Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

What Was It Really Like in The Olden Days?
by Joyce Berry

During one event at Fort Klock I overheard a lady gush, "Oh, can't you just see yourself living here? I can!" Ahem! Not me. I prefer my modern bathroom and for that matter, my modern home. Those places were cold, drafty and a few other things. Hasn't anyone besides me stopped to think about how it smelled? What, do you see yourself like Claudette Colbert in Drums Along The Mohawk all perfectly coifed and face perfectly made up living next to Henry Fonda? Life was not that way at all. Modern man has pretty much eradicated the natural smell of his species, with soaps, deodorants, antiperspirants and lots of clothing changes and automatic washers with detergents to clean the clothing. Most of history records some very different hygiene than we enjoy today.

Let's travel back in time to check out hygiene and cosmetics and how they started. Little tidbits from history regarding cosmetics and cleanliness have simply collected in my brain over the years and I retained the facts. Sorry, but there is not a formal bibliography for this piece. No one seems to have written extensively on the subject of cosmetics and hygiene either. It has become a somewhat forgotten bit of history, one which many prefer to forget and in fact the writers didn't usually mention such things because it was just common knowledge. I think if most of us had to go back and live in that time, we would soon die because our bodies are no longer used to fighting some of the bacteria with which the early people had to contend. Their life expectancy was not long at all, many died young.

<-Joseph Brant. Many ancient tribes such as the Picts and Celts used paints to identify friend or foe, foreigner or local. Mostly the males used paints. It was pretty important to get your paint on straight or you might be dead! All through history, man has used cosmetics for identification purposes. There is evidence that from very early times, people knew how to mix color and add it to a medium for application. The people in Europe, the American Indians, the Chinese, in fact all over the world people used a method of paint to tell friend from foe. Each period of time has had a set form of identification markings or fashion. For instance, the ancient Egyptians shaved their entire body, even the head and used wigs for going out. When a person arrived at the destination, perfumed cones made of wax were placed on the head of the guest, and as it melted, it ran down the body. Of all the ancients, they were the cleanest and aware of smells. Rose petals and rose water were often used in a room to make it smell pleasant. Perfumes were made with an oil base or wine which in itself would develop a rancid smell. Paint was also used to indicate a person's mood or intent. For instance, the American Indians used war paint to indicate war intent. Some peoples used cosmetics for a ceremonial purpose and for magical protection. It also helped protect against flies and the glare of the sun. Henna was long used as a hair dye and fingernail dye and for the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Tattoos were developed as a permanent form of identification. The Romans and Greeks were generally personally clean people and were known for their public baths, unlike the Europeans. Mostly the usage of cosmetics was confined to the higher class of people. Perfumes became widely known in Europe through the returning Crusaders who introduced the public to a welcomed means to combat the smell of man.

The romantic clothing from the middle ages, you know the fodder for romance novels, was a problem. Padded clothing was often worn for a person's lifetime and then passed down to an heir. Add to the clothing, voluminous petticoats for the women! Candles, rose water, potpourri, you name it, were used to make a room tolerable. The commoner just stunk, but the high class person could use some methods to "soften the smell". Doesn't anyone question the bathroom situation? The castles had a "chute" set up for a person to use. The common man used a ditch and when in the city, most any handy place. The streets smelled of urine and worse. People used a pot for the necessaries and then it was collected in a common or slop pot. How do you think the custom developed for the man to walk on the outside of the sidewalk? It was because the housewives dumped the slop pots out of the upstairs window and it often landed on the person walking on the outside of the sidewalk. The streets were open running SEWERS.

<-Queen Elizabeth I. During Elizabethan times, the use of cosmetics reached its height among the court. Queen Elizabeth of England, had some strange makeup ideas. Look closely at some of her pictures. She plucked her hair high on the forehead and painted blue lines on her skin. This was supposed to simulate the thin delicate skin of youth and give a high innocent youthful look. She also painted her lips with vegetable dyes. I checked many of her paintings, and it is true. The older she got, the more exaggerated the forehead and the veins. Lip color was made from fucus red was actually red mercuric sulfide. Often cosmetics contained low grade poisons. For many years, lead was used to powder the hair and the skin. You know what lead does? It is something we carefully check now to make sure our homes don't have lead paint so the children won't ingest paint. Lead causes retardation and many died young of lead poisoning. When someone realized the workers who prepared the lead powders were dying, rice powder came into vogue to give the wearer the alabaster complexion which was the ideal. Coal tar was used at times to line the eyes or darken the eyelashes and could cause blindness. There was no regulation of ingredients, anything went.

