Heritage, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1988 Page: 16
the Americans; why it is so I cannot conceive. Yet within a year
I have seen those moving in the higher circles in society, who
have told me they had not bathed since they were boys, some
twenty, forty, or fifty years since."
Apparently, even the cosmopolitan and educated in Texas
also reflected this attitude. In 1836 William Fairfax Gray traveled
through Texas observing, among other things, the signing
of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Although he left
Virginia in December, he did not take a bath until March 11.
Why didn't people bathe ? Bathing has had different meanings
and purposes throughout history, from a symbolic rite to a social
duty, from pleasure to a form of penance, and from overindulgence
to complete abstinence. These attitudes overlap
chronologically; the fifteenth century gentleman bathed, but his
seventeenth-century descendant did not. The practice of bathing
was influenced by geography and "even over short distances
the weariness per gallon [of water] suffered in carrying it outweighs
the refreshment per gallon gained from bathing." It took
slaves and water pipes to make bathing at home worthwhile.
Attitudes towards bathing were also influenced by cultural
perceptions of cleanliness. It was not until the seventeenth
century that linen undergarments or even night clothes began to
be worn. Some people thought that since linen garments could
be changed and washed, there was no need to take a bath. In
some ways the option of bathing was restricted to the upper
classes because of the scarcity and cost of water in cities, and the
cost of fuel to heat the water.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bathing took a
variety of forms. Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of air
bathing-sitting for an hour or so every morning stark naked. He
felt that it was strengthening and stimulating-much more
agreeable than a cold water bath. By the nineteenth century
there were sponge baths, sitz baths, fountain baths, and slipper
Throughout this period, bathing was seen as a medical treatment.
Consequently, patients undertook various forms of the
"Water Cure." Invented by a Silesian peasant in 1821, hydropathy
had become the rage of Europe by the 1840s. The treatment
involved direct application, soaking, and ingestion of water.
There were rain baths, vapor baths, and recumbent steam baths.
The "Quaker" model portable steam or vapor bath was especially
popular on the frontier. The "Cult of Hydropathy" invaded
America in the 1840s and hydropathic establishments began to
appear all over the country from New York and Massachusetts to
Georgia and frontier Ohio.
In Texas a "steam treatment" promoted by Samuel Thomson,
a New Hampshire blacksmith, was apparently "quite the vogue."
Thomson published the "New Guide to Health or Botanic
Family Physician" in 1833, which recommended a method of
steam cleansing similar to the sweat house used by western
Indians. Water was considered beneficial for a variety of ills. One
Texas physician recommended "hot foot baths and drinking hot
water" to cure a cold. Newspapers were the main means for
disseminating medical advice. They also reprinted pamphlets
and information from medical journals whose titles included:
"The Advantage of Bathing" or "A Damper to Bathers." Another
newspaper article suggested that to sustain health "one
should bathe and change one's personal linens twice a week and
avoid stressful exercise and alcohol in hot weather." Apparently,
a few people were heeding the newspapers advice. Bathing in the
bayous "was a common affair throughout the period," -at least
in decent weather. In 1839 the household furnishings of James
H. Davis of Houston included a tin bathtub. Bathing as recreation
was a late-comer to the American scene, and Mary
Maverick's description of swimming in the San Antonio river is
remarkable for 1841 Texas: "The ladies had persuaded someone
to erect a bathhouse at a private location up the river...It has
been placed between two large trees, and had been provided with
benches and hooks for easy dressing. About four o'clock most
afternoons...[we] walked in a group to the bathhouse, changed
into swimming costumes and splashed, swam, and laughed in the
Another vital aspect of life in the Texas Republic was sanitation,
i.e., bathrooms. The term bathroom is fairly recent. Reflecting
their British and Scotch-Irish heritage, many of the
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1988, periodical, Spring 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45435/m1/16/: accessed December 17, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.