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Ode to Our Filthy Founding Fathers

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Absolute worship of our Founding Fathers is quite the fad in some tea party circles. The brave men (and a scant handful of women) who founded this nation should be treated with honor and respect. They literally put their lives on the line to accomplish what they did. They overcame themselves to triumph. Once they had succeeded in their quest, they went back to squabbling amongst themselves, back-stabbing, and being normal men.

Much is also being made about the time in which these men lived, with the less informed waxing poetic about the era as a kinder, more gentler age where men were God-fearing and women did what they were told. Many of our Founders were church-goers, because that is what people did in those days. Even Benjamin Franklin, who believed only in himself, pretended to support a church. It was good for business.

If a tea party “patriot” were to be transported back in time (probably by doing the old Star Trek slingshot around the sun thing) to Philadelphia in 1776 they might not like it. They might discover that the world of the Founders was just plain nasty, smelly, deadly, and very unappetizing.

On the way to meeting with our Founders, a person unaccustomed to treading the streets of a town of that era was a prime target – to have the “slops” emptied on them. There were no toilets, no plumbing, and no running water. If a person was fortunate, they had access to an outhouse. At night, though, they used the chamber pot. During the day, a servant would simply toss the contents of the chamber pot – the slops – into the street. Anyone not familiar with the process was in danger of being doused with urine, vomit, and feces.

Even if one avoided being hit by the “slops” a person should tread carefully. The streets were full of urine, vomit, feces, dead animals, and standing water. They were a breeding ground for disease. Life was so dangerous, half the children born during those glorious years did not survive beyond childhood. But, it was a time of heady anticipation of independence brought to you by enlightened men, right?

Once our time traveler finally located the meeting rooms where the Continental Congress was in session, the vile sensory assault did not end. A modern American would probably be ready to throw up. The smells on the street were nasty. The insects were thick. The sight of meat hanging, covered in flies, ready to be sold for lunch, would probably make a modern person nauseous. Don’t count on a cool glass of water to help with the nausea. Oh, the ice might be there, but a word of caution — don’t drink the water. It was contaminated, filthy, deadly. You only drank water from wells you knew were safe.

Instead of water, a tankard of ale would be thrust in your face. If it was not ale, it would be beer, wine, brandy, port, rum, sherry, or whiskey. You might luck into a well-boiled pot of coffee which would not be up to Lilly standards or a pot of tea, but most likely the only thing available to drink was spirits. And – that is what our Founders drank while founding our country. They probably were not in a buzz. They were so accustomed to consuming so much, they could handle it!

Benjamin Franklin is the first man to greet the time traveler. He is clean, well bathed, his clothing clean. Don’t take his lack of body odor as a sign that all the Founders were as clean; Franklin was the exception not the rule. Franklin was also something of a nudist, with a tendency to write in the nude. Unless our Friendly Founder was a devotee of a morning swim or a soak in the tub, they were likely to have some very intense body odor.

Please, consider that Americans had a tendency to be cleaner than Europeans even then, so put the intense body odor into perspective. The only bath many people of the era ever indulged in was the one given to them at birth. The general consensus was hot water caused the body’s pores to close up, and could be fatal. All a person need do was to wash their hands and face, then wipe the dirt from the body with the shirt they were removing for the laundry, which was seasonal at best.

Our Founders were more enlightened, a step above the unwashed masses. Most probably indulged in a bath as often as once or twice a month, even if they did not need it. They had no deodorant. Their hair was most likely quite filthy, greasy, and full of lice. They had absolutely vile breath. The only reason the odor of the gathered did not offend was because the person was not clean enough to smell the filth around him.

Wigs were popular. So were hairpieces for the women. Men wore their hair long, dirty, and greasy. If a man were a wig wearer, quite often he would shave his head for respite from the lice. After 1750, when women’s hair became a bit more elaborate, and hairpieces were needed, “powder” became quite popular. The “powder” which was made from either wheat or potato starch, would not stick to the hair unless the hair was oiled. Don’t worry, the oil was probably scented. No one even noticed the lice.

Everyone would be wearing perfume, tons of it, to hide body odor. At the court in France, people were required to wear certain perfumes on certain days so everyone smelled the same. There were no such rules in the upstart colonies.

Don’t stand too close to our Founders when you talk to them. Their breath would be vile. Much is made about George Washington’s false teeth, but dental disease was the norm, not the exception. One of the reasons for those Mona Lisa smiles on the portraits of the age was to hide the lost and decaying teeth. There was no toothpaste, mouth wash, or even a simple toothbrush.

If you were able to recover from the nasty odors and the filth surrounding our Founders and were invited to lunch with them, word to the wise. Do not eat the meat. Stick with some bread and maybe some cheese. Expect dysentery. The food was filthy, maggot-ridden, and diseased.

This is just a part of the world in which our Founders lived. It was nasty, odorous, and blighted with disease. Yet, they overcame it and themselves to create a more perfect union. To glamorize the world in which they lived does them a disservice. It denigrates their achievements. When studying any historical person, it must be done within the perspective of their day and age. The current vogue of canonizing our Founders denigrates them.

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About SJ Reidhead

  • Glenn Contrarian

    SJ –

    I’ve told my sons this several times – and thank you for putting it in an article that I can show them!

    Interestingly enough, I’m in the Philippines right now – there’s FAR more trash and litter and I wouldn’t touch the local rivers with a ten foot pole…but the people themselves are significantly cleaner than their American counterparts. I only wish the Filipinos would take as much pride in keeping their country clean as do the Japanese and the Koreans (and particularly the Singaporeans).