My first introduction to ceramic basins and pitchers was at the Betsy Ross home in Philadelphia. I was blessed to have an uncle who loved history as much as I did, and our visit to Pennsylvania to see him when I was ten included the historical tour.
I was in awe of the antique furnishings but what really grabbed my attention were the pitchers and basins. They had a small gift shop at the Ross home and I purchased miniature versions of these lovely remnants of personal cleaning in the colonies. I kept them for years and my fascination of these now decorative pieces lingers in my own home today.
These pitchers, also called ewers, have been a standard design for carrying water for thousands of years. Wealthier families owned ornate sets that might be made of silver or porcelain. Large households would provide fresh water in the pitcher and the wide bowl to wash in each morning in every bedchamber. Of course, humbler households would be fortunate to have one set for cleaning the entire family.
Standard practice in Early America was to clean only the face and hands, according to Shirley Glubock’s Home and Child Life in Colonial Days. She cites an old time book of children’s etiquette called “The Youth’s Behavior” that “lays down an assertion that it is a point of wholesomeness to wash one’s face and hands as soon as one is up and dressed.”
The level of body odor in Colonial America would likely cause us to cover our noses, yet whole body bathing was rarely, if ever, performed. As Jack Larkin points out in The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790 – 1840, “Americans were not clean and decent by todays standards, and it was virtually impossible that they should be.”
Larkin describes a New England farmer’s household where each member would go down to the lean-to sink next to the kitchen to wash up every morning. If it were freezing outside, they might have to break the ice in the sink (or bowl) and, if they were fortunate, might be able to add some warm water from the kettle on the hearth. It sounds…brisk!
The washing was done solely with water, saving the homemade soap for laundering clothes. “Instead (of soap) they used a brisk rubbing with a coarse towel to scrub the dirt off their skins,” writes Larkin.
As someone who loves a daily shower with scented soap, I try not to gasp at the hygienic standards of Colonial America. Yet our now commonplace routine in America was uncommon for centuries both here and abroad, and our forebears would likely be shocked at our excessive use of water—and soap.
Next week I will discuss the making of soap, and why the Colonists treasured this difficult-to-create commodity.