumbing.

Daggar said...

"Wine or, in a pinch, urine was used as a mouthwash.

That's one hell of a detail to sneak into the middle of an otherwise unoffensive paragraph.

I have to wonder how bad one's breath could be that urine-scented is an improvement.

Isis' Wardrobe said...

I get so annoyed when people claimed that people were dirty in the past, just because they rarely bathed. True, they wasn't as clean as we see as norm, but people have always wanted to be clean- all healthy animals want that! And you can get clean by other means than bath- like the sponge baths you mentioned.

Anotehr aspect on the rarity of baths was that in big cities, clean water was expensive. To take a bath you must be able to afford the water, the people necessary for carry it and then to pay to heat it. Of course people economized their cleaning! Stockholm was known to be an unusually clean city in the 18th century, but it's located where a big lake and the sea meets, so there was easy access to clean water there.

Lots of myths around- like that I have always heard that Louis XVI took very few baths in his life. Well, perhaps he did, but I just read a biography over him and learned that he was a great swimmer and swimmed regualy as long as he was fit to. Kind of takes the edge out of the no bathing, yes?

Ozarklorian said...

Hi, This post reminds me of a funny discussion the Baratarian re-enactors had a while back regarding what was used for TP onboard a ship :))

Pauline said...

Ahoy one and all! I had a feeling this post might elicit some discussion.

Undine: I understand your feeling. Aside from aboard ship - I was on one once where catalogue pages substituted for toilet paper - my idea of "roughing it" is a bed and breakfast without a TV or wi-fi.

Daggar: You cannot make that kind of thing up. I guess it's what ever you're used to, though.

Isis: Exactly. Northern European and American cities in particular were remarkably clean (look at the Dutch masters, for instance; nary a dust bunny on those floors). You have to think that people who washed their front stoops regularly would look after their own hygiene too. And more people swam, which cleans you off pretty handily, than is usually discussed in the literature.

Ozarklorian: I'm curious to know what the Baratarians finally hit upon. I've heard of hay from the manger (usually right below the head on large ships) but people who write about the sea aren't very forthcoming on the toilet issue.

That was fun. I'll have to do this again some time.

Ozarklorian said...

As I recall, the Baratarians finally decided privateer TP most likely was handfuls of hemp cut off from rope ends, or possibly even mussel shells (ouchie).

Pauline said...

That sounds plausible but painful, as you point out.

I did a little more digging and found that some experts think each man brought his own kit aboard, which included a sea sponge for wiping. It would be rinsed out after use and tucked in the sea chest until nature called again. This follows the Roman legion's "sponge on a stick in a bucket" method.

Isis' Wardrobe said...

I once get into an argument with a man who claimed that women didn't use anything to avoid getting menstrual blood on their clothes, until the end of the 19th century. He claimed that noblewomen went to bed for the time and poor women just let it, ahem, flow.

You know, he totally disregared that a. noble women wasn't exactly women of leisure, not until the 19the century in any case. They had, if nothing else, social duties, but also mor epractical ones, like running a household. b. It's very unlikely that you would allow your female servants to leave bloody traces around your beautiful homes, or, for that matter, look at their bloody clothes. c. Clothes were expensive and har to wash. No way that you would destroy your precious garments if you couldn't help it. d. If it had been an usual sight with women with bloody petticoats, then that would have left traces i letters and literature. I've certainly never came across any such references. Or to women laying in bed for long periods of time unless they hadn't just ha a baby. But I've read that the Duchess of Devonshire, in the 18th century, remarks in a letter of uncomfortable it is to do a social obligation, just becasue she had her period.

And his argument? That there are no mentions of what was used and nothing preserved. Erm, well, yeah, that is exactly the topic historians love to dwell on and people loves to hang on to...

Pauline said...

Very well said, indeed. No mention in history books = they just didn't do it. I'll assume our ancestors didn't pick their noses as well...