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.
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 body clean…because it was assumed that the underwear itself was the agent that cleaned the body; that it absorbed the body’s impurities and and the dirt and the sweat and so on,” he says.
These linens were supposed to be a little visible around the collar, so that others could see how clean and morally pure the person wearing them was. A Puritan “minister’s distinctive display of white linen marked him as not only a man of God but also a gentleman,” writes Kathleen M. Brown, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, in Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America.
“In an age not characterized by regular full-body bathing,” she continues, “no gentleman wearing white linen at the neck could neglect to change it regularly, for a collar worn for too many days would display his skin’s effusions to the world.”
Puritans also thought that keeping their bed linens clean was a way of keeping their bodies clean. Going to bed without taking off one’s outer clothes was considered unhygienic and immoral. In a letter from 1639, a colonist in Maine accused his maid of being “sluttish” for going “beed with her Cloth & stockins,” thus dirtying her bed linens.
The Native Americans that colonists encountered had different priorities in terms of hygiene. Like the Wampanoag, most Native Americans bathed openly in rivers and streams. And they also thought it was gross for Europeans to carry their own mucus around in handkerchiefs.
Most Native people’s teeth were also in much better shape than Europeans’. Native people cleaned their mouths using a variety of methods, including brushing their teeth with wooden chew sticks, chewing on fresh herbs like mint to freshen their breath and rubbing charcoal on their teeth to whiten them. In contrast, most Europeans who came over may not have brushed their teeth at all, and had a diet that was generally worse for their oral health.
The colonists’ lack of hygiene was more than just a smelly inconvenience to the Native Americans they encountered. It also posed a very real danger. Unwashed colonists passed along microbes to which Native Americans had no prior exposure, and therefore no immunity.
Historians estimate that European diseases wiped out more than 90 percent of the Native people in coastal New England before 1620, the year the Pilgrims arrived. Over the next few decades, European diseases would wipe out millions more.