Another method of bathing was the sweat bath, widely practiced in North America. Each village had a sweat lodge located near the waterfront. The lodge itself was low, conical, and closely covered with mats or skins. Inside was a central hearth and room for about eight people to sit on the ground. A "doctor," most likely a priest, was in charge, and it was his responsibility to keep the people in the lodge from fainting or otherwise suffering adverse effects. The hearth was first lined with the pulverized inner bark of the white oak, after which three or four large, very hot stones were laid on the bark. As the lodge began to heat up, the people entered. No colonial writer recorded whether sweat baths were taken by both sexes separately, or in a mixed group, or by men only; however, the people entered the lodge naked and the Powhatans are known to have been modest about members of the opposite sex seeing their uncovered loins, so certain proprieties were probably observed. The doctor then went inside and closed the door. He sprinkled water on the hot stones to make steam, and, as needed, he sprinkled the people as well, to keep them conscious. Everyone stayed in the intense heat for as long as they could stand it, and then they burst out the door and ran into the waterway nearby. The "cure" was said to be very invigorating, though initially the shock to the system made people feel feeble.
Important people, at least, washed their hands before eating: the paramount chief Powhatan is known to have doused his hands in water before and after eating, after which he dried his hands on a bunch of feathers. However, Powhatan Indian culture contained no equivalent of soaps or disinfectants, as far as the records show, so that infections in wounds were a constant danger.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Personal Hygiene Among Early Virginia Indians. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Hygiene_During_the_Pre-Colonial_Era_Personal.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Personal Hygiene Among Early Virginia Indians." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).