• Notes From The Frontier

Bathing in the Old West


Today, we take our modern amenities—especially clean water and hot water, running water inside the house, and showers and bathtubs—for granted. But keeping a body clean in the 1800s, especially on the frontier, was an arduous and time-consuming job. Most folks on the frontier bathed in rivers or ponds when they were available or took sponge baths from a metal or porcelain basin. But there were plenty of people who seldom did that!

Early homesteaders had to carry water from a stream, river or pond. Wells and iron hand pumps were not built on the frontier until relatively late—the 1870s–and even then, water had to be carried from the well. Many homesteaders and ranchers bathed in the horse trough. That was their bathtub. The fact that their farm animals drank from the trough was of no concern.

Later wooden bathing tubs could be purchased for the home. Saturday evening was often bath day and the entire family took a bath in the same water so they would be clean for the Sabbath and church or worship. Pa was first, then Ma, then the children. The wooden tubs were filled with water, usually cold. Hot water was a luxury. Heating water in the fireplace or over the iron stove was another very arduous and time-consuming task. Usually, by the time Pa was done with his bath, the water was tepid at best for the rest of the family.


The first modern public bath was opened in Liverpool, England, in 1829 and soon spread across Europe and to America. Even in the American West, bathhouses started sprouting up—from the most crude (See photograph of 1892 Arkansas bath house) to more luxurious facilities in cities. A basic cold bath in used water was the cheapest. People had to pay a premium for hot water and clean water! Soap and a towel were extra too.

During the Civil War, science had progressed to the point that good hygiene was recognized as helping to prevent disease. In 1861, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was created as a relief agency to help wounded soldiers, and it pioneered a new era of sanitation after discovering that by simply washing patients, their clothes, and the walls of their rooms, disease could be decreased dramatically.

As a result, hygiene practices began to change among the civilian populace as well. Along with hygiene trends, new hygiene products—soaps, shampoos, perfumes, laundry detergents, and mouth and teeth cleansers—began pouring into the marketplace.

Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, wrote: “Before the war, Americans had been just as dirty as Europeans, and they came out of the war thinking cleanliness is democratic… It’s progressive. It’s forward-looking. It has wonderful results. They quickly thought this is yet another way in which life in the New World is so much better than life in the Old World.”

When modern advertising, which originated in America in the early to mid-1800s began to take hold, the advertising of hygiene products was immediately associated with purity and goodness. The adage, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” appealed to an American culture with such stolid Puritan and religious roots. And, thus, Americans began their obsession with cleanliness and daily washing.

See related post: “Outhouses: Gems of American Architecture.” Read about The Great Cincinnati Outhouse Disaster of 1904!


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  • Notes From the Frontier