Shannon Bremer- Hygiene and the Civil War

I recently presented a research paper at the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference this past March in Virginia. My paper focused on health and hygiene related artifacts recovered from a nearby Civil War era Union encampment in Stafford County, Virginia.

More often than not, as modern day humans, we take health and hygiene for granted. To us, it is normal to have easy access to doctors, dentists, medicines, toothbrushes, and hair products. During the 1800s, especially during the Civil War, it was not as common nor was it as easy to get access to any of the things I mentioned above. The site I am studying was an encampment of mainly officers and it is probable that the higher socio-economic status of the officers attributed to their greater access to hygiene related products, in comparison to other known army encampments. Despite the higher status of the officers, only seven hygiene related artifacts were recovered. This low number speaks volumes about how little the army cared about the health of their soldiers, but also that soldiers and officers at least cared about their personal health enough to purchase their own goods.

One of the most important body parts for a soldier was his teeth. A soldier needed most, if not all, of their teeth to not only tear cartridges for his gun, but also to receive nutrients through the proper mastication of food (Hammond 1863:59). Even though this was included in Hammond’s manual, dental hygiene was not a priority for the Union Army. They entered the war without dental surgeons and did not supply toothbrushes to its troops (Hyson et al. 2008: 29). Because of this, soldiers had to provide their own toothbrushes, which could either be sent from home or were hand-made. Soldiers could also seek out civilian dentists if they had a serious dental problem (Shroeder-Lein 2008:84). If they needed a tooth pulled, however, they could visit the Army surgeon who would perform the task, regardless of how qualified he was (Hyson et al. 2008:38).

At the encampment recently investigated by UMW’s Historic Preservation archaeological field school, two bone toothbrushes were found within Civil War era deposits. One of the toothbrushes was severely burnt, leaving it a dark black color. Along the top, rounded edges of both toothbrushes, four holes can be seen. Those holes as well as the smooth back indicate that the method of trepanning was used to insert the bristles (Mattick 1993: 163). For the process of trepanning, “the bristle holes are drilled only partway to the back of the stock. Instead of joining the holes with a slit, a hole was bored or trepanned from the end of the stock to form a ‘tunnel,’ which joined the holes” (Mattick 1993: 163). A thread attached to the bristles would be sewn through each hole to attach the bristles almost inconspicuously into the head of the toothbrush, resulting in a smooth back instead of cutting slits to insert the bristles (Mattick 1993: 163). This tells us that these toothbrushes were sent by family members or purchased by the soldiers and not hand-made due to the precision and care needed to make a trepanned toothbrush.

It is hard to have toothbrushes without some sort of powder or paste to help clean your teeth. During the Civil War, toothpaste (aka dentrifice) could either be prepared at home or bought from pharmacies (Spring Hill Historic Home 2017). The base of a whiteware toothpaste jar was recovered from the same master-context as the burned toothbrush. An officer or a soldier could have purchased this jar from the nearby town of Fredericksburg; however, it is also possible that it was a jar they had been carrying with them to be refilled with homemade dentrifice, a common practice in the 19th century.

The overall lack of toothbrushes in the mid-19th century led to poor dental hygiene, especially within the Union Army. Had toothbrushes been more accessible, it is possible that soldiers may not have suffered from as many dental issues and diseases as they did. In part, the lack of toothbrushes could be attributed to the need for mass production of the product, something that did not happen until after the war.

Hair hygiene was just as important as dental hygiene. Besides soldiers and officers, camps were also occupied by lice (Capinera 2008: 1817). Since most people did not bathe or wash their hair frequently during the 19th century, it was of the upmost importance, especially for men, to find a way to remove dirt, oil, and bugs from not only their hair, but their beards as well (Sherrow 2006: 90). Fine-toothed combs, especially lice combs, were the easiest and most convenient way to clean and style hair. They were often hard-rubber and were carried by most, if not all, soldiers and officers in their packs. Unfortunately, like most personal hygiene items, combs were not provided by the army. Many officers and soldiers also used hair tonic to both style and groom their hair, beard, or mustache. Because of this, it is no surprise that two fragments of separate hard-rubber combs as well as a bone brush handle were found in the midden. Nearby the brush handle, an aqua bottle of Barry’s Tricopherus Hair Tonic was found. Barry’s was one of the most famous tonics during the 19th century, especially in New York, where it was manufactured. A majority of the troops occupying this site were from New York, therefore it is understandable why this tonic would be present in Stafford County.



Surgeon Corps played an important role in taking care of soldiers and officers. For the most part, surgeons also acted as general doctors and dentists. This included not only performing surgeries and amputations, but also giving medicine to the sick and doing basic dental procedures. Due to the finding of a possible bandage clasp and historic documentation, we know there was a corps of surgeons at this site during the war. Within the midden, an abundance of whiskey glass was found along with some belonging to bitters bottles (Fuechsel et al. 2017). Both are alcohol related by nature, and both were used by soldiers on a personal level for self-medication when surgeons could not help them.

These artifacts have granted us a closer look at the lives of the officers and soldiers that inhabited this encampment during the Battles of Fredericksburg, even if it was only for a short period of time. We now have not only a better understanding of how the officers and soldiers at this encampment took care of themselves, but also how soldiers and officers in general tried to maintain good health. While rudimentary by today’s standards, the ways in which these men took care of themselves during wartime were advancements from typical health related behaviors at the time and encouraged better behaviors post-war. I really enjoyed the conference and hearing about the different archaeological research that is being done in the Mid-Atlantic. There is so much to learn about this region from archaeology and the other papers and posters at the conference truly showed that to me. I cannot wait to learn even more at the conference again next year!


Works Cited

Capinera, John L. (editor)
2008 Encyclopedia of Entomology. Springer Science and Business Media.

Fuechsel, Melanie
2017 Bitters and Libations: Bottle Glass and Sherwood Forest Plantation’s Union Encampment. Paper presented at the 46th Annual Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference. Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Hammond, William A.,
1863 A Treatise on Hygiene. J.B. Lippincott & Co, Philadelphia, PA.

Hyson, John M. Jr, Joseph W.A. Whitehorne, and John T. Greenwood
2008 A History of Dentistry in the US Army to World War II. Office of The Surgeon General at TMM Publications, Washington DC.

Mattick, Barbara E.
1993 The History of Toothbrushes and Their Nature as Archaeological Artifacts. In The Florida Anthropologist Vol. 46 No. 3. pp. 162-184.

Schroeder-Lein, Glenna R.
2008 The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine. Routledge, Armonk, NY.

Sherrow, Victoria
2006 Encylcopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Spring Hill Historic Home
2017 “Morning Breath.” <>. Accessed 12 February 2018.

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