- Historic Sites
The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)
Forget your conventional picture of America in 1810. In the first half of the nineteenth century, we were not at all the placid, straitlaced, white-picket-fence nation we imagine ourselves to have been. By looing at the patterns of everyday life as recorded by contemporary foreign and native observers of the young republic and by asking the questions that historians don't think to ask of another time—what were people really like? how did they greet one another in the street? how did they occupy their leisure time? what did they eat?—Jakc Larking brings us a portrait of another Americna, an America that was so different from both our conception of its past life and its present-day reality as to seem a foreign country.
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Nineteenth-century inventory takers became considerably more reticent about naming chamber pots than their predecessors, usually lumping them with miscellaneous “crockery,” but most households probably had a couple of chamber pots; genteel families reached the optimum of one for each bedchamber. English-made ceramic pots had become cheap enough by 1820 that few American families within the reach of commerce needed to go without one. “Without a pot to piss in” was a vulgar tag of long standing for extreme poverty; those poorest households without one, perhaps more common in the warm South, used the outdoors at all times and seasons.
We were not “clean and decent” by today’s standards; washing was difficult.
The most decorous way for householders to deal with chamber-pot wastes accumulated during the night was to throw them down the privy hole. But more casual and unsavory methods of disposal were still in wide use. Farm families often dumped their chamber pots out the most convenient door or window. In densely settled communities like York, Pennsylvania, the results could be more serious. In 1801, the York diarist Lewis Miller drew and then described an event in North George Street when “Mr. Day an English man [as the German-American Miller was quick to point out] had a bad practice by pouring out of the upper window his filthiness…one day came the discharge…on a man and wife going to a wedding, her silk dress was fouled.”
Sleeping accommodations in American country taverns were often dirty and insect-ridden. The eighteenth-century observer of American life Isaac Weld saw “filthy beds swarming with bugs” in 1794; in 1840 Charles Dickens noted “a sort of game not on the bill of fare.” Complaints increased in intensity as travelers went south or west. Tavern beds were uniquely vulnerable to infestation by whatever insect guests travelers brought with them. The bedding of most American households was surely less foul. Yet it was dirty enough. New England farmers were still too often “tormented all night by bed bugs,” complained The Farmer’s Almanack in 1837, and books of domestic advice contained extensive instructions on removing them from feather beds and straw ticks.
Journeying between Washington and New Orleans in 1828, Margaret Hall, a well-to-do and cultivated Scottish woman, became far more familiar with intimate insect life than she had ever been in the genteel houses of London or Edinburgh. Her letters home, never intended for publication, gave a graphic and unsparing account of American sanitary conditions. After sleeping in a succession of beds with the “usual complement of fleas and bugs,” she and her party had themselves become infested: “We bring them along with us in our clothes and when I undress I find them crawling on my skin, nasty wretches.” New and distasteful to her, such discoveries were commonplace among the ordinary folk with whom she lodged. The American children she saw on her Southern journey were “kept in such a state of filth,” with clothes “dirty and slovenly to a degree,” but this was “nothing in comparison with their heads…[which] are absolutely crawling!” In New Orleans she observed women picking through children’s heads for lice, “catching them according to the method depicted in an engraving of a similar proceeding in the streets of Naples.”
Americans were not “clean and decent” by today’s standards, and it was virtually impossible that they should be. The furnishings and use of rooms in most American houses made more than the most elementary washing difficult. In a New England farmer’s household, wrote Underwood, each household member would “go down to the ‘sink’ in the lean-to, next to the kitchen, fortunate if he had not to break ice in order to wash his face and hands, or more fortunate if a little warm water was poured into his basin from the kettle swung over the kitchen fire.” Even in the comfortable household of the prominent minister Lyman Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut, around 1815, all family members washed in the kitchen, using a stone sink and “a couple of basins.”
Southerners washed in their detached kitchens or, like Westerners in warm weather, washed outside, “at the doors…or at the wells” of their houses. Using basins and sinks outdoors or in full view of others, most Americans found anything more than “washing the face and hands once a-day,” usually in cold water, difficult, even unthinkable. Most men and women also washed without soap, reserving it for laundering clothes; instead they used a brisk rubbing with a coarse towel to scrub the dirt off their skins.