The Old West, the American Frontier, the Wild West, call it what you will, but it all comes back to the same time and place in American history. Most people have a vague idea of what life during the westward expansion looked like. There were cowboys and Indians, saloons and moonshine, rushes of gold. Clint Eastwood?
But one thing’s for certain, life on the frontier wasn’t for the faint of heart. People who moved out west to start a new life were forced to sacrifice everything — including personal hygiene. The cowboy life may sound like a rugged fantasy, but it certainly didn’t smell like one.
1. Barbers were also dentists: Toothbrush, toothpaste, or really any dental hygiene product was more or less non-existent. Even dentists were hard to come by, so if people had tooth pain, they went to their barber or blacksmith to have it pulled.
2. Hair care was as wild as anything in the west: Why just drink whisky when you can mix it with castor oil and wash your hair? Or, if you did drink all the whisky, you can skip the wash and just “soften” your hair with borax.
3. Smelling like a horse was never cool: It might just sound like a cute cowboy phrase, but this reference came from men who returned from months on the trail and were so dirty they often had staph or strep infections.
4. Spitting was risky business: Bars offered spittoons for men to hock their chew into, which were later dried out with sawdust. The spittle/sawdust combination would eventually ferment and, because the spittoons were rarely emptied, the soiled dust would get kicked back up into the air, causing respiratory issues.
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5. Beware of public beds: Most beds were made out of straw or hay, which was basically a breeding ground for insects and critters. The most common bed bug in the old west was lice, or as they called them, seam squirrels.
6. Varying soap standards: While Mexican women washed with soap-weed, a product made from yucca plant, many settlers made their soap from animal fat. This tended to be harsh and cause rashes. But it was no matter since many believed clean pores allowed germs in.
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7. Women didn’t blink at their complexions: The trend was to keep skin as white as possible. However, for pioneer women in the west, keeping out of the sun was not an option. Those “fair” beauty standards were exchanged for a more cowboy way of life.
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8. Clean water was scarce: Water was just as essential to survival back then as it is today. But with horses tramping about and outhouses being built up stream, the chances of any found water being fresh was slim. Even collected rainwater turned dangerous if left too long.
9. Only outhouse if you dare: Sure, everyone likes a little privacy when doing their business, but most people were better off finding a bush. Outhouses were magnets for flies and bacteria, and they were only ever retired once they were full of (you know what).
10. The dust was inescapable: Not even the indoors would protect you from the dust storms tearing through the west. Aside from everything in sight being covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime, all the dust caused a lot of respiratory issues.
11. Long hair? Men didn’t care: You would think with riding around in the hot dust all day that short hair would be the trend, but that wasn’t the case. Take a look at any notable figure from the Wild West — long locks were the look.
12. Women were cleaner than men…slightly: Because women weren’t out cowboying as much as the men, they had some free time on their dusty hands to find and watering hole and rinse their face. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of their bathing.
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13. Kerchiefs were key: The ol’ bandana trend wasn’t just for looks; it was practical fashion. Cowboys would use their kerchiefs to keep dust out of their nose and mouth when riding around. They also helped dab the sweat off their brows.
14. They had communal bar towels: Saloons used to sport railings along the bar that would hold towels used to wipe beer foam from mens’ beards. Laundering these beard mops didn’t really happen, so we can only imagine what was going around.
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15. Beards be-gone: Men and beards had long gone together like meat and potatoes. However, a feeling started to arise that beards harbored germs, so those scruffy cowboys started opting for a more clean cut look.
16. Disease was unavoidable: Cholera was the most common, affecting settlers and natives alike, but with the unsanitary living conditions, disease was practically a permanent resident. In fact, it was considered a miracle to come across any settlement not affected by disease.
17. STDs were as common as cow pies: Because there wasn’t really an understanding of venereal diseases at this time, safe intercourse wasn’t being practiced. So, cowboys and saloon girls were just carrying on business as usual. And there was a lot of business.
18. Fungus was among us: If you’ve ever wondered what riding around on a horse without bathing for months on end would get you, it’s a fungal infection! These would frequently crop up on the crotch, buttocks, and armpits of cowboys and were horrendously itchy.
19. Alcohol really could put some hair on your chin: Alcohol in the Old West was significantly stronger than anything you’d find today. Two of the most popular drinks were “firewater,” a combination of alcohol, burnt sugar, and tobacco, and “cactus wine,” which was tequila and peyote tea.
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20. The land really was lawless: Both cowboys and natives were notorious for committing horrible crimes. At 14-years-old, Olive Oatman (pictured here) saw her whole family murdered before she was kidnapped and eventually sold to a Mohave tribe.
