Ever wondered what it was really like to be alive in the Old West? Well, you can forget clean water and soap. Say goodbye to trustworthy medical care, too. And if you’re grossed out by the idea of a communal toothbrush, tough luck. Yes, life for the folk of the American Frontier seems pretty horrendous in comparison to modern times. But if you think you know just how grim things got back in the Wild West, think again.
40. Bathroom terrors
Indoor plumbing is a relatively modern boon. So for those living in the Wild West, facilities were primitive at best – and they tended to be outdoors, too. Most had to make do with outbuildings, which were little more than huts erected over pits in the ground. For the sake of convenience, these weren’t too far from the homes. And while there were ways to try and hide the foul stench, hordes of flies would buzz around. Black widow spiders also lurked, ready to bite the unsuspecting.
39. Share and share alike
Hygiene at the dinner table was practically non-existent back in the Wild West frontier days. Everyone who sat down for a meal shared the same cups, crockery and cutlery. And it seems they didn’t bother washing the utensils between users, either – a habit that likely helped to spread disease. Yuck.
38. Brush your teeth, anyone?
As you may well have guessed, dental health wasn’t a top priority for pioneers and rootin’ tootin’ cowboys out west. But for those who wanted to freshen up their mouths, there apparently were facilities available. Get ready to grimace: in some public spaces, you could get your hands on a communal toothbrush to use. We’ll say no more.
37. Bugs with your beer
Folks in the Wild West enjoyed nothing more than a foaming glass of ale in their local saloon. And what tends to happen after you’ve taken a refreshing swig? Foam mustache, of course! Don’t worry: the Old West had a clever but somewhat disgusting solution. At the bar, you’d find a towel on which everyone could dry their chops. Gross, right?
36. Doctor or quack?
If you were sick in the frontier days and visited someone who styled themselves as a doctor, there was absolutely no guarantee that they had any medical qualifications at all. There were properly trained medical practitioners in the Old West, but they were few and far between. That meant you had a good chance of being treated by someone who could only really be described as a quack.
35. Seam squirrels
For those living in the Wild West, mattresses were a breeding ground for lice and fleas. The insects were drawn to bedding made out of straw or hay – which, of course, a lot of folks back then slept on. And the problem was so common that the lice even earned themselves a nickname: “seam squirrels.”
34. Bothersome bugs
Insects were a perpetual problem for frontiersmen and women. Flies buzzed around anything edible – often after they’d disgustingly been frolicking in open sewers, too. That meant the risk of lethal disease was unsurprisingly high. Mosquitoes were also extremely bothersome, and the absence of screens on doors and windows gave the pests every opportunity to invade homes.
33. A dangerous tonic
Wild West doctors seemed to make a habit of prescribing risky concoctions to their patients. One such formula was called calomel, which contained high levels of mercury. Since it triggered an excessive flow of saliva, the “medicine” was used as a purgative. Unfortunately, though, it also had a tendency to cause severe dental issues.
32. Careful with that water
Humans need clean water to thrive. But in the rough and ready frontier lands of the Old West, this basic necessity wasn’t always readily available. The water that could be found would often become polluted by noxious liquids from leaking outhouses or by stagnant H20 that harbored flies. Even the rainwater that gathered in barrels was vulnerable to contamination.
31. Precious water
For many in the Wild West, squandering water on doing the laundry or the dishes just wasn’t an option. Of course, not cleaning clothes regularly enough can lead to health problems such as skin irritations – not to mention lice and flea infestations. Failing to rinse crockery between uses could also leave you with a poorly stomach. If only they knew all of these risks back then!
30. A rare bath
A soak in the tub is something that most take for granted, but for the folks of the Wild West, it was a rare luxury. With water often in short supply and requiring an open fire and lots of effort to heat it up, it wasn’t unheard of to go weeks without a bath in the frontier lands. So, next time showering feels like a chore, just remember how easy we have it.
29. Soap’s high price
When the people of the Wild West got a chance to hop in the bath, they didn’t have Dr Teal’s or Dove to get them smelling fresh. At best, soap on the frontier was a coarse slab that was mainly made up of animal fat. It was so crude, in fact, that it could actually cause painful skin irritation. Sounds like a high price to pay for keeping clean, if you ask us.
28. Acceptable B.O.
Weirdly, people living on the western frontier thought that washing could actually be bad for your health. They believed, you see, that cleaning too often could cause the pores to dilate, thus giving disease an easy passage into the body. This was absolute nonsense, of course. And the result was that everyone was surprisingly tolerant of body odor.