Courtiers applied one coat on top of another of lead powders to whiten their faces and necks; rouge made from mercuric sulphide; mercury sublimate for removing blemishes; and a hair dye of lead, sulphur, quicklime and water designed to match the Queen's natural red tresses (later, her wigs). This pale skin was the ideal because it meant the person did not have to be out in the sun working for a living. It could be achieved by a number of means, the most popular being ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was favored by the nobility and by those who could afford it. This white foundation was applied to the neck and bosom as well. The first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1521, and by the time of Elizabeth's reign was well-established as an essential item for the fashionable woman. Naturally, spreading lead upon one's skin caused a variety of skin problems; some authors of the time warned against it, describing how it made the skin "grey and shrivelled", and suggesting other popular mixtures such a paste of alum and tin ash, sulfur, and a variety of foundations made using boiled egg white, talc, and other white materials as a base. Of course, such heavy and often poisonous make-up caused serious skin damage. Egg white, uncooked, could also be used to "glaze" the complexion, creating a smooth shell, helping to hide wrinkles. Remedies for spots, blemishes, acne and freckles ranged from the application of lemon-juice or rosewater to dubious concoctions of mercury, alum, honey and eggshells. Indeed, washing one's face with mercury was a common period "facial peel" used to make a woman's skin soft and fresh. Ass's milk was another substance favored by the nobility, and mentioned as an ingredient in baths and washes. Women would use drops of belladonna in their eyes to achieve that bright sparkle, and outline them with kohl (powdered antimony) to enhance their size or make them appear more wide set. Plucked eyebrows were de rigeur for a court lady, as was a high brow. A high hairline had been for centuries a sign of the aristocracy--Women would pluck their brow hair back an inch, or even more, to create a fashionably high forehead. The peak of cosmetic use was reached in 18th century Europe where both sexes attempted a totally artificial appearance with cake makeup, heavy powders on skin and hair, and some paints.

There was no concept of a good diet either. Candy or Bon Bons were a favorite food of the rich. People were very unhealthy from the poor diets. Of course the teeth were rotten. Dentists pretty much pulled teeth, not filled them. A book from that day suggested the sleeper keep the mouth open at night so the mouth could be vented well. People thought white teeth were ugly, so they painted some of them black. The hair was often set with lard and one thought carefully about when to wash the hair. It was not considered healthy to do it very often, in fact, one did not bathe too often either because it opened the pores and one could get very ill. Often the ladies entertained when their hair was getting styled because the process took a full day. Men had elaborate coiffures also, in fact Beau Brummell was quite a dandy, he had three hairdressers, one for the top and back, one for each of the sides. Sometimes women used a cage to build an elaborate style and sometimes included a bird or small animal, that is how you got the high and elaborate styles you see in paintings. Don't forget the white lead powder in the hair, the powder diminished the effect of the lard. Sometimes a cage was set over the head at night to keep the rats from attacking the hair. Most people simply used nightcaps. Rats bit and attacked during the night and to protect the young children, they slept in a bed with the parents. I have heard stories about rats being the size of a small cat.

Perfumed candles, potpourri, perfume were used to mask the smells. Beauty marks in the shape of stars or crescents were used to put black cloth patches on a face to cover blemishes left from the common smallpox and then the wearer often used a few more to balance the effect. The most disgusting thing of all is what the ladies did for their complexion. They drank puppy dog urine. This was thought to be beneficial to their complexion and it was important to keep a puppy for this purpose. Thankfully this practice didn't make it to America and died out fairly quickly in Europe. Wealthy ladies also took baths in wine and milk to improve complexion.

<-Sniff box (Vinaigrette) from the Netherlands.
Nice smells must keep the bad smells away, right? So bad smells must be what makes a person sick! Many ladies had something called vinaigrettes. It was a coin silver box with elaborate design and had a sponge inside with perfume. When a lady went abroad, she would pull the vinaigrette out of her pocket and smell the good smell. I own several of these little boxes from the Netherlands and most every country used this method. When my family came to America, the ladies brought their silver boxes. In the Netherlands it was important to take these to church because the dead were buried under the church and in many cases, not deep enough. Some ladies used heavily perfumed hankys held over their nose when they went out. This is the background and many of these ideas came with the people to America.

