The Old West Stinks

    Many colorful adjectives and adverbs have been attached to the Old West. It was bloody, romantic, exciting, epic, etc. However, amidst all the high drama, an oft overlooked fact of the era was that our pioneer forefathers (and mothers) were probably highly odiferous. To put it bluntly, the Old West simply stunk to the high heavens.

I’ve always believed in reading primary sources for research purposes, and I got quite a chuckle recently while perusing a home remedy journal dated from 1890.  Although the author emphasizes the correlation between cleanliness and good health and stresses the use of antiseptics for wounds, his concept of adequate hygiene is a little different from ours. The public is urged to take at least one bath a week (whether they needed it or not).  Also, a cleanly citizen is advised to thoroughly wash and comb their hair with soap and water at least every two weeks for healthy and luxurious locks.

Many U.S. cities were without running water, or municipal water systems, well past 1900.  Of course, pioneers on the frontier of the American West faced even harsher conditions.  Unlike today, there was no coming home from work to a quick hot shower and microwave cooked meal before flopping down on the bed or in front of the TV.  A bath could be an arduous task unless you were rich enough to have a well plumbed into your house.  Carrying water in buckets from a well, river, spring or other supply source was highly labor intensive, added to by the need to build a fire to warm the bath.  Once the old bathtub or galvanized wash tub was filled, an entire family might have to share the water. It’s understandable that old-time accounts state that many of the most cleanly and fastidious of families on the frontier often made a weekly bath a ritual. A wash pan to clean faces and hands was all you might get during the time in between your Sunday or Saturday scrubbing.

One of the styles of the Victorian Era was for men to wear wool suits, coat and vest.  Also, the long petticoats, skirts, bustles, and girdles women wore weren’t what could be termed as “warm climate friendly.” Summer temperatures in West Texas or the plains of Wyoming swelter past 100 degrees and humidity levels in the South are often in excess of 90%.  Given that there were no stick deodorants in the 19th Century, a world filled with once-a-week bathers was probably highly odiferous to say the least. A gathering of wool-coated men and stylish ladies might have smelled like a sheep pen. The author of the medical journal seemed to have that in mind when he provided the recipe for perfumes among his pages.

Many Western authors have orphaned the heroes of their stories with the historically accurate use of a cholera plague.  Cholera outbreaks killed thousands during the first hundred years of our great nation.  Those affected with the disease suffered severe, watery diarrhea. Cholera was often called the Blue Death, as many of the ill turned a pale blue due to dehydration. Many of the frontier settlements, and cities alike, lacked sewage systems and sanitary garbage disposal.   Floods and high waters during the rainy season often contaminated drinking water sources with smelly #2 containing the bacteria that caused cholera.

Despite the concept of the Noble Savage, Native Americans weren’t the immaculately clean people clad in spotless buckskins the movies would have us believe. Water is and was in short supply in many of the arid western lands, and frigid winter temperatures weren’t conducive to bathing.  Rather than a bath in a tepee, many tribes resorted to scouring themselves with sand. Grime, blood, and animal fat stained buckskins until a new pair was made.  Combs were used among Native Americans, but often fellow tribe members helped pick the nits and lice out of each others’ hair.  Western travelers of the 1800′s noted how many of the tribes coated their hair and sometimes their skin in bear grease. While somewhat smelly, the shine it produced was the epitome of a stylish, fashion-conscious Indian. Other historical accounts tell that one of the reasons the nomadic plains tribes move their camps so often wasn’t just because of the need to follow buffalo herds or to locate other food sources.  Breaking camp was often a means to get away from the reek of feces, carcass refuse, and so on.  One early day trailblazer said the stench of a recently vacated Comanche camp could be smelled a mile away.

I assume that the noses of those living in earlier times were adjusted to the smell of their fellow man, but if we were to take a time machine back to our beloved past we might immediately want to call in the Old Spice dude to doctor up long, tall Matt Dillon, or hand Miss Kitty a bar of soap.