40 Gross Hygiene Practices From The American Old West That Prove Just How Wild It Really Was

Ever wondered what it was really like to be around in the Old West? Well, you can forget clean water and soap. Say goodbye to trustworthy medical care, too. And if you’re grossed-out by the idea of a communal toothbrush, tough luck. Yes, life for the folk of the American Frontier seems pretty horrendous in comparison to modern times. But if you think you know just how grim things got back in the Wild West, think again.

40. A dangerous drug

Wild West doctors seem to have made a habit of prescribing lethal concoctions to their patients. One such was a preparation called calomel, which contains dangerous levels of mercury. It was used as a purgative, since it triggered an excessive flow of saliva. Unfortunately, it also had a tendency to cause your teeth to drop out.

39. Share and share alike

Hygiene at the dinner table was practically non-existent back in the Wild West frontier days. Everyone sat down at the table for a meal and shared the same cups, crockery and cutlery. And they did that without bothering to wash the utensils between users. This practice could have helped to spread disease.

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38. Brush your teeth anyone?

Dental health wasn’t a top priority for pioneers and cowboys out west. But there were apparently facilities available for those who wanted a quick brush. These came in the shape of communal toothbrushes in some public places. That’s right, you used the same brush as everyone else who might happen to pass by.

37. Bugs with your beer

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Folks in the Wild West enjoyed nothing more than a foaming glass of ale in their local saloon. But one common habit was appalling by modern standards. You see, a towel hung from the bar in the Old West – and everybody used it to wipe their mouths after slaking their thirsts.

36. Barber, blacksmith or dentist?

True West magazine quoted Professor Joanna Bourke in 2017 as saying, “Agonizing toothache, horrifying extractions and barbaric tools have cast a large shadow over our dental past.” You see, if you did need dental treatment in the Old West, your first stop probably wasn’t a trained dentist. You’d be more likely to visit the barber or even the blacksmith. And some of them were so clumsy that you might actually end up with a dislocated jaw.

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35. Seam squirrels

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If you’re living in an environment where hygiene isn’t the best – like in the Wild West – mattress material matters. After all, you wouldn’t want your bedding to be a breeding ground for lice and fleas. Those critters love mattresses made of straw or hay, which is exactly what many were made of in frontier days. Lice even had a nickname of “seam squirrels.”

34. Bothersome bugs

Insects were a perpetual problem for frontiersmen and women. Flies buzzed around foodstuffs, often after they’d disgustingly been frolicking in open sewers. The risk of lethal disease, then, was unsurprisingly high. Other bothersome creatures included mosquitoes. Doors and windows without screens gave the biting pests every opportunity to invade homes.

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33. Bathroom terrors

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Indoor plumbing is a relatively modern boon. But for those living in the Wild West, facilities were primitive at best, and they tended to be outdoors. Most had to make do with an outhouse, little more than a hut erected over a hole in the ground. For the sake of convenience, these were often adjacent to the home. Lime was sometimes used to try and hide the odors. Hordes of flies often buzzed around and black widow spiders lurked, ready to bite the unsuspecting.

32. Careful with that water

Humans need clean water to thrive. But in the rough and ready frontier lands of the Old West, this basic necessity wasn’t always readily available. What water there was could become polluted by noxious liquids from leaking outhouses or by stagnant water that harbored flies. Rainwater collected in barrels was also vulnerable to contamination.

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31. Precious water

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When we need water, we just flick on the faucet. But in the Wild West, water was a precious resource. So, squandering it on washing clothes or dishes wasn’t an option for many. Obviously, not washing clothes can lead to health problems such as skin irritations, not to mention lice and flea infestations. And failing to wash dishes between uses could be a great way to get food poisoning.

30. A rare bath

For us, it’s such a commonplace activity that we rarely give it a second thought, but for the folks of the Wild West it was a rare luxury. We’re talking, of course, about bathing. With water in short supply and hot water requiring an open fire and lots of effort, getting into a bath was far from a daily occurrence in the frontier lands.

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29. Soap’s high price

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When the people of the Wild West got a chance to hop in the bath, the experience didn’t come with luxurious toiletries. At best, soap available on the frontier was a coarse slab mainly comprised of animal fat. In fact, the soap was so crude that it could actually cause painful skin irritation. That seems like a high price to pay for keeping clean.

28. Acceptable B.O.

One barrier to keeping clean for those living on the western frontier was the conviction that washing could actually be bad for your health. Some believed that excessive washing could cause the pores to dilate, thus giving disease an easy passage into the body. This was absolute nonsense, of course. And the result was that people were surprisingly tolerant of body odor.

