The works of itinerant portrait artists from the early nineteenth century provide some idea of what Americans in the northern states looked like. These vernacular portraits show
respectable men and women—merchants, professional men, successful artisans, manufacturers and their wives—in their best clothes, the men in sober black, the women in ornamented caps and collars. They hold books, often Bibles, and sometimes other implements that signify female arts or men's trades. With rare exceptions they are gazing seriously at the beholder. This is the world of the prosperous American parlor. Occasionally there is a revealing lapse from propriety, as in the portrait of Stephen Fitch, circa 1820, that shows him holding not a book but a snuffbox and a handkerchief that he will use to clean up after he has inhaled the tobacco.
Such portraits also reveal changes in personal appearance. Men's hairstyles began to change radically at the turn of the century, along with much else. Wigs, long flowing locks, and hair tied in queues or clubs gave way to short hair—"brush heads" as they were first called. Men sat for their portraits with hair close-cropped in the Roman style, or brushed back to reveal the forehead. Beards and mustaches, which had disappeared from the American colonies in the late seventeenth century, would not begin their return until after 1830.
Caricatures provide a different view. The drawings and lithographs of David Claypoole Johnston depict men in shirtsleeves, with ill-fitting hats and soiled or missing cravats. Drunkards' bare toes stick out of their broken shoes. In Johnston's "Militia Muster" (1828), the New England citizen-soldiers are an unattractive lot. Some men wear patched and soiled trousers while others puff on "segars." Because the militia spanned class divisions in the community, at least some pictured in this all-male world of the muster are those who might have sat for portraits in their own parlors. Four of the working-class militiamen have open mouths, displaying missing and rotted teeth. This is a striking reminder of the dental difficulties that plagued many, perhaps most Americans.
One keen observer thought that the farm people of his native New England in the 1820s were facially inexpressive, "wearing all unconsciously the masks that custom had prescribed." The great physical demands of unmechanized agriculture, he maintained, made men "heavy, awkward and slouching in movement." Other observers likewise found Dutch farmers in New York and Germans in Pennsylvania "clumsy and chill," or "dull and stolid." Poorer rural folk in the South looked "disagreeable and boorish" to English travelers, their faces giving nothing away.
The newly arrived "wild Irish," on the other hand, stood out as too expressive—loud, boisterous, and gesticulating. African Americans were in a different category entirely. Their freer expressions and gestures confused and distracted observers who saw only "antics and frolics," or "savagery." Whether seen as sullenly uncommunicative or childishly merry, they also wore the masks of custom—in this case self-protective strategies for controlling what could be known about their feelings and motivations. Low status and greater physical expressiveness made both groups vulnerable to caricature; their faces were customarily portrayed as coarse and brutal.
American city dwellers, driven by the quicker pace of commerce, were reputed to be easy to distinguish from rural folk. It was already said of New York City that the men hurrying on Broadway shared a universal "contraction of the brow, knitting
of the eyebrows, and compression of the lips." It was a popular American saying that "a New York merchant always walks as if he had a good dinner before him, and a bailiff behind him."
The most physically graceful of Americans were thought to be members of the planter aristocracy, who expressed the power of their class in the way they stood and moved. Accustomed to command, at ease on the dance floor or in the saddle, they could be distinguished from men hardened by toil or preoccupied with commerce. An Englishwoman visiting Washington contrasted not the politics but the posture of congressmen from the North and South. She noted the "ease and frank courtesy … with an occasional touch of arrogance" of the slaveholders alongside the "cautious … and too deferential air of the members from the North." A New Englander could be identified, she wrote, "by his deprecatory walk."
Until well after the Revolution, very few Americans bathed—that is, washed their entire bodies. Customarily, they went no farther than washing the face and hands once a day in cold water in full view of others. Most men and women also washed without soap, reserving it for laundering clothes; instead they rubbed briskly with a coarse towel to scrub off dirt. Only those whose hands and faces were clearly dirty were considered unclean.
Elite American families with transatlantic connections to the British aristocracy first took up bathing in the 1790s in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Men and women undressed in their rooms and washed themselves using basin, pitcher, and towel—an ensemble called a "chamber set" that would become increasingly frequent in American bedchambers.
These new practices were influenced in part by considerations of health, in particular the eighteenth-century medical discovery that the skin with its pores was an organ of secretion, with its corollary that the pores needed to be kept clean and open. But the new attitude owed even more to aesthetics—a revulsion from bodily smells, a desire for smooth, unblemished surfaces, and a willingness to connect bodily cleanliness with virtue and refinement.
During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, other Americans in city and countryside followed the example of urban elite families. However, the democratization of bathing was gradual. In 1815 the family of a prominent minister in Litchfield, Connecticut, still washed in their kitchen using a stone sink and "a couple of basins." Historians know this because a young woman from New York City who boarded with them complained in a letter home that she was unable to bathe.
Advice books on health and manners began to recommend bathing, and it is likely that young people were most responsive. Most members of the older generation at the time of transition—those born before 1780, say—may never have been comfortable with it. By 1830 bathing was probably widespread among prosperous families in cities (and to some extent among plantation families as well) and coming into acceptance in rural villages. It remained relatively rare in the countryside; the northern agricultural press would not begin a campaign to encourage bathing until around 1840. Bathing did not touch the lives of the urban poor or the world of the slaves.
Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992; New York: Vintage, 1993.
Bushman, Richard L., and Claudia L. Bushman. "The Early History of Cleanliness in America." Journal of American History 74, no. 4 (March 1988): 1213–1238.
Kasson, John F. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991.
Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790–1840. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Sloat, Caroline F., and Jessica Nicoll, eds. Meet Your Neighbors: New England Portraits, Painters, and Society, 1790–1850. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.