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)