A Look Into The Unpleasant Hygiene Habits From America’s Old West

By: Riley Brown | Last updated: Apr 12, 2022

There’s a lot we take for granted these days. For example, we don’t think twice about asking people to wash their hands before entering our homes. We live in an era of unprecedented cleanliness. It’s even rare nowadays to see kids with food all over their faces riding the bus or subway.

Just a century ago, such cleanliness would have been considered strange. They had shocking habits back then that would make us shudder now, but then again, it was a different time. To instill a sense of thankfulness for the present, let’s take a moment to look back in horror at these hygiene “highlights” from America’s wild, wild west.

Outdoor Bathrooms

Today, we are used to having indoor plumbing. We enjoy the luxury of having comfort when doing our business. Back then, though, there were no such amenities. Pioneers had bathrooms outside their homes instead. These were usually low-cost timber shacks with holes in the ground.


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Most people had to make do with sheds, which were essentially shelters built over trenches in the ground. The problem with the outdoor bathrooms during that time was that they were open to dangerous critters like spiders and snakes. Black widow spiders are always ready to pounce if you come in contact with them.


Insufficient Water Supply

A lack of water was one of many issues that plagued the Old West. Because there was not enough water, people tended not to wash their clothes and dishes. After all, they needed to conserve what little water they had. 


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This action led to the proliferation of diseases that could endanger people’s lives. If you do not wash your dishes, germs proliferate, and people are more likely to contract life-threatening diseases. So, this water shortage was probably responsible for many lost lives.

Dental Hygiene Was Nowhere To Be Found

Dental health is one of many things people neglected centuries ago. They either ignore it or don’t know what could go wrong if they don’t take care of it. Either way, the results were terrible.


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If you’re wondering where cowboys brushed their teeth or washed their mouths, there was a facility dedicated to doing just that. Just don’t expect too much from this facility. You would have to use a communal toothbrush, which is not very hygienic even if you’re only sharing it with one person. Can you imagine sharing a toothbrush with countless filthy cowboys? Gross.

Shared Towels

One of the many things people in the Wild West were into was going to their local pub to drink. They enjoyed drinking a glass of ale with a lot of foam on it. The only problem is, foam is pretty bad if you have a mustache.


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The result of enjoying your favorite foamy ale is that you’ll have a foam mustache. But don’t worry, pubs back then took the initiative of putting a towel out for you to wipe your face. However, it was a shared towel, so these men were at risk of getting a disease from other strangers.

Getting Medical Attention Was Tough

During the frontier days, medical professionals were scarce. People who were sick would look for help from someone who dressed like a doctor, not sure if they had any medical qualifications. They weren’t as clueless as they sound, though.


Their practices weren’t up to par with those of modern medical experts. As a result, diseases were not managed effectively. This meant your chances of getting a cure were minimal. Though they did their best, the medical “professionals” of the pioneer days regularly lost patients due to their lack of knowledge, particularly about hygiene. 


Mattresses Full of Lice and Fleas

Fleas and lice are closely related parasites that feed on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded mammals. They are transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces or the feces of an infected animal. Imagine having that on your mattress. Scary, right?

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Mattresses were a luxury in certain circumstances throughout the Wild West since they were expensive. They were filled with straw and hay most of the time, making it easier for the insects to nest. It became a haven for these insects to breed. Simply trying to get some sleep could result in bites and skin rashes, giving many pioneers a bad case of bed head.


No Screens on Doors and Windows

Bugs are notorious for disturbing every living thing around them, and for frontiersmen and women, this was something they dealt with all the time. Bugs troubled them at all times of the day, while they were eating, catching up with their friends, and even when they were fast asleep at night.

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It was a major issue in their lives. Imagine an insect landing on the meal you’re eating without you realizing it originated from the sewers. What do you believe will happen? Of course, infections that are fatal to humans may enter your system. This was what frontier folk dealt with on a daily basis.


Dangerous Prescriptions

In line with quack doctors, dangerous prescriptions were rampant during the Old West. An example of this is calomel, a formula given to the public before we knew the high mercury level was a problem.  The “medicine” was employed as a purgative since it caused a large amount of saliva to flow.

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The problem is that it causes dental issues. It’s also never a good idea to consume anything with a high mercury content. It can result in severe brain problems, heart palpitations, convulsions, paralysis, and in some cases, people would pass away from it.


Toxic Water

You are wrong if you imagine that a scarcity of water was the main problem people faced in the Old West. Some people were also exposed to unsafe water, making it more difficult to maintain basic hygiene since they lacked water access in general.

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One of the most challenging issues they faced was obtaining clean water. This commodity was far from guaranteed for the early American immigrants. The risk of diseases from water contaminated with bacteria and parasites was high. 


