Frequent Bathing is Harmful to Health: 17th Century Pilgrims

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by Brenda F. Johnson Brenda F. Johnson, MSN

Specializes in Gastrointestinal Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

On a recent trip to Boston, I toured the recreated homestead of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I was fascinated by their living conditions. The struggle of such a rugged life did not leave me envious. Learning that they didn’t bathe very often left me intrigued to find out why.

17th Century Bathing Practices

Frequent Bathing is Harmful to Health: 17th Century Pilgrims

History of 17th Century Bathing

As with many beliefs and ideals of centuries ago, people often based their decisions on religious customs and superstitions. People of all social and economic classes living in  Europe during the 17th century transitioned from public bathhouses to not bathing in water except for a couple of times a year. In the Middle Ages, bathhouses were very popular, but because they promoted sexual freedom, they fell out of popularity. This sexual freedom didn’t settle well with the strict Roman Catholic and Puritan views. 

According to the article by Kelly White, “Colonial Hygiene - The Dirty Truth”, the colonists thought that bathing would strip their skin of oils that protected them from disease (2020). They were correct in the fact that too frequent bathing would strip their skin, however, it is unlikely that their infrequent bathing of 3 to 4 times a year was harmful to their health - only to their fellow humans’ noses. They often washed their hands and face however, and sometimes bathed for medical reasons using herbs such as rosemary (White, 2020). But submerging their naked bodies in water was thought to be unhealthy and immodest. Obtaining water for a bath was a difficult chore as well, which impeded frequent bathing. By today’s standards, this seems strange, but to them, they were maintaining their health and religious convictions. 

Public bathing also fell out of popularity when the plague hit. This led to the thought process that submersion in water was dangerous to the body (Linen and Laundry, 2015). Excessive temperatures were also thought to be harmful to the body, as well as moisture. Sweating was encouraged because doctors believed it was the body ridding itself of toxins (Linen and Laundry, 2015). Not only that but the toxins were believed to be able to come back into the body and enter the bloodstream through the skin, causing disease and possibly death. 

How Clothing Represents Purity

Another layer of reasoning to justify not bathing often was the colonists' tradition of changing undergarments. They felt that wearing clean undergarments (linens) meant that they were clean; the underclothes absorbed all of their dirt and sweat and negated the need for further bathing (Little, 2019). The underwear was thought to clean the body, absorbing all of the impurities. This was partly about appearance, which was important to the early settlers. To be thought of as clean equated with being recognized as moral. Having sparkling clean, white collars showed that they were not only clean but morally pure (Little, 2019). 

Keeping bed linens clean was also important. Therefore, taking off outer clothes was important to the Puritans when going to bed, but taking off their underclothes was immodest (Little, 2019). They intertwined physical cleanliness with moral cleanliness. 

The Native Wampanoag People 

On the other side of the coin are the Indians. The Native People had no such fear of bathing and took part in it on a regular basis. The Wampanoag people (People of the First Light) wore clothes made from deerskin that was weather resistant. The women wore skirts made of deerskin and, in the cold weather, leggings. Both women and men wore mantles (like cloaks) made of deerskin and wrapped them around their bodies in different ways. 

Disease From Overseas

The Pilgrims brought black rats over on the ships which carried leptospirosis. This caused fever, nosebleeds, and body aches. The rats would deposit their bacteria into the fresh water that the Indians bathed in and hunted from. 

It is common knowledge that the Pilgrims brought disease to the Native People that killed a large number. Unfortunately, the Pilgrims did not understand that they had, in fact, been the reason for the deaths of so many. The Pilgrims had lost many of their own on the voyages to their new home as well. But both groups of people persisted and probably learned a lot from each other. 

Conclusion

The fact that Pilgrims and the rest of Europe believed bathing to be dangerous seems outlandish. Most modern people bathe daily and use multiple lotions, soaps, and deodorants to clean and moisturize their skin. There are stores full of different companies’ skin care and facial care, and perfumes. When a person chooses not to bathe, we are disgusted and hold our noses. If a patient comes into the hospital dirty, we give them a bath. The first thing a patient receives in ICU is a wipe down from head to toe with special wipes to prevent disease and the spread of germs. 

