Our Recent Discovery May Spark Your Curiosity about the History of Hygiene

To say women have made a significant impact on the world since the 1800s would be an understatement. 1920 witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Amelia Earhart made the first solo flight by a woman across the Atlantic in 1932 and in 1955, Rosa Parks sparked the Civil Rights Movement by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. While these and many more historical events will go down as significant milestones for women, we should also take the time to appreciate the unspoken achievements.

archaelogy NY, archaeological discovery,

City Hall syringe, moving parts separated.

Our excavations of City Hall Park have recently uncovered artifacts involving female hygiene, including implements used for sexual healthcare. And while we are now able to discuss the topic freely on television and online, history tells us that early women were unfortunately left to deal with most hygiene issues quietly and alone. A quick trip through the history of hygiene will give you a newfound appreciation for your loofa.

Personal Hygiene in the 19th Century

Forget electric razors and massaging showerheads. Simply having a stationary bathtub and a bar of soap was something to brag about in the early 1800s. Historically, bathing was considered a privilege left for the wealthy and it wasn’t until the circulation and popularity of etiquette books that the importance of regular washing trickled down to the “lower” classes. In order to improve health on a larger scale, major public works projects to build municipal water sources and sewer lines took hold in the mid-19th century. Bathrooms were added to homes and hooked up to the city’s central irrigation system.

Although toothbrushes are an ancient invention, our modern version of toothpaste came about in the late 1800s. Colgate started the mass production of toothpaste in a jar in 1873, followed by the famous and now common “toothpaste tube” in the 1890s. Prior to the invention of conventional toothpaste, goat’s milk, burnt bread, ash, charcoal and chalk were commonly used for teeth cleaning.

When it came to the taboo topic of feminine hygiene in the 1800s, the common policy was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Vaginal syringes, like those we found in our City Hall excavation, were used discreetly in order to maintain health, treat venereal disease and prevent pregnancy. Such feminine hygiene tactics were not discussed openly.

archaeology ny, archaeological finds

From the South Street Seaport Project

20th Century Changes

It wasn’t until the 1920s and the emergence of the “New Woman” that society began to “loosen up” about feminine hygiene. Women’s magazines began advertising feminine products, including Lysol, which was originally marketed as a feminine hygiene product. When women entered the workforce and started making their own money in the 1940s, the market for these products skyrocketed, leading to more convenience and better health.

archaeological discovery, vaginal syringes

1850s glass vaginal syringes recovered from 27/29 Endicott St., Boston. (Photo by Katrina C.L. Eichner)

In 1935, a major advancement was made in toilet paper. By this time, the American population had already ditched corncobs, newspaper pages, leaves, and mussel shells for what we consider modern toilet paper. But it wasn’t until this year that Northern Tissue advertised the first “splinter-free” toilet paper. Paper production was still rather rudimentary and brands couldn’t always make this guarantee before.


Not only do archaeological discoveries teach us about the past, but they can also remind us to appreciate our modern conveniences. Here’s to advancements in women’s health!