Friday, February 15, 2013

Meg Mims -- Down and Dirty in the Old West: What's a Woman to Do?

Let's face it. When you think of a "western" the first image you have is dirt. Horse manure and dust from carriages and wagons. Mud when it rains. Ugh.

I have a scene in my Double Series sequel where the heroine gets plastered with mud. Oh, sure, grab the bath tub. Wash her hair. With what? Time to research. I read that soap made of lye and ashes was pretty harsh and left a film, but it worked to a point. Then I wandered into other research territory (as usual) in terms of what a lady would resort to in terms of keeping herself as ladylike as possible.

The visible signs of a lady in the 1800s, given the neck to ankle coverage in clothing, had to do with hair, complexion and hands. Many westerns I've read have women wearing their hair flowing over their shoulders -- heaven forbid! One badge of womanhood (besides the embarrassing secret of the menstrual cycle, of course) was a girl pinning up her hair and lowering her skirt hems to the shoe-tops or the floor. And ladies had many ways of utilizing hairpins, ribbons, combs, flowers both real and made of ribbon, switches of hair if God didn't gift them with luxurious tresses, etc. Women almost never cut their hair, and some women had hair long enough to sit on.

How often did women wash their hair? Seldom, from what little I've found in research. If anyone can point me to a book or website, let me know! Shampoo wasn't formulated until the late 1800s. Women used soap, vinegar rinses, mineral oil, whatever they could get their hands on to get dust, dirt, bugs, etc. out of their hair. I still remember my grandmother talking about brushing her hair 100 times each night when she was young.

Let's move on to complexions. Women of the 1800s who wore greasepaint and rouge were either actresses in the theater or 'fallen women' -- and many people considered them one and the same. Who remembers Scarlett O'Hara pinching her cheeks and biting her lower lip in the movie Gone With the Wind? That's about it.

Real ladies kept their skin white, without blemish or freckles. Middle and upper class women bleached their skin if necessary and kept out of the sun. Woe to western pioneer women who worked out in the sun and wind, since sunbonnets were of little help. And ladies always wore hats and gloves to go out, throughout the 1800s until the mid-1960s.

This leads to how often did a lady bathe. Wealthier ladies might have a real tub and servants to carry water, but I'd guess they might bathe once or twice a week. Poorer women might have a washtub for a once a week bath, if that, depending on how plentiful water would be. Daily sponging for cleanliness made more sense.

Most clothes were not washed more than once a week. Ladies' skirts and dresses dragged on the ground and collected dirt and other grime. "Monday is Wash Day, Tuesday is Ironing Day" -- I still remember that little ditty. And everything (and I mean everything given the cotton and muslin fabrics) from underclothes and outer clothing, to linens, handkerchiefs, kitchen towels, etc., would be wrinkled and in need of ironing. No wonder it took all day. If you could afford a laundress, lucky you!

Let's face it. Women had it rough 150+ years ago without today's modern conveniences of vacuums, showers and shampoo, washers/dryers and dishwashers.

Here's the excerpt from the sequel to Double Crossing, coming soon -- titled Double or Nothing -- after Lily is covered in mud and heads home.

Once upstairs in my bedroom, I stripped every bit of clothing off with a weary sigh and tied a wrapper around my waist. My hairpins seemed to be plastered into place. I pulled one out and dislodged a hunk of dried mud. Ugh.

Etta knocked. “I’ve heated water. Let me have your clothes, miss.”

“There’s no use salvaging them.”

“Now, Miss Lily. Your uncle explained everything. It’s not your fault what happened,” she said and bent to gather the filthy clothes. Etta held out a small bowl with creamed paste. “Your favorite type—lavender, honey and a bit of oatmeal. Cover your face and hands with that, and I’ll mix some fresh beeswax with rose hips and almond oil when you’re done.”

I sank into the hot bath water in the screened alcove. Once I scrubbed all over, Etta washed my hair and brought fresh water to rinse all the dirt out. She poured a mixture of rose-scented mineral oil and massaged it into my curls. The room’s chilly air sent shivers up my spine. I slathered my face and hands with cream, slipped into my nightdress and crawled into bed...