27. Habitual spitting
The spittoon was a common sight in the Old West. Many cowboys chewed tobacco, only to then fire showers of brown phlegm at the spittoon. This habitual spitting was an ideal vector for the spread of unpleasant illnesses such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.
26. Sleeping in the sawdust
Perhaps in part because so many people chewed and spat out tobacco, the saloon floors were covered in a layer of sawdust. And as if it wouldn’t have been gross enough just to walk on the stuff, travelers staying at these taverns would have had to bed down on top of the gunk, too. Ew.
25. Whiskey shampoo
Whiskey was the favored tipple of many in the Wild West. But the notorious firewater – which came with such colorful names as “Tarantula Juice” and “Coffin Varnish” – was more than a mere aperitif. Combined with lavender and castor oil, it was also used as a shampoo. How fragrant you’d be after that hair-wash is debatable.
24. Too cold to bathe
Anything we would recognize as a modern bathing facility was rarer than hen’s teeth on the frontier. Soldiers, pioneers and cowboys roaming the range may have gone weeks or even months without a proper hot bath – only taking the plunge in creeks that looked reasonably clean. That tended to rule out winter soaks altogether, though.
23. Eau de horse
When asked to think of a cowboy, it’s likely that Clint Eastwood will gallop into view in your imagination. In reality, though, you’d probably smell a pioneer coming before you’d see them. Why? Well, many spent so much time riding that carrying around a constant odor of horse was somewhat normal.
22. Mind that bed
If you were on the road and needed a bed for the night, you’d probably end up in a flophouse or saloon. But just how hygienic those lodgings were was open to question. You may wonder who’d slept in a bed before you and what illnesses they could have had. Then you could question the freshness of the linen. Lice and fleas were certainly no rarity, that’s for sure.
21. Face foliage perils
Many men roaming around back in the Wild West days had rather extravagant beards. But one unfortunate side effect of untamed facial foliage could have been a dramatic decline in hygiene levels – especially if there weren’t many opportunities to wash properly. After all, even some people today claim that beards can harbor an absolute zoo of bacteria.
20. Valley Fever
Unpleasant fungal infections were a common danger for the hardy folks of the Wild West. A tough day’s riding on the range or dragging a wagon through the wilderness would be enough to make anyone a little hot and sweaty. And that’s just the environment in which these various fungal infections love to thrive. A particularly violent irritant was the Coccidioides fungus, which was prevalent in the western territories. It resulted in a nasty affliction known as Valley Fever.
19. Don’t drink sulfur
Many in the Wild West thought that they knew a thing or two about self-medication. The general belief was that the more unpleasant the remedy, the more effective it was likely to be. If it tasted revolting and smelled worse, it had to be good for you. That’s how some ended up drinking sulfur, with its horribly potent bouquet. Modern medicine, of course, does not support this practice as it’s potentially really harmful.
18. Barber, blacksmith or dentist?
In 2017 True West magazine quoted Professor Joanna Bourke as saying, “Agonizing toothache, horrifying extractions and barbaric tools have cast a large shadow over our dental past.” And the methods that were used in the Old West certainly didn’t help this bad reputation. In fact, if you were in need of dental treatment at the time, you probably would have visited the barber or even the blacksmith. Unfortunately, though, some of these guys were so clumsy that you may have ended up with a dislocated jaw.
17. Beware the doctor
If you were lucky enough to come across a doctor who had received actual medical training in the Wild West, that wasn’t necessarily the end of your worries. Yes, even qualified practitioners had some very strange ideas about what qualified as appropriate treatments. Bizarre interventions included bleeding, removing chunks of skin and swathing the patient with cotton before setting them alight. Yikes.
16. A powerful purgative
An apparent favorite treatment for frontier doctors was the liberal prescribing of powerful purgatives. So liberal, in fact, that it verged on dangerous and could bring with it predictably unpleasant results. One such drug known as ipecac syrup would result in copious vomiting. The idea was, you see, that purging the body would combat an illness. But as you would imagine, modern doctors certainly wouldn’t recommend doing this today.
15. Malarial misery
There seems to have been no end to the eccentricities of the frontier doctors – whether they were actually medically trained or not. Take one of their malaria treatments, for instance, which involved the patient being stripped naked and left in the open air to get thoroughly chilled. This process was accelerated with buckets of cold water, too, and was intended to induce shivering. If the shakes got too extreme, though, opium was administered.
14. Dubious gadgets
As well as quack treatments, frontier medics deployed equipment of decidedly dubious worth. One example was a gadget called the pulsometer – a glass vessel containing colored water that had bulbs at either end. The patient would grasp the pulsometer as his pulse was taken, and bubbles would rise through the liquid. But what did this device measure? Well, nowadays we can say, quite frankly, that it did absolutely nothing.