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21. The drinking was wild: Just like frequent bar-goers today, the drinking got out of hand at times. Here we can see several men firing their guns at one man’s feet as he tries to avoid the bullets as fast as he can. This happened so often that it actually became a game known as the “bullet dance.”
22. Cowboys gambled: Not to worry, there were also gambling halls available for those who preferred a more leisurely form of entertainment. These less intense places usually consisted of three things: whiskey, women, and wagers.
23. Watch out for Jack Vermillion: Someone no one ever wanted to sit next to at the betting table was Jack Vermillion. He was quickly dubbed “Texas Jack” once he shot a man over an argument at cards… in the eye. This gives his more commonly used nickname “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out Vermillion” a clearer explanation.
24. See your future: Another popular pastime of the Old West was having your fortune told by female Romani psychics. These “gypsies,” as they called them, were believed to have the ability to read people’s futures through crystal balls, Tarot cards, and the palms of hands…
25. Not all cowboys were boys: Not all women told tales — meet Rose Dunn, a clever gunslinger known for her good looks and romantic involvement with western outlaws. Her unexpected loyalty gained the respect of many men, mostly gang members, making her the most protected woman in town.
26. They liked to be entertained: For those few who were not into drinking, prostitutes, games, or any kind of sorcery, there was the highly influential Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. All thanks to its creator, a bison hunter named Bill, this traveling circus-like act depicted the Old Western lifestyle for people, without them having to actually live it.
27. An unlikely star: One of the main stars was Native American, Whirling Horse. Though he was a “show Indian” he did come from a native tribe, and often portrayed the truth in his role as a victim of western expansion. This surprisingly helped with tensions during the American-Indian Wars.
28. Everyone was friends at the saloon: In order to ease such tension, many cowboys would find themselves at the saloon. Usually joined by the outlaws, these groups of men would enjoy a nice, cold brew amongst each other before they got back to their (very different) business.
29. Early bartenders: Now, let’s not forget about those serving the drinks. Take a look at these proud bartenders posing for a photo in the very first saloon ever established in 1822, Wyoming.
30. Don’t mess with this kid: Nowadays, you have to be 21 to get served alcohol, but this well-known outlaw decided he would much rather kill eight men before turning that age! Born as Henry McCarty, “Billy the Kid” was one of the most ruthless gunfighters of the Old West.
31. A doctor in the west: With so much violence, there’s bound to be a doctor in the building, right? Wrong. Though “Doc Holliday” was a doctor, his degree was more aligned in the field of dentistry. Once he realized caring for teeth wasn’t on people’s list of priorities, this Doc turned into one of the Wild West’s most notable deputy marshals.
32. Native spirits: While the cowboys had the marshals to watch over things, the Apache tribe had their ancestors. These Native Americans believed they lived alongside the supernatural. Below are their “spirit dancers” who were thought to have the ability to summon these souls from the mountains.
33. Striking gold: What the land also had in store for those living in the Wild West was gold. Yes, the famous California Gold Rush began in 1848, bringing 300,000 people into the state. Unfortunately, this resulted in disease and starvation for most of the Native Californians.
34. There were gangs: With such a fluctuating economy, many Western people of the 19th century relied on original gangster ways – particularly robbery. William Brazelton, also known as “Bill Brazen”, was notorious for stealing while wearing a mask. Who knew this signature move would be replicated by almost every burglar today?
35. Never underestimate a sharpshooter: Bill wasn’t the only trying to support his family – take Annie Oakley for example. This young lady became known for her sharpshooting skills at the age of 15, though she first picked up a gun as an eight-year-old while hunting to feed her mom and siblings after her father died.
36. Everyone struggled: Struggling just as much were the other main group Indians of the Old West, the Navajo tribe. Though considered one of the more wealthy aboriginal groups of the United States, Navajos still struggled to support their families.
37. Real life Robin Hood: One of the people’s heroes was the courageous Jesse James. Though he was an avid gang leader and train robber, he rarely got in trouble with the law since he acted as America’s Robin Hood – only stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
38. There were some good runs: Following in our last outlaw’s footsteps was this rather young, multi-racial gang formed by Rufus Buck. Together these boys robbed both stores and ranches in the Arkansas-Oklahoma area for eight straight years before getting caught.
39. The vistas were unparalleled: Those who ventured far across the land like our last group of men, were able to capture some pretty breathtaking views, as well as some much needed silence. This scenic photo is of the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Today, the area is actually reserved as a National Monument!
40. Women were outlaws too: Lastly, a woman named Pearl Hart proved that 19th century ladies also had a knack for sticky fingers. Though stagecoach robbery was Hart’s specialty, one day she was caught stealing from one in Arizona. Locking up Hart with all males, including the guards, was a mistake – she quickly managed to escape shortly after being imprisoned.