Meg Mims is an award-winning bestselling author and artist. She writes blended genres – historical, western, adventure, romance, suspense and mystery. Her first book, Double Crossing, won the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel from Western Writers of America and  was named a Finalist in the Best Books of 2012 from USA Book News for Fiction: Western. She also wrote two contemporary romances, The Key to Love and Santa Paws. Follow her on Twitter (@megmims), on Facebook and her website blog.


Meg said...

Uh, better change that to "slipped into my nightdress and slathered my face and hands..." LOL

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I didn't live then. I like being clean.

Unknown said...

I've always wondered in old west romances how could they stand the smell of each other to ever get close enough. I know this is silly, but they must have deadend their smell sense. lol.

I'd never make it in the old west. I'm a creature of comfort.

Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

Ellen O'Connell said...

When and where you set your story and the circumstances of your characters would make a big difference. I read something that more or less said Nineteenth Century people weren't that dirty, but they didn't submerge in tubs - they did sponge bathing from pitchers and basins most of the time. A woman who had to do it all herself would be different from one with servants, etc.

Meg said...

I love my shower, shampoo and Bath and Body Works soaps. :-D

Meg said...

I think with all the smells - horse manure, cow manure, cigar smoke, etc., they probably were used to it. My sister lives "up north" near a dairy farm, and hoo boy, do we notice when we visit in spring/summer. LOL

Meg said...

OH, permanent press!!! How I love you... I used to iron my dad's shirts as a kid. *Loathed* that job -- especially in summer standing over a hot steaming iron and board. When I got married, I made sure the hubby had all PP shirts. I know some people love to iron, but not me.

Meg said...

I think men were far dirtier and used to it than women - and men did take advantage of the bath houses when necessary. There was less pollution in the air, unless you lived in a big city -- but dirt was part of your world. Just like now, as I'm staring at the dust on my living room coffee table. Where's my microfiber cloth? ;-)

Jacquie Rogers said...

My family were typical Nebraskans and I remember my g-grandmother talking to me when I was very young. She said that when she was little (1890s), the men were expected to strip down (away from the women's sight, of course) and wash in the horse trough before they came into the house. She said that everyone was expected to be clean at meals, and that no one ever went to bed dirty--or they'd have to wash the sheets themselves. But I sure wish I'd asked her about shampoo. She did mention the 100-stroke hair brushing. Makes my head sore to think about it.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Meg, so glad to see a realistic post. I hate those books in which a woman with no servants takes a bath each night because she's tired. That just didn't happen. After working near exhaustion, I can't believe she would carry water, heat it, and then bathe each night. I think a "sponge" bath was more likely. My grandmother said that's what they did, and only took a real bath on Saturday. I suspect some folks didn't even do that. But Grandmother said she washed every part of her body each night so she wouldn't get the sheets dirty, then washed again in the morning, but less thoroughly, to wake up.

Meg said...

Yes, I can see that about men and the horse trough! I'm sure the women of the house didn't want *more* work when they didn't have vacuums, washers/dryers and even a dustbuster. LOL

Meg said...

At the turn of the century, things changed quite a bit with indoor plumbing, telephones, electricity, automobiles and the like. If I had to go back in time, I'd pick the early 1900s. :-)

T-aerial said...

Weird: we seldom see horse madure in Westerns.
Still from Appaloosa (2008):

Western women and mud/dirt: still from Hell on Wheels (2012), Dominique Mcelligott:

Anonymous said...

Oh, I would have been a real stinker. I have overactive sweat glands and it is really disgusting to live with in hot weather between showers. In mid summer 2-3 (minimum) showers a day is the norm. After every shower I actually feel lighter. Shirt and pants probably weigh 20 lbs easily. With no deodorant/anti perspirant I would probably be banned from most places. Sweaty clothes eventually develop a amonia odor. I believe most people who romanticise about the Old West just block out the fact every small thing you did was hard.I remember reading starvation was not uncommon, even whole Indian tribes ! Just no electricity would be a miserable life. I cannot sleep in heat period. I toss and turn all night. I can understand why they had a short life span.

Unknown said...

I can only imagine how hard it was to stay clean during the western days. I think about how often men were away from home long periods of time from their families and during their times of loneliness they would find comfort in the arms of others which led to many serious transmitted diseases mostly do to the lack of water and soap that were inturn given to their spouse's when they returned home. Even though this issues probably wasn't the worst thing they had to worry about, I surely bet it was among the top ten things.