Bathing Problems

Because of the problems with water supply, bathing was a rare habit before and after the Civil War. It was something people weren’t in the habit of doing, and it was limited anyway due to concerns about the cleanliness of the water supply.

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Taking a bath used to be a luxury most people at the time would overlook. When we compare it to today, we have come so far because we have realized that cleanliness is something that you must have to preserve your physical and emotional health and well-being.


Expensive Soap

Currently, we have different brands of soap offering various benefits. You can choose from the cheapest to the most expensive brands of soap that keep your skin clean and healthy. However, back in the day, they didn’t have the luxury of picking the type of soap they’d use.


If they decided to take a bath, they had to purchase an expensive soap made of animal fat. Given how much it costs, you’d think it would be beneficial to their skin. We’re sorry to disappoint you, but no. When people used it, their skin became irritated. No wonder they didn’t like bathing! 


Body Odors Were the Norm

People from the Western Frontier days were clouded by their beliefs that taking a bath could lead to diseases. Imagine living today and still believing that taking a bath is terrible for your health. It would leave you in a state of hopelessness and confusion.

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Since they believed in such things, they felt that body odor was a good sign, and everyone should have it. Thankfully, we’ve grown out of that mindset and realized how vital it is to keep our bodies clean and healthy.


Spitting Anywhere Was Absolutely Fine

Spitting in public is a disgusting act of disrespect towards the people around you. This is because spitting, even in small amounts, can carry a wide range of diseases. Using a spittoon, people in the Wild West could relieve themselves of their phlegm.

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Many people have had this habit in the past, and as a result, diseases spread like wildfire. We can only imagine how awful it was to live in those times, especially given the scarcity of medical specialists. You would never know what was in store for you when you left your house.


Sawdust Surprise

In relation to spitting, people in the Wild West were used to relaxing on sawdust. But because of their chronic spitting, they would constantly be surrounded by chewed and spit-out tobacco, with layers of saliva included. This is a perfect example of how they disregarded hygiene.


Travelers stopped at taverns for a break, unaware that they were sleeping in spit and chewed up tobacco. Imagine resting soundly in a bed full of spit and germs. That would be a nightmare for a citizen of the 21st century.


Frosty Baths in Winter

A hot bath was not an accessible luxury in the Old West. Soldiers and cowboys roaming the region would go for a month or two without showering at all. If they did bathe, it would be in streams where they were unsure about the cleanliness of the water.

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They put themselves at risk every time they did this since the water from the stream might be tainted with harmful pollutants. The chilly temperature throughout the winter added to the discomfort. If people did try to bathe, they could end up with frostbite.


Shampoo Made of Whiskey

Did you know that centuries ago, whiskey was used as shampoo? People from the Old West used Whiskey with lavender and castor oil as shampoo. It might sound strange to most people today, but can you imagine how you would smell after taking a bath?


Thank goodness for modern-day shampoos that don’t require the use of alcohol. Whiskey as a shampoo could successfully clean your scalp, but it certainly wouldn’t leave you feeling fresh. The smell of it would be too overwhelming.


The Smell of Cowboys

When you think of the word cowboy, what comes to mind? People with boots and hats fit the bill, but a cowboy wouldn’t be a cowboy without his horse. Right? They rode their horses all day, so they tended to share the same smell.

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People back then weren’t worried about smelling like a horse. They didn’t see it as unhygienic. We hope you take good care of your pets, and of course, take good care of yourself, especially your hygiene.


Travelers Were Never Alone

There are times when travelers need a room to stay in for the night. Nowadays, we can simply book a hotel with a television, a hot and cold shower, air conditioning, and many things that make the stay more relaxing.

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People in the Old West, on the other hand, did not have the luxuries we enjoy now. Instead, they had to make do with a bed that many other people had used and abused. They slept with fleas and lice, but at least that meant they never had to be alone!


The Beards

Men in the Old West loved their beards. Not all, but most of the men who lived at the time had one. Having a beard was not a problem, but maintaining its cleanliness was. On top of all the other hygiene problems they faced at the time, Americans also had to deal with beard dramas.


With water scarce and soap overpriced, men didn’t have the necessities to keep their beards clean. Bacteria could live there, resulting in severe diseases. Since access to medical professionals was also limited in the Old West, this was one of the most common reasons to discourage men from growing a beard.


Valley Fever

Coccidioides fungus, or Valley fever, is a fungal disease caused by the Coccidioides immitis fungus. People from the Old West were regularly exposed to this fungus. Coccidioides fungus can cause severe complications for immunocompromised individuals. The Valley Fever fungus is complex and dangerous.

