Pilgrims’ Greatest Invention

As a licensed esthetician, I am always interested in the skin care and beauty routines of people from other times in history. 

I was looking for something along the same lines about the Pilgrims coming in on the Mayflower. Did the women get all gussied up for the three-day feast celebrating along with the Native Americans? How about the men? What about the Wampanoags that celebrated with them for that first Thanksgiving in 1621? 

My research did not come anywhere close to healthy skin care or cleanliness. The Pilgrims arriving in America resisted bathing. They reportedly smelled so bad, a surviving member of the Patuxet Nation even tried and failed to convince them to start washing themselves. You did not want to be down-wind of these people. I can just picture the Wampanoags saying stuff like, “Dude, thy smelleth really badith. You need to take your stinky selves to some water now or no more get-togethers.” Or something like that.

Bathing as we know it, was practically non-existent among western Europeans until the later part of the 18th century. They just didn’t associate the concept of water with being clean. They felt submerging their whole body in water was unhealthy, and removing their clothes was immodest. So, if water wasn’t the answer to cleanliness, what was?

The Invention of Underwear

According to Peter Ward, a professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia, “Cleanliness, to the extent people thought about it in the 17th century, had a great influence on what we now call underwear. The linen underwear that they wore under their clothes was thought to be a cleaning agent which kept the bodies’ impurities, dirt and sweat, etc. on the linen. 

Colonists kept themselves “clean” by changing their white linens under their clothes. They thought the cleaner and whiter the linens, the cleaner the person. To prove their cleanliness to others, a bit of their white collar could be seen to show others how clean and morally pure they were. It also forced them to clean their underwear about every three days when the dirt would start showing. 

As for that first Thanksgiving, due to the diseases caused from their filth, and cold weather, only four or five women out of 19 survived the trip. The meal was made by the men, and they did not serve turkey! Because of the daily bathing and good grooming of the Native Americans, they weren’t only repulsed by horrific body odor, but the colonists’ lack of hygiene passed along microbes to which Native Americans had no prior exposure, and therefore no immunity. 

So, what’s my advice this Thanksgiving? If you don’t choose to bathe, at least wear clean underwear.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Karin Jenkins is a Licensed Esthetician, Makeup Artist, and the author of the book, “Pageant Land and the Family Who Lived There.” She has been involved in all aspects of the beauty industry and in show business for over 30 years. Karin is the mother of two and the grandmother of four. She and her husband David co-own the local family business - Applause Salon in New Smyrna Beach. (386) 426-5454

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