The southern part of the United States, at least among the wealthier people, manufactured perfumes and cosmetics were used. All of them had to be imported in the early days of our history, mostly from France. When the capability of blowing glass and making containers in America was developed, then cosmetics and perfume began to be manufactured here in America. Poorer, northern and frontier women generally used very little in the way of cosmetics. There was the handy bacon grease for the complexion, the beet juice to color the lips, flour to add a bit of lightening to the skin. No one washed very often and after hours out in the fields working, none of the people smelled very good. Add to the problem, the Adirondack black fly and people carefully covered their skin from head to toe to avoid getting bitten. Lets talk about other things besides offending your nose for a few minutes. Since it was not healthy to wash often, the people were infested with fleas and lice almost without exception. They had to be scratching almost constantly and there was really no way to get relief. Most of us would be absolutely miserable in that time with those circumstances.

Some experiments have been made about living conditions, where a modern family lived in like circumstances for a period of time. Almost without exception, they couldn't wait to return to the modern life. Most missed their shampoo, electric lights, toothpaste and were bored out of their minds. The corsets, they said, were the worst of all. Unless they used corsets, none of the clothes would fit. Corsets were laced on every day, and usually they were not washed often. Even in colonial times, a tight vest or laced piece was used to hold the body firm. Most women used a vest with steel stays in them to give back support and make the waist appear smaller. Of course those people from the past, never knew another life. Many times the internal organs would be misshapen from the corsets and even ribs would be curved.

Caps, dust caps, etc., you know those cute ruffled things, were used because the hair was not clean and generally caked to the head from sweat and grease. Indians thought the white man smelled of sweat, white man thought the red man smelled from bear grease. Eventually, the nose doesn't smell familiar smells and that is why I think the other race was offended by the strange smell. Perhaps you have noticed if you use a fragrance often it ceases to impact your nose.

Since every room had a fire place and fire was used for cooking, the fire always lit, even on the hottest summer day. There were no screens on windows or doors, just cloth in some cases to keep out the bugs. Hands were not washed very often, all soap was homemade with wood ashes and animal fat. Clean Fingernails were probably not a priority and I imagine hard work kept them worn down or they were torn through use. Many went barefoot in the summertime and the ladies' skirts were about mid-calf in length to keep them from dragging in the wet grass and dirt.

Sickness and disease was not really understood. Most people were "doctored" by the woman of the family. In my family, wormwood was the cure all and in the other family various creative things were used like goose grease, various herbs, etc. My grandmother told about the time she was called to help a neighbor child in the early 1900's. The child couldn't breathe and so grandmother mixed some kerosene and sugar and gave it to the baby. "What didn't kill, made a person stronger." It helped and the child lived. Plagues were common and they were carried by varmints, just imagine the bacteria and viruses which could pass undeterred in that time. Little was known about the workings of the human body and constant pain had to be the norm for the people with no real way to deaden the pain or relieve the suffering. Not even aspirin was available. Women had children at home and either lived or didn't live. People were sick and either recovered or didn't recover; it was the way of the world. It was cruel!

Some richer folk had feather beds which was a luxury, but most used straw mattresses. Usually the straw was changed twice a year and by the end of the cycle, the straw tick was plenty flat. Then too there were bedbugs to bite the person overnight. Many families slept all on one bed or if they were lucky, the boys shared one bed, the girls another. Sometimes there was a low bed which pulled out from under the larger bed which the children used, the trundle. The bed was supported with ropes and when it would sag, everyone would gravitate towards the center of the bed. When the ropes were tight, it was a better night for all involved, hence the expression, "Sleep tight".

Imagine travel during that time. Often travelers were put in a bed with five strangers and the bedding in clean establishments was changed one time a week, which was considered excessive. Sheets were scrubbed by hand and later the housewife used a scrub board.

I read one time about New England children drinking apple cider as their common beverage. Towards spring, most of the children were slightly tipsy from the hard cider. Every house had a water barrel. The ladies on the frontier used this as their only mirror and everyone used the common dipper to drink from the barrel. To brush your teeth, one used a piece of cloth and some salt and bicarbonate of soda if there was any. There were no refrigerators, one used the cool cellar to keep some things. Later on ice was harvested and kept cool in sawdust.

Can you imagine the boredom of having no good lighting after dark? A candle flickering in a room makes ones eyes very heavy in a short time. People went to bed shortly after dark. One never traveled very far in the dark, it was impossible to see what was out there. Candle power simply didn't give off much light. Since the fire was always lit, there were times when there was no updraft and smoke filled the room. Even on a good day, there was smoke in the house air and eye irritation was common. Glasses were available, but not to the frontier people and not to the common person in the early days.

