Thursday, June 14, 2012

How did they not stink?

I love to soak in a wonderful bubble bath...
But, my ancestors didn't.

I grew up in an older family.  My parents were born in the early 1900's, and their parents were born in the late 1800's.  People are amazed when I mention that I knew people that were born in the 1800's.  But for me, it was the norm.

Because they were of a generation quite a bit older than most of my friends, their ways, habits and traditions were also a bit out of touch.  My parents were the age of most of my peers' grandparents.

One of the things I grew up with was a generational line drawn between bathing every day and bathing every now and then.  My parents followed the tradition of their parents by taking their last bath of the year sometime in the late fall and not bathing again until spring.  In his later years, my father lived with our young family and followed this same tradition.

But, never once did my parents or their parents ever have a bad odor.  How did they not stink?

I really don't know.

They didn't pile on lots of powders or perfumes, and they did use deodorant.  They were not offensive in any way concerning their hygiene.

So, how did they do it?
Well, I'm sure this was one way, but this would have occurred mostly in the summer months.  Dad told me he learned how to swim because his brothers threw him in the Upper Tygart Creek in Kentucky.  One either learned how to swim or drown.  That was their choice.

I watched my mother and her mother make batches of lye soap - something I cannot stand to this day.  She would render lard in a cast iron skillet, also saving the ashes.
It was used for scrubbing just about anything.  When I used it on my skin, it would be quite abrasive and seemed as though it burned my skin!

And then I ran across the web site for Colonial Williamsburg, where it described in detail how one would deal with those who did have an offensive odor.  They simply sprayed a lace handkerchief and slipped it up their sleeve.  Then, it would be quite handy to remove the hankie and place it near the nose and sniff the perfume.  Maybe that's why my female ancestors kept hankies close by them, sometimes tucked in their ample bosoms.

Mom and Dad also believed that bathing too often in the winter months would provide more opportunity for disease and the ague to set in.  For females, a monthly flow meant no bathing, and certainly no washing of hair.  I argued and argued with Mom over this one, but she finally relented to letting me take a short bath, but don't even ask about washing my hair.


Perhaps part of the reasoning comes from just how hard it was to get a bath ready.  In the hills of eastern Kentucky, running water was a rarity.  It meant heating up the water on the stove, perhaps after hauling it in from the creek.  Dad would take a bath first, followed by my three sisters.  Since he worked in the coal mines, the water would readily turn black, so by the time the youngest of my three sisters had her turn, Mom had to really hang onto her so she wouldn't lose her.  Hence, "don't throw the baby out with the bath water!"

I love the cleanliness standards of today.  I grew up feeling greasy and smelly (those teenage years encouraged the oil in my hair and skin), so I love to soak in a wonderful tub and read a book with a candle glowing softly nearby.  My towels are soft, unlike whatever feed sack Mom could find to use as a towel.

But, how did they not stink?

I must thank fellow blogger, Caroline M. Pointer, for her post of today, and for her challenge to write a blog on this subject.  Caroline, I did it.  But, how did they?


  1. Peggy, this is SO awesome! Well done!

    And you got me. How did they not stink?

    Thank you so much for the laugh. I needed it. :)


  2. Great post. I don't know how they did it. Maybe what we call "spit baths?" My mom was a once a week bather.

  3. I found your blog via Caroline Pointer's Blogging Genealogy blog. I'm glad I did. This is a great post! Okay, I'm stumped. How did they not stink? I love the "hankie" info. Hmm, how embarrasing to have someone quickly pull out the proverbial "hankie." And can you imagine if a whole group of people did that as you walked into the room? Yikes!

  4. Bless your hearts! I still don't know how they didn't stink - especially living in the south where the heat and the humidity can be high enough to make one sleep on the linoleum in the kitchen at night - which I did.

    As for the hankies, I guess it makes perfect sense to me. A schoolteacher friend of mine says she does the same thing in her classroom, for some of her students do not have good hygiene, or their breath is very foul. So, she carries her little perfumed hankie for the same reason.

    It's interesting to note that many of the American Indians felt that the white man really smelled bad. That's one of the reasons they could find them so easily - they could smell them before they saw them.


  5. An older woman was talking about infrequent bathing today and she said that if you bath or shower in rainwater the friendly bacteria on your skin survives. As you go about your life the bacteria eats the dead skill cells etc. and you can go quite some time without a shower, however with chlorine in our tap water (in Australia anyway) the chlorine kills the good bacteria and we start to smell again shortly after a shower. I don't know if this is true or not but it reminded me of your blog post. Perhaps this is the reason.

  6. I know this is a little old, however I started to wonder, did my ancestors smell without being able to have a regular bathing schedule, how could they not right!? My grandma's father who passed in the 50's and her mother who passed in the 70's were immigrants from Romania. Farming was the way of life. Before sunrise-just after sunset. My grandma has also since passed so I asked my mother if they had an odor because they did not bathe. She said no and wondered too how that was. My aunt said she remembered as a child her gpa having a barrel collecting rain water and would take a rag and only "wash" his armpit hair and chest hair--more so the hair than his skin! Maybe because the hair traps sweat? idk I'm curious!?! In winter they'd melt snow and have a very shallow bath that all kids in the fam would bathe in! Sometimes they'd refill another shallow bath for the man then the wife by the time they'd heated enough water, dumped it in, and went and heated more it was Luke warm. No child would spend long in the tub maybe 3 minutes.