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27. Habitual spitting

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The spittoon was a common sight in the Old West. Many cowboys chewed tobacco and the revolting result was showers of brown phlegm aimed at the spittoon – and not always on target. This habitual spitting was an ideal vector for the spread of unpleasant respiratory illnesses ranging from tuberculosis to pneumonia.

26. Sleeping in the sawdust

Perhaps in part because so many people chewed and spit tobacco, saloon floors were covered with a layer of sawdust. This may have served to soak up the phlegm that missed the spittoon. That sounds obnoxious enough, but it gets worse. Saloon floors were often used as makeshift lodgings. That meant you’d be bedding down in that foul sawdust.

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25. Whiskey shampoo

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Whiskey was the favored tipple of many in the Wild West. But the notorious firewater – which came with such colorful names as “Tarantula Juice” and “Coffin Varnish” – was more than a mere aperitif. Mixed with lavender and castor oil, it was used as a shampoo. How fragrant you were after that hair-wash is debatable.

24. Too cold to bathe

Anything we would recognize as a modern bathing facility was rarer than hen’s teeth on the frontier. And cowboys, soldiers and pioneers roaming the range might go for weeks or even months without a proper hot bath. Often they just had to take their chance when they came across a creek that looked reasonably clean. That tended to rule out winter baths altogether.

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23. Eau de horse

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With all the difficulties pioneers and cowboys faced when it came to regular bathing, having a powerful body odor was far from unusual. And since so many of those on the frontier spent a lot of time riding, smelling like a horse was almost normal. So, the truth was, you could often smell a cowboy approaching before you actually saw him.

22. Mind that bed

If you were on the road and needed a bed for the night, frontier towns would often have a flophouse or a saloon with a few rooms. But just how hygienic those lodgings were was open to question. You might wonder who’d slept in a bed before you, and what illnesses they might have had. Then, you could question just how fresh the linen you were sleeping in really was. Lice and fleas were no rarity.

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21. Face foliage perils

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Many men roaming around back in the Wild West days had rather extravagant beards. And one unfortunate result of untamed facial foliage could be an unfortunate fall-off in hygiene, especially if the opportunity to wash properly was infrequent. There are those that claim, after all, that beards can harbor an absolute zoo of bacteria.

20. Valley Fever

Unpleasant fungal infections were an everyday danger for the hardy folks of the Wild West. A tough day’s riding on the range or dragging a wagon through the wilderness created hot, sweaty conditions. That’s just the environment that favors various fungal infections of the skin. A particularly violent irritant was the Coccidioides fungus, prevalent in the western territories. The resulting nasty affliction was known as Valley Fever.

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19. Don’t drink sulfur

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When it came to self-medication, many in the Wild West were keen aficionados. The general belief was that the more unpleasant the remedy, the more effective it was likely to be. If it tasted revolting and smelled worse, it had to be good for you. Many resorted to drinking sulfur with its horribly potent bouquet. Modern medicine does not support this practice – indeed it’s potentially harmful.

18. Doctor or quack?

If you were sick in the frontier days and visited someone who styled themselves as a doctor, that was absolutely no guarantee that they had any medical qualifications at all. There were properly trained medical practitioners in the Old West, but they were few and far between. That meant you had a good chance of being treated by someone who could only really be described as a quack.

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17. Beware the doctor

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If you were lucky enough to come across a doctor who had actual medical training in the Wild West, that wasn’t necessarily the end of your worries. For even qualified practitioners had some very strange ideas about what were appropriate treatments. Bizarre interventions included bleeding, swathing the patient with cotton and setting it alight, and removing chunks of skin.

16. A powerful purgative

An apparent favorite treatment for frontier doctors was the liberal prescribing of powerful purgatives. So liberal, in fact, that it verged on the dangerous and could bring predictably unpleasant results. One such drug known as ipecac syrup would result in copious vomiting. The idea was that purging the body would combat an illness. Modern doctors wouldn’t recommend this treatment.

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15. Malarial misery

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There seems to have been no end to the eccentricities of the frontier doctors, whether they were actually medically trained or not. One treatment for malaria, for example, involved the patient being stripped naked and left in the open air to get thoroughly chilled. This process was accelerated with buckets of cold water. This was intended to induce shivering. If that got too extreme, opium was administered.

