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Oh…de toilet!

By this time we had grown rather shabby; our clothes has burst into rags and tatters; and what was worse, we had little means of renovation. Fort Laramie was but seven miles before us. Being averse to appearing in such a plight among any society that could boast an approximation to the civilized, we stopped by the river to make our toilet in the best way we could. We hung small looking glasses against the trees and shaved, an operation neglected for six weeks; we performed our ablutions in the Platte, though the utility of such a preceding was questionable, the water looking exactly like a cup of chocolate, and the banks consisting of the softest and richest yellow mud…

Francis Parkman

Toiletries are a subject you don’t see much written about. I think this for a few reasons. First, not many individuals have any idea what people did, or have a wrong idea of what it was and lastly, the subject is one that some might think of as in bad taste. One of the best journal entries written on this subject is the one I showed above by Francis Parkman. While on the trail traveling, personal hygiene was not a big priory for the people in the west. When they came to places where you sat at tables for dinners, had paintings made of people or places and where there were people they wanted to impress, things changed. Another and maybe best reason for not seeing this is expressed by Albert Pike:

I find also another difficulty in writing. After living in the West, where many things which are peculiar to a wild life are common and uninteresting, one is apt to hurry over the minutiae of them in laying them before a part of the public to whom they are strange and new. One can hardly realize that what is so common to him and every one around him, can be interesting to any portion of the public; and for fear of being tedious and prolix, he is, perhaps, brief and unsatisfactory. With this brief apology, I leave the recital of our adventures in the Western Desert.

And he is right. There are so many small, common activities that we want and need to know about. Items that happened every day and for a thousand years. But how did they do it?

Since some might have a wrong idea of what this subject is, I will give a definition of this before we go any further: toil-et + ry (1825-35) n. pl. –ries, any article or preparation used in cleaning or grooming oneself, as soap or deodorant. This is a good explanation of what toiletries are. I have used this entry before, but I want to show an outsider’s view of the Americans he traveled with and what they did or not do in regards to their personal cleanliness. William Fairholme, an English officer from Canada, was traveling in the American west to hunt buffalo and all around him are these disgusting Americans. In his journal, he writes about traveling with a few in close quarters (a stage coach and on this part of the journey, a steamship):

Outside, near the paddle boxes, are arranged in a row 3 or 4 basins and a bucket, from which, if you want to wash, you drain water yourself from the stream.

Above them are hung a few (very few) towels, a hair brush and comb; & perhaps a small mirror. These constitute the whole dressing apparatus of 19 out of 20 Americans, and they ridicule the idea of carrying about one’s own brushes, combs, etc.

Whether you call this personal hygiene or toiletries; today, we have many different attitudes as to what is clean, proper and what is not. Let me show you a few entries I have found which might make you stop and think about how things have changed:

The roll has been called, and each mess is preparing breakfast. I hear Dr. Trask courteously ask: ”Are those plates clean?” and Rhoades’s nonchalant answer: “To be sure they are, didn’t we eat off them last night?

John Audubon

We are tired of life in this dirty fort to the highest degree. Our daily routine is conducted in such a filthy manner that it nauseated one. Since our Negro cook Alfred suffers a severe rheumatic disease, we now have a filthy attendant and cook named Boileau who wears a fur cap, sits down among us and handle the cups and plates with his disgusting fists, after cleaning his nose according to the manner of our peasants. This is also exactly the manner his wife and child scatters these items about and then cleans his fingers on the first object that comes to hand. The little boy had a gap in his trousers, both in front and back, so that the may relieve himself quickly and with out formality on the floor of the room, which happened frequently during the meals. The indolence and indifference of [Mr. Kipp] this otherwise commendable man goes far to eases himself near the fort in full sight of passerby, having neglected to build an outhouse for this purpose. Prince Maximilian

The various forts, trading houses and regular campsites on the trails had an appeal for those who traveled in the west. These well known sites were where a traveler could get resupplied, have repairs done, get the most recent news, trade tired horses for fresh ones, rest and maybe see someone who they had not traveled with all the way from St. Louis. Along with the useful items mentioned above, came from these places items that were not too desirable. Fleas, rats and lice came along when they left. In Francis Chardon’s journal, he tells us at the end of each month in his journal how many rats he killed:

Number of rats killed this month 91.