In colonial times, if a person was lucky, they had two sets of clothing. One for Sunday and one for work. They would have been aghast at the amount of clothing we use today. It took time to prepare the fibers, weave them, then make the clothing. Everything was hand made from shoes on up. The mother knitted socks, the father made shoes, and they were at the mercy of the skill of the maker. As trade expanded, the frontier life became easier and more goods were available.

Lord help anyone mentally ill, because the mental asylums were really bad. Pretty much the people were simply locked away. The Native Americans didn't understand mental illnes either, and turned the ill people out to fend for themselves. One archeological excavation locally revealed a woman buried much deeper than usual with a rock on her head. Apparently they wanted to make sure she didn't return to haunt them in her next life.

No wash and wear clothing, of course. The housewife had a back breaking job of trying to clean clothing. Remember she had to make her own soap and then scrub the clothing clean by hand. They had to be rinsed and wrung out by hand also. From there, they had to find a place to dry the clothes and then they had to be ironed with a flat. These were hand irons which were heated and held with padding to press the clothing. Wealthier homes sometimes had a clothes press where pressure was applied to the clothing while damp to flatten it out. Of course the clothing promptly wrinkled. Some sources say during the first 100 years after the Palatines arrived in the Mohawk Valley, customarily the laundry was held and done every month or sometimes every three months. Laundry starch was a chore to make and it was made from letting sliced potatoes stand in water for days. The starch would draw out of the potatoes and make the water cloudy, then the water was allowed to evaporate somewhat and then it was used as starch. In later years, sugar was used for starching but in colonial times, sugar was a scarce commodity.

The colonial lady used some limited cosmetics of her own making. There are mentions of mixing beet juice with lard or sometimes with talc, chalk or corn starch for lip color and cheek color. Bacon grease or lard was commonly used for skin cream. Through the ages, women often pinched their cheeks and bit their lips to bring color into them and moistened their eyelashes with their fingers.

No tissues to blow the nose, many just held their nose to help direct the blast, and gave a good blow into the bushes. Handkerchiefs were not kept clean, one just tried to dry them out and kept using the same cloth during the duration of a cold. There was no toilet paper for such frivolous use. Some societies just used the left hand for this purpose. In fact, in Afghanistan the left hand is still used and the right one for the common eating pot. If the person forgets and uses the left hand in the common pot, the person can be punished by cutting off their right hand which means he/she will starve to death. Once the outhouses came into being, life was a bit more pleasant. During my mother's early years, the Sears Roebuck Catalog was used as a read as you go project. One could tell the month of the year by the section in the catalog. August for instance was the harness section. Sometimes a handy broad leaf was used and many a person grabbed the wrong broad leaf and developed poison ivy or poison oak in a very bad spot. No one seems to want to discuss this subject, but privies or back houses were used fairly early on. The waste was cleaned out periodically and treated with wood ashes. Most city people used the pot which was kept in the bedroom, under the bed. Sir William Johnson was the first person in North America to have an outhouse when he lived at Fort Johnson, and it set over the creek to "flush". It is unknown when the common man began to use the outhouse. Many women wore no underwear in that day and those who did had large slits in them so it was easy to do what was necessary.

Quite often tableware was tin with wooden handles for the poorer folk. It was easy to scour those things clean, one just went outside and ran them up and down in the dirt, which was a common scouring agent for most things.

What about the baby? Some used the old world technique of bundling the baby and just scooping out the problem from time to time. Old clothing was sometimes used but always the baby was wet and smelly.

During Victorian times, people cleaned up quite a bit. Men abandoned cosmetics, women used just a few subtle ones. Cleanliness was considered next to godliness. But still the Victorian standards would not match our needs. The bathroom was usually a tub room where one could put heated water in the tub and then usually many from the household used the same water. My father told about bathing in his household as a child. The copper tub was partially filled and then heated on the stove. Then it was lifted to the place behind the stove and the family members stood and bathed one by one in the same water. They teased each other about the high glow boy and the low glow boy. The stove was a Glow Boy brand and when the behind connected with the hot stove, a burn resulted. The high glow boy was because one was shorter, the low glow boy was because the person was taller. Everyone in the family used the same tub and the same water. By the time the youngest member was bathed, the water was plenty murky. Hence the expression: "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water." Hair was still not washed very often and the lady was encouraged to brush her hair with 100 strokes each day. The shiny plastered down hair you see in those stiff old photographs was from greasy hair.

Keeping warm was another time consuming chore. Imagine the prodigious amounts of wood needed to keep a fire going at all times for cooking purposes. So much of life was consumed by just keeping the daily chores going for maintenance of the body and household. Keep the good old days, please.

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