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When you don’t take care of yourself, your health falters. People may not seek treatment for this fungal infection, leading to more complications and possibly losing one’s life. Individuals who have had an organ transplant also run a high risk of contracting this disease.


A Misunderstanding of Medicine

People in the American Old West thought that the more uncomfortable a remedy was, the more effective it was. It’s a ludicrous concept, but many people still hold that the weirder something tastes and smells, the more successful it will be in curing illnesses.


Because of this belief, many people during that time ended up drinking sulfur, which is horrible for the human body. They believed that it could cure them, but the truth is that most of them passed away in agony when they tried it out.


Horrifying Dental Practices

People in the Old West had to endure horrifying dental practices. If you had dental issues, you were often advised to visit a barbershop or a blacksmith at that time instead of going to a dentist.

George Cruikshank

Some of the practices resulted in dislocated jaws because people had little to no knowledge of proper treatments. According to a quote from Professor Joana Bourke, written in True West magazine, “Agonizing toothache, horrifying extractions, and barbaric tools have cast a large shadow over our dental past.”


Bizarre Practices from Medical Professionals

Even if you were lucky enough to discover a real medical practitioner in the Wild West, there was no guarantee that they’d treat you properly. Even if they obtained a medical license, they would engage in practices that seem odd today.

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Imagine being sick during that time – you didn’t know what was causing your sickness, but you couldn’t trust just anyone to help you. People would end up resorting to ludicrous treatments. Some of these worked in certain situations, but many caused more harm than good.


Prescribing Powerful Purgatives

Doctors of the Old West were fascinated by powerful purgatives, which are dangerous to the patient’s health and might be life-ending. The belief was that cleaning the body would help to overcome sickness. However, as you may expect, contemporary doctors would not advise doing so.

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Ipecac syrup was a popular purgative. It is made by boiling the roots of the ipecac plant and some other ingredients, such as wheat or rye, then filtering it through a sieve to extract the liquid. It was widely prescribed as a purgative for various conditions, from heart disease to stomach aches and diarrhea.


Frontier Physicians Were Quacks

Whether or not they were medically qualified, doctors experimented greatly during this time. One good example of this can be found in their malaria treatments. Back then, people suffering from malaria would be left without clothes in an open area to become chilled.

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They also used a bucket of cold water to induce shivering. If the tremors became unbearable, opium was given. This is a narcotic and is a derivative of the poppy plant. Its active component helped relieve pain.


Useless Medical Equipment

The quirks of doctors may have been wild, but the medical equipment they used back then was even more unsettling. We think we’ve seen a lot of absurd things, but this one tops them all.

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A piece of equipment called a pulsometer was used to read things from a patient’s body. Honestly, we don’t know how it worked or if it worked at all, but we’d love to know how people were able to get their hands on this in the past.


A Coarse Soap for Your Hair

Hair is thought of as a crowning glory by most people, which is why you automatically feel a bit down when experiencing a bad hair day. Luckily, we have all sorts of hair products in the modern world that help us keep our hair healthy and in good condition.

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People in the Wild West used coarse soap whenever they washed their hair. This product was unsuited for their hair. As a result, many people, especially women, washed their hair as rarely as they could.


Accidentally Drinking Leeches

People succumbed to drinking water infested by leeches because the water supply was lacking in the Old West. It’s sad but true. There are many things people did in the past to survive that are genuinely fascinating but scary for us now.

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Don’t worry. If the patient accidentally ingested one of the leeches, the treatment was to drink a glass of wine every 15 minutes, hoping that the alcohol would eliminate the parasites. This treatment is not horrible, but still, this type of practice would not help anyone at all.


Number of Teeth Required for Military Service

We all know how gruesome people’s dental health was in the Old West. They didn’t have access to water. On top of that, toothbrushes and toothpaste were not common commodities. Despite all this, teeth were given importance in the Wild West.

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The US Army was interested in the mouths of the men from the Old West. According to the book Frontier Medicine, “Recruits were turned away if they did not have six opposing upper and lower front teeth with which to bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with muzzle-loaded weapons.


Sacrificing Dogs

With a bit of knowledge of medical treatments and the scarcity of medical professionals, people from the Old West were doing things that they really shouldn’t have been doing, like slaughtering young dogs to cure gout and rheumatism. How absurd! 

Engin Akyurt

We can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for them to take the lives of innocent pups for no good reason. We want to believe that things like this were done out of innocent ignorance, but the reality remains that this was terrible and that doing so is wrong regardless of reasonings.


The Risk of Giving Birth

Giving birth put women from the Old West at risk of dying during labor, especially those who experienced complications. As mentioned many times in this article, there were few real medical professionals back then. Thus, it was hard to find anyone equipped with the proper knowledge to help those women in need of assistance.