The five years he kept his journal (1834-39), he gives the total number eliminated as 3729. Others mention:

Upon some fragments of old clothing which some of our people picked up, there were some body lice found; which circumstance confirmed us all in the belief that the camp had been occupied by Spaniards. We took the precaution to pitch our tents at a respectful distance from the old camp. The creek having no name, we now gave it the name of Louse Camp Creek. George Sibley

I took with me a handful of hazel nuts, thought I would divert myself with cracking & and eating them, had just seated myself in the shade of the rock, ready to commence work, when feeling something unusual on my neck, put my hand under my cape & took from thence two insects, which I soon discovered to be fleas. Immediately I cast my eyes upon my dress before me, & to my astonishment found it was black with these creatures making all possible speed to lay siege to my neck and ears. This sight made me almost frantic. What to do I know not. I climbed up the rock in pursuit of my husband, who soon saw me & came to me. I could not tell him but showed him the cause of my distress. On opening the gathers in my dress around my waist, every plait was lined with them. Thus they had already laid themselves in ambush against a fresh attack. We brushed & shook & brushed for an hour, not stopping to kill for that would have been impossible. By this time they were reduced considerably & I prepared to go to the boat… [I] found the confinement of the boat distressing on account of my miserable companions who would not let me rest for a moment in any one position. I was not the only sufferer, everyone in the boat was alike in troubled both crew & passengers. As soon as I was able to make a change in appearal I found relief. Narcissa Whitman

It was also a common observation that whenever a person left an Indian camp after staying awhile, they carried a few of these. Lewis Garrard explains:

…One great drawback to pleasures of an Indian village is that the inhabitants are troubled with a persecuting little animal- a roamer through the unbroken forests of hair on children’ heads- now ascending the mountain of self esteem, or reposing in the secluded vales around about combativeness. These creatures here, are white, and nearly the size of wheat grains. They do not confine their penetrating researches to the capote alone, but traverse the immense surface of the whole body. By being in the same lodge with les savages continually, it was impossible to keep clear of the insects. Of course, we cam in for our share; but poor Buchanan, who wore a flannel shirt, was doubly visited.

A good example of how different things are from today, is a missionary wife’s (Narcissa Whitman) confession on the number of times she did the washing for her and her husband:

Last night I put my cloths in water & this morning finished washing before breakfast. I find it not very agreeable to do such work in the middle of the day when I have no shelter to protect me from the sun’s scorching rays. This is the third time I have washed since I left the states or home either. Once at Fort Williams [Laramie] & at rendezvous.

A common myth is that people during this time did not take baths. Contrary to this popular belief, baths were taken. A funny story on bathing includes Jedediah Smith, who came up on his fellow travelers soaking in a small, shallow pool up to their necks. He asked how it was and a man said, “Good, come on in!” He dived in and came up with a head full of mud. The men were sitting down and he thought it was as deep as their necks, while standing up. Jed wasn’t very happy about looking foolish and the man stayed out of camp till the next morning waiting for him to cool off. Another entry that we always associate with different topic, represents well bathing in the fur trade:

… She [an Indian women at Bent’s Fort] gave birth to a fine healthy baby, about the same time, and in half an hour after she went to the River and bathed herself in it, and this she continued each day since.  Susan Magoffin

For us today, we shouldn’t feel bad caring for our personal hygiene while in a camp or on a trek. Items like paper covered looking glasses, pocket razors, ivory and china combs, scissors and red, blue and white cotton handkerchiefs are found in the trade records going to rendezvous and were sold by the dozens in the Santa Fe trade. Bent’s Fort even sold “toilet water” and powder for your teeth. I am especially careful of how I take care of myself when out longer than a weekend. A day or two isn’t bad, I won’t even change my shirt; but when out for a week or longer, I brush my teeth (usually with the coarse salt I carry for seasoning my meat) daily and either change or wash my sox and clean my feet. I think that any stay of longer than a week deserves a bath, which I have done many times in creeks, horse troughs and rivers. If you want to find a good place to see these items and others on the inventories and trade rolls, check the Internet site of xmission.com under archives of records.


  • Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1946, p. 82.

  • Albert Pike, Prose Sketches and Poems, David Weber ed., Texas A&M Press, College Station, 1987.
  • Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, 1996.
  • William Fairholme, Journal of an Expedition to the Grand Prairies in 1840, Arthur Clark Company, Spokane, 1996, pps. 45-6.
  • John Audubon, Audubon’s Western Journal, (University of Arizona Press, Tucson), 1984, p. 119.
  • Prince Maximilian Zu Wied, People of the First Man, Prince Maximilian Zu Wied’s Expedition up the Missouri River, 1833-34, David Thomas and Karin Ronnefeldt, editors, (New York, Promontory Press), 1982, p. 204.

  • F. A. Chardon, F. A. Chardon’s Journals at Fort Clark, 1834-9, Annie Abel ed., (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press), 1997, p. 21.

  • George Sibley, The Road to Santa Fe, Kate Gregg, ed., (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press), 1952, pp. 97-8.

  • Narcissa Whitman, My Journal, Ye Gallon Press, Fairfield, 2000, pp. 47-8.

  • Lewis Garrard, Wah to Yah and the Taos Trail, (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press), 1987, pp. 90-91.

  • Whitman, p. 30.
  • Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico: Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-47, Stella M. Drumm ed., (New Haven, Yale University Press), 1962, p. 68.

Picture- 112 mile camp scene, Journal of an Expedition to the Grand Prairies in 1840, Arthur Clark Company.




Page 10

updated  05/10/2010


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