13. Bad hair day
In our modern world, there’s no limit to the number of hair care products on the market. But women in the Wild West were far from spoiled for choice. In fact, all they had was coarse soap, which is not particularly known for giving that alluring luster to your locks. As a result, many women only washed their tresses once a month. Every day was a bad hair day.
12. Drink to kill the leeches
Getting sick on the western frontier lands was no picnic. Even if you could find a doctor, there was no guarantee that the treatment would be effective. Often, bleeding would be all that was offered – sometimes through the use of leeches. And if the patient inadvertently swallowed one of the leeches, the remedy was then to drink a glass of wine every 15 minutes in the hope that the alcohol would kill the critter. That doesn’t sound so bad, though, right?
11. Dickens’ verdict
Charles Dickens toured the U.S., writing about the experience in his 1842 volume American Notes. And when he visited the Illinois city of Cairo, he was clearly unimpressed. It was, the author wrote, “a breeding-place of fever, ague and death.” Dickens also claimed that the people of Cairo were “more wan and wretched than any we had encountered.”
10. Teeth required
In light of the state of American dental health, the U.S. Army took a keen interest in the mouths of its men during the mid-19th century. In his 2008 book Frontier Medicine, David Dary wrote, “Recruits were turned away if they did not have six opposing upper and lower front teeth with which to bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with muzzle-loaded weapons.”
9. Dead dog treatment
Dary also explained an 1815 remedy for gout and rheumatism in Frontier Medicine. The treatment involved slaughtering a “young fat dog” then skinning and gutting it. The guts were then combined with hens’ eggs, nettles, “red fishing worms,” turpentine, brimstone, tobacco and more. After that, the unholy mixture was returned to the dead dog’s innards, and the whole lot would be roasted as the patient sat by the open fire. Extraordinary.
8. Perils of childbirth
Pregnancy and childbirth was a big risk for women in the Old West. And for those unlucky enough to require a cesarean, there would be just a 25 percent chance of survival. According to a 1963 American Heritage article, Dr. John Richmond was likely the first medical professional to carry out a successful C-section in the western frontier lands.
7. Suck a lemon
Scurvy is a disease most strongly associated with mariners on lengthy sea journeys. But it’s easily avoided with the consumption of enough vitamin C – hence the advice to suck a lemon. Anyway, some of those who arrived by sea to the goldfields of California had been without sources of vitamin C for prolonged periods of time. Rather unsurprisingly, then, they ultimately fell prey to unpleasant bouts of debilitating scurvy.
6. Criminal doctors
Some people who called themselves doctors in the Old West actually had no formal medical qualifications whatsoever. Even worse, a handful of these so-called professionals were, in fact, criminals. Writing in American Heritage, George Groh claimed that one well-known medical man had actually been a convict on the run, while another was infamously known as a horse robber.
5. Wiping painfully
Today, we have bathroom tissue – and it seems this is something we should be thankful for. In the Old West, no such convenience existed. After a visit to the outhouse in that era, folks resorted to using anything from corncobs to grass to clean up. We can only conclude that they were made of sterner stuff back in those days.
4. Spectators at surgery
Surgery in the Old West must have been scary enough without a crowd of onlookers – but it seems that some people were just too curious to stay at home. American Heritage describes one such instance when an unfortunate woman in Colorado was due to have a tumor excised from her head by Dr. Charles Gardiner. To Gardiner’s – and presumably his patient’s – dismay, one man pushed his way into the operating room and gave a running commentary to the expectant crowd that had come together outside.
3. Wash your hands – but not like this
Hand-washing, we know, is a hygiene practice that can be highly effective against the spread of infection. But only when done properly, of course. People in the Old West often used the same bowl of water, which is obviously a vector for disease.
2. Versatile whiskey
Whiskey had an obvious application in a recreational setting, quaffed as it was by people in saloons across the Wild West. But the fiery spirit turned out to be incredibly versatile. One useful role it played was that of disinfectant, you see. Yes, if nothing else was at hand, surgeons would sterilize their instruments with neat whiskey. For all of the gross habits we now know about, it sounds like the Old West had its own version of alcohol gel.
1. The high price of love
Sex in the Old West sometimes involved a commercial transaction, often finalized in a saloon or at least in the rooms upstairs. Unhappily, this resulted in an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, an estimate cited by True West magazine indicates that at one point, some 90 percent of prostitutes in the Old West had STDs.