The American West was a dusty place, but horses, carriages, and people really kicked it up to unbearable levels. On top of that, dust storms would pop up at any given time, and clouds of dust and strong winds whipped dusty dirt into people’s houses and threatened the lives of settlers and livestock.
Sarah Raymond Herndon, a girl from Missouri who traveled to the Montana territory in 1860, wrote, “Oh, the dust, the dust; it is terrible. I have never seen it half as bad; it seems to be almost knee-deep in places.” She went on, “When we stopped, the boys’ faces were a sight; they were covered with all the dust that could stick on [. . .] their appearance was frightful.”
Wild West Women Preferred Cleanliness
Women, for their part, bathed every couple of weeks and washed their faces daily. The soap they had was made out of animal fat, and its ingredients made it harsh on the skin, but it was all they had. It was also harsh on the hair, so women cleaned their hair just once a month. Shampoo wasn’t available until the 1920s.
It was stylish in this era for women to have very fair complexions. Hats, gloves, parasols, and long sleeves helped protect their skin. Some women in this era would whiten their facial complexion with bleach made of toxic substances, but cowboy women were lucky just to keep their skin covered. Strange to think that all their good work protecting their skin from the sun was undone by putting literal bleach on their faces, but that's just the reality of no scientific research.
Water Was Scarce
The scarcity of bathing opportunities in the Wild West can be attributed in part to the shortage of water. Water was a precious resource, often in limited supply. Some families resorted to rationing a single tub of water for weekly baths, with each member taking turns and sharing the progressively dirtier bathwater. Compounding the issue, the available water was not always safe to drink.
Creeks and streams could easily become contaminated by upstream latrines, while rainwater stores were susceptible to dust and insect larvae pollution. Standing water, a breeding ground for mosquitoes was almost inevitably spoiled by the presence of larvae. In the arid and dusty landscape of the Wild West, water scarcity and compromised quality made maintaining personal hygiene an ongoing challenge.
A Hole in the Ground
People living in the Wild West had to make do. Instead of a bathroom, frontier folk settled for an enclosed shed sitting atop a hole in the ground. Once that hole had filled with excrement, the outhouse was simply moved over top of a new hole.
Each hole was covered with dirt before the shabbily built structure was moved. You can imagine the stench and the swarm of flies. Toilet paper was another problem. To make do, leaves, grass, and corn cobs might be used for wiping. Risks included sitting on a black widow spider. And, of course, small children falling in.
The Surprising Uses of Whiskey
Cowboys were known to drink, whether with other chaps at the saloon or from their whiskey stash at home, it was a popular pastime. However, whiskey was also used as a disinfectant and a pain reliever. One of the most surprising uses was as a sort of make-shift shampoo. Whiskey, castor oil, and lavender for scenting were mixed, applied to the hair, and then rinsed with rainwater.
Some ladies combed their hair out nicely and curled their locks, wrapping tresses in rags or with pins overnight. Another method required heating metal curling tongs on the stove and wrapping the hair into curls, a method similar to using a curling iron. Granted, it was probably a lot less safe than modern curling irons, but the idea had to come from somewhere.