14. Dubious gadgets

As well as quack treatments, frontier medics deployed equipment of decidedly dubious worth. One example was a gadget called the pulsometer. This was a glass vessel with bulbs at either end containing colored water. The patient would grasp the pulsometer as his pulse was taken and bubbles would rise through the liquid. But what did this device measure? Well, nowadays we can say that it did absolutely nothing.

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13. Bad hair day

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In our modern world, there’s no limit to the number of hair care products on the market. But women in the Wild West were far from spoiled for choice. In fact, all they had was coarse soap, not particularly known for giving that alluring luster to your locks. As a result, many women only washed their hair once a month. Every day was a bad hair day.

12. Drink to kill the leeches

Getting sick on the western frontier lands was no picnic. There was every chance that no doctor was at hand. But even when one showed up, there was no guarantee of effective treatment. Often, bleeding would be all that was offered, sometimes with the use of leeches. If the patient inadvertently swallowed one of the leeches, the remedy was then to drink a glass of wine every 15 minutes in the hope that the alcohol would kill the critter.

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11. Dickens’ verdict

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Charles Dickens toured the U.S., writing about the experience in his 1842 volume American Notes. He visited the Illinois city of Cairo and was clearly unimpressed. It was, he wrote, “a breeding-place of fever, ague and death.” What’s more, the author declared, the people of Cairo were “more wan and wretched than any we had encountered.”

10. Teeth required

In light of the state of American dental health, the U.S. Army in the mid-19th century took a keen interest in the mouths of their recruits. In his 2008 book Frontier Medicine David Dary wrote that, “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.”

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9. Dead dog treatment

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Author David Dary quoted a remedy from 1815 in his Frontier Medicine. The treatment involved slaughtering a “young fat dog” then skinning and gutting it. The guts were combined with hens’ eggs, nettles, “red fishing worms,” turpentine, brimstone, tobacco and more. The mixture was returned to the dead dog’s innards. The whole was next roasted as the patient sat by the open fire. Extraordinary.

8. Perils of childbirth

Pregnancy and childbirth were highly risky ventures for many women in the Old West. For those unlucky enough to require a Caesarian section, the survival rate was supposedly a terrifying one in four. According to a 1963 American Heritage article, Dr. John Richmond was likely the first doctor to carry out a successful Caesarian in the western frontier lands.

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7. Suck a lemon

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Scurvy is a disease most strongly associated with mariners on lengthy sea journeys. It’s easily avoided by ensuring that you get enough vitamin C. Some of those who arrived by sea to the gold fields of California had been without sources of vitamin C for prolonged periods. The result was that these would be fortune hunters would fall prey to unpleasant bouts of debilitating scurvy.

6. Criminal doctors

Some who called themselves doctors in the Old West actually had no formal medical qualifications whatsoever. Even worse, some of these so-called doctors were, in fact, criminals. Writing in American Heritage George Groh asserted that one well-known medical man was actually a convict on the run, while another was infamous as a horse robber.

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5. Wiping painfully

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Today, we have bathroom tissue and that’s something to be thankful for. In the Old West, no such convenience existed. After a visit to the outhouse, those old-time folk resorted to everything from corncobs or grass to clean up. We can only conclude that they were made of sterner stuff back in those days.

4. Spectators at surgery

Surgery must have been scary enough without a crowd of onlookers. Yet that was what actually happened on occasion. American Heritage describes one such instance when an unfortunate woman in Colorado was due to have a tumor excised from her head by Dr. Charles Gardiner. To his – and presumably his patient’s – dismay, one man pushed his way into the operating room and gave a running commentary to the expectant crowd gathered outside.

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3. Wash your hands – but not like this

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Hand-washing, we know, is a hygiene practice that can be highly effective against the spread of infection. However, there is a way to turn this basic procedure into an actual vector for disease. Just make sure everyone uses the same bowl of water. Unfortunately, that was a common occurrence in the Old West.

2. Versatile whiskey

Whiskey had an obvious application in a recreational setting, quaffed as it was by people in saloons across the Wild West. But the fiery spirit was a versatile liquid that could be used for other purposes as well. One useful role it could play was that of disinfectant. If nothing else was at hand, surgeons would sterilize their instruments with neat whiskey.

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1. The high price of love

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Sex in the Old West sometimes involved a commercial transaction, often finalized in a saloon or at least in the rooms upstairs. Unhappily, this resulted in an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases. One estimate cited by True West magazine indicated that at one point some 90 percent of prostitutes in the Old West had such a disease.

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