Dr. John Richmond was likely the first medical specialist in the western frontier areas to conduct a successful C-section, according to a 1963 American Heritage article. Even today, with modern medical technology and well-trained doctors, the risk of giving birth still exists.


Sucking a Lemon

We all know lemon is good for you. It has vitamin C that is good for your immune system, and whole lemons can be a source of fiber. It’s a miracle fruit! No wonder people from the Old West used to suck lemon to prevent diseases, such as scurvy.

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Scurvy is a disease that affected mariners from the Old West. It is brought on by a lack of Vitamin C. The deficiency, in turn, reduces collagen and leads to the formation of lesions in the gums and around the mouth.


Quack Doctors Reigned Supreme in the Old West

As previously stated, many doctors in the Old West were not medically competent. They hadn’t been trained, and in fact, many of them were actually criminals. What led to their patient’s demise was often a lack of knowledge and the absence of proper tools.

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Imagine having someone who isn’t qualified to provide medical treatment handling your care. That would be chaos, right? The worst part is, due to the ignorance of the time, you wouldn’t even have known whether you were being given a relevant treatment. Thank goodness, such things are no longer an issue; we can all go to the hospital and be assured that a trained doctor will assist us.


No Toilet Paper

We are all pampered by many products for health and hygiene today, but centuries ago, these types of products were nowhere to be found. For example, toilet tissue – an item many of us wouldn’t live without – was not yet available.

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The people from the Old West had to use anything from corncobs to grass. We are just so lucky to have access to the products we have now. Can you imagine having to use grass? Let’s all take a moment to add toilet paper to the many blessings we have to be thankful for each day!


A Huge Crowd During Operations

There’s a reason why doctors and nurses wear gloves and scrubs when performing an operation or cleaning up after one. Hospitals are full of microorganisms that can harm you, which is why it’s essential to take precautions. However, people from the Old West weren’t aware of this.

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You could always tell who’d had recent surgery in the Old West – all you had to do was follow the screams. Surgeons during that era didn’t clean up after themselves and didn’t use gloves, so they would inadvertently create plenty of opportunities for bacteria and other pathogens to infect wounds. How disturbing! 


Using the Same Water to Wash Their Hands

Washing one’s hands is a perfect practice for preventing disease, and for this reason, it is one of the essential measures in sanitation. Washing your hands is one of the easiest and simplest steps you can take to prevent the spread of infection and disease!

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However, some people used the same water to wash their hands over and over again in the Old West because water was scarce. This made it practically pointless to wash their hands because they would only end up contaminating the communal bowl. Bacterias would simply spread from one person to another.


Whiskey to Sterilize Medical Equipment

Nowadays, doctors sterilize their medical tools using specialized machines and processes designed to get rid of all the microbes on the devices. Steam is pumped in for the precise amount of time needed to eliminate any bacteria that might have crept in during use.


Centuries ago, doctors used whiskey to sterilize their tools. It has antibacterial properties that could eradicate the bacteria on the instruments, and it is also not very expensive, making it more affordable for clinicians in the Old West. There’s no telling on how many weird things frontier physicians did during this time.


STDs in the Old West

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were rampant from the Old West. STDs are commonly acquired when individuals engage in unprotected sexual intercourse. An estimate is that about 90% of prostitutes at the time were positive for at least one STD. 

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It’s sad to know that people had to suffer from these diseases because of their lack of knowledge about taking care of themselves. We’re lucky to be educated on what to do and what not to do to avoid these things. Of course, some people still have to learn this lesson the hard way.


Sharing Utensils

We can all agree that sharing utensils is unhygienic. You are at risk of acquiring bacteria like salmonella and campylobacter that can cause severe diseases. Although the concept of sharing utensils was created for practical purposes, it resulted in numerous infections and lost lives.

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Not only should you avoid sharing utensils, but you should also ensure that your utensils are carefully cleaned before use. It’s even worth doing this when you dine out at a restaurant. People from the Old West neglected the risks and enjoyed sharing meals, cups, spoons, and forks with anybody – a habit that is not advisable.


Dickens Was Unimpressed

Charles Dickens was an author who toured the US and wrote about his experience. Dickens was vociferous in expressing his disgust with what he saw during his visit to the Illinois City of Cairo. He described it as “a breeding place of fever, ague, and death.”

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Dickens even said that the people of Cairo were “more wan and wretched than any we had encountered.” We can see where he’s coming from after learning about all the bad hygiene practices that were prevalent at the time. We hope that you will take note of this and take the most outstanding care of your hygiene from this day forth!