Just about all of the Wild West cowboys we’ve glorified in America the last hundred years or so are physically clean-looking in the movies and on television, and a lot of former cowboys are portrayed as classy, well-dressed marshals and sheriffs. Think of it — in television we had Bat Masterson, Brett Maverick, The Rifleman, Matt Dillon, and the cast of Wagon Train and Bonanza. Then there was Clint Eastwood in quite a few famous westerns, John Wayne in a few more, Gary Cooper in High Noon, James Stewart in Winchester 73, and Alan Ladd in Shane. Heroes. All looking good — and clean — even when they’re out chasing bad guys. So, actually, do the doctors and womenfolk who wander around the small western towns those cowboys and lawmen either live in or shoot up or pass through during cattle runs.
But the truth is very different.
A Bath? Thanks, But No Thanks
The clean-cut legends of film and television were invented or taken from the era of the late 1800s. The reality is that if the cowboys that were around then ever looked good, it was after a bath, and that just wasn’t a “thing” in great demand. They might take a bath of some sort after many months out on the trail or after hot, sweaty weeks working for ranchers, or after tracking their enemies across long stretches of desert under a relentless sun. But it wasn’t guaranteed.
Consider this: First of all, bathtubs were rare, and hot water took a long time to heat up over a fire pit. Soap wasn’t part of their regular gear. Laundromats weren’t invented. Any woman who got swept up in the arms of a cowboy got to smell at close quarters his unwashed clothes, body, and mustache quite intimately, and it’s no surprise women were not easily inclined to ride off with said cowboy into the sunset.
Yet isn’t that the most iconic image we have in the legend of the great American expansion, our “westward ho!” vision of that lone cowboy letting go of stability, seeking adventure, and/or saving us from some outlaw?
It’s almost like a form of worship going on there, the way we have conjured and bought into — and still admire — the figure of the cowboy, a man on his own daring the great wide spaces, entering the frontier as a “stranger in a strange land” and coming out a hero.
The Fact Is…
That part of the story, grand as it is, just isn’t true, any more than the idea cowboys kept clean! We cling to it, but cowboys back then were animal herders and wranglers and some of them were violent killers. The lawlessness of the west in the late 1800s was as available as it was during Prohibition, only there wasn’t anyone like Eliot Ness to bring order to the crimes. No one was in charge of the west, not really. Each town had its own rules, or not. There weren’t many Wyatt Earps around, and not many real lawmen capable of events as dramatic as the1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
When we see men walking around now, in 2020, with permits to carry guns, proudly spitting at anyone who considers there might be another way to deal with life’s problems, those men are really just imitators of the lawless (and unbathed) creed of cowboys like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and John Wesley Hardin, and their later incarnations in John Dillinger, Fred Barker, and George “Baby Face” Nelson, among others. It’s a macho image we apparently still find appealing. The reasons why that’s the case would take more time than I have here just now to ruminate on. Maybe later. (Charles Bronson’s Death Wish vigilante macho series fits in here, as does a number of modern movies glorifying violence — again, best left for another time.)
Why Resist a Nice Hot Bath When You Can Get It?
I have digressed. Back to hygiene… Long before Europeans landed on the North American continent, they had the ingrained custom of never washing in water, a habit in part begun after the plague of The Black Death when only 40% of the population of Europe was left alive, and people believed water had contributed to the pandemic disease. In any event, bathing was taboo, so sailors on the sea, royals in their castles, and commoners in the streets all stayed far away from anything that suggested a hand wash, much less a full-body wash. They were more likely to see it as witchcraft than health-giving.
The European colonists who came to American shores thus brought with them their various diseases, all the result of their abysmal hygiene, and gave them to millions upon millions of unsuspecting Native Americans who had no immunity against the scourge of unwashed men and women in grubby wool clothes.
The everyday life of an unwashed colonist in the 1600s was intensified for cowboys in the 1880s American West. Those men were out there doing ranch chores sunup to sundown, or cattle herding day in and day out, always in the heat of the mid-western prairies and southwestern deserts. And don’t forget their winter season, when snow covered the landscape or there could be heavy rains. Cowboys wore extra clothing to stay warm, trapping the dirt and encouraging small vermin to burrow into the skin. The result? You have a fairly pungent adult male standing before you, possibly with a few parasites for company.
An Aside on Hand Washing
A number of people over the centuries in many countries have suggested hand washing at the very least could allay most of the problems incurred by disease transmission. There are treatises on this from Roman and medieval times. There are also essays by some brave and daring souls writing in the 1800s in the American west, travelers through those small and odiferous towns, advocating cleanliness. It was not at all successful, especially in saloons.
(As a note, the learning curve for cleanliness is still arduous in America. On average, it was repeatedly noticed in early studies, only 30% of men washed their hands after leaving a public bathroom (or outhouse). To this day that statistic is apparently still accurate. Sure, go ahead and shake a man’s hand in a hail-fellow-well-met — after all, he just might be one of those who did use soap and water.
I wonder if the resistance to cleanliness via hand washing has to do with that macho outlook I mentioned before, a kind of cowboy ethic of “my way or the highway” thing? Well, as I said, maybe I’ll write about that later. When (if) I figure it out.
Cowboy Songs Add to Our Hero Worship
There are plenty of famous cowboy songs declaring the lingering power of their legendary status (despite their lack of bathing), starting with the one about cattle being driven over “The Old Chisolm Trail,” a favorite song of cowboys in the 1870s and first recorded in 1910. Old songs like this made the life of a cowboy sound appealing and desirable, and many are still sung (and receiving Grammy awards) today. The cowboy in these songs remains a hero we’ve always been drawn to, like moths to the flame. Their hygiene just isn’t on the radar.
The iconic image of the cowboy — that’s what we seem to hold on to. True or no, it must still satisfy something in us personally and collectively. But knowing what I know, I have to say, I wonder why.
(For another take on cowboys, see my article on Billy the Kid.)