We now have science on our side to help us learn how to keep our bodies healthy and free from disease. Nursing uses evidence-based practice to make policies and guide procedures. Previous practices that worked are made policy, while those that failed have taught us to keep trying and find the best way to move forward. Medicine is constantly evolving with better ways to treat and prevent disease. What has been your experience with a patient who doesn’t practice good hygiene?


References

Little, Becky. Why Pilgrims Arriving in America Resisted Bathing. (2019) History.

White, Kelly. Colonial Hygiene - The Dirty Truth, (2020).

Pennsbury Manor
 

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7 Comment(s)

HiddenAngels

HiddenAngels

Has 8 years experience. 437 Posts

Okay pause, you can't have it both ways.  It's okay to not bathe but okay to change into clean underwear and clean sheets.  Nope, I would have been a butterfly.  Maybe they were just preserving water which I can get behind, because in these days we are extremely wasteful with water.

I treat my patients that don't have good hygiene by offering a bath.  I've never had a no.

RNperdiem

RNperdiem, RN

Has 14 years experience. 4,531 Posts

Interesting article. My mother was raised on a farm without running water.  In her day, once a week full baths was a practical decision because it is incredibly labor-intensive to haul gallons and gallons of water to the house (stream or well might be far away), heat water on the stove to reach a tolerably warm level to fill a bathtub. 

For daily hygiene a sponge bath with, washcloths a bowl of warm water and soap was easier and more practical. 

Emergent, RN

Specializes in ER. Has 29 years experience. 2 Articles; 4,003 Posts

The American obsession with showering is not necessarily the best for health of the immune system. 

Taking showers frequently can damage the immune system

Showering daily -- is it necessary (Harvard Health)

From the Harvard Medical School article:

"

Skin may become dry, irritated, or itchy.

Dry, cracked skin may allow bacteria and allergens to breach the barrier skin is supposed to provide, allowing skin infections and allergic reactions to occur.

Antibacterial soaps can actually kill off normal bacteria. This upsets the balance of microorganisms on the skin and encourages the emergence of hardier, less friendly organisms that are more resistant to antibiotics.

Our immune systems need a certain amount of stimulation by normal microorganisms, dirt, and other environmental exposures in order to create protective antibodies and "immune memory." This is one reason why some pediatricians and dermatologists recommend against daily baths for kids. Frequent baths or showers throughout a lifetime may reduce the ability of the immune system to do its job."

I also want to mention that all the skin products that people use disrupt the endocrine system by introducing xenoestrogens into the body. That has all kinds of ramifications.

toomuchbaloney

toomuchbaloney

Specializes in NICU, PICU, Transport, L&D, Hospice. Has 43 years experience. 8,575 Posts

I live in the interior of Alaska where a high percentage of the population does not have a well or connection to a municipal water source. Daily showers waste water.

kbrn2002, ADN, RN

Specializes in Geriatrics, Dialysis. Has 20 years experience. 3,621 Posts

I vaguely remember as a kid a movement to decrease water use, hearing "save water, shower with a friend"  on either radio or TV ads. This would have been the late 60's to early 70's.  I was too young to pay much attention to the reason behind that, not sure if it was a widespread or local drought? We lived in Milwaukee at the time so we definitely had a more than adequate water supply but my extended family lived in the Yakima Valley in Washington where large orchards and field crops required frequent irrigation so I may be remembering that from family trips back there.  Does anybody else remember this "save water, shower with a friend" ad? 

SmilingBluEyes

Specializes in Specializes in L/D, newborn, GYN, LTC, Dialysis. Has 25 years experience. 20,954 Posts

You know in Winter, I often take showers every other day. I have had no complaints about my smell. (including those who would tell me if I did smell! LOL). I wear a very good deodorant----one that lasts like 72 hours. My hair is very curly and tends to be dry, so I wash it once a week. I think some beneficial microbes on our skin are a good thing. But come Summer, since I sweat, I do shower every day. It's a must for me.

londonflo

londonflo

Specializes in oncology. Has 45 years experience. 2,040 Posts

On 8/11/2022 at 4:57 AM, kbrn2002 said:

.  Does anybody else remember this "save water, shower with a friend" ad? 

I lived in Milwaukee at that time and I remember the ads