Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More

Gross Ways Our Ancestors Used To Clean Themselves


The definition of “clean” is extremely relative. Hygiene standards vary throughout the world,
and they’ve changed drastically throughout history. Baths were only a weekly occurrence for most
people even just a century ago. What people further back in history did to
stay clean is even stranger. Here are weird things the ancients thought
about cleaning. The ancient Romans left behind a ton of writing,
and they weren’t shy about their habits. The poet Catullus once wrote about how nice
it was to brush your teeth with urine, for example. According to the Smithsonian, the ammonia
in urine acted as a bleaching agent, leading to those oh-so-desirable pearly whites. It’s possible they refined the urine into
ammonia before putting it in their mouths. Hopefully. Archaeologists are still learning about what
went on in Rome’s public baths. According to researchers from the University
of Iowa, artifacts recovered from pool drains included plenty of perfume vials, oil flasks,
and nail cleaners, among other things, including teeth. There were enough teeth that they think Romans
were going to baths for socializing, pampering, and some dentistry at the same time. The Romans had to find ways to keep those
clothes clean, too. And just like for their teeth, the ammonia
in urine was how they kept their whites white and their colors bright. “That’s pee-pee.” William Smith described the process in A Dictionary
of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and it makes doing laundry today look easy. Most Romans wore wool, and given how hot it
is in Italy, their clothes needed a lot of washing. An ancient Roman laundromat was called a fullonica,
and it was staffed by fullones. It was their job to stomp on clothes in vats
of liquid to wash them; that liquid was most commonly a mix of animal and human urine. Collecting all that urine was a part of the
fullones’ job, too. Most often, they would stand on street corners
with buckets, hoping passers-by would take the opportunity to relieve themselves. Tough job. After washing, white clothes would be further
whitened by being hung in a basket over sulfur fumes, further proving that history smelled
absolutely terrible. People have always tried to take care of their
teeth to avoid dentists, or in the earliest cases, having to ask their neighbor to knock
a molar out with a rock. Mankind had pretty decent teeth until farming
and carbs were common, but people living in Sudan around 2,000 years ago had shockingly
great teeth. Only about 1 percent of them had cavities
or signs of tooth decay, and it wasn’t until 2014 that researchers figured out why. It wasn’t urine! According to National Geographic, their fine
chompers were a consequence of chewing on one of the most noxious, invasive weeds in
the world: nutsedge. Dr. Mark Schonbeck of the Virginia Association
for Biological Farming says it’s native to tropical Eurasia but has since spread around
the world; not a good thing for native plants. It’s an invasive pest, but modern humans could
take a page out of the book of the ancients. Modern research has found that the extracts
released when purple nutsedge is chewed destroy the same bacteria that causes cavities and
tooth decay. There’s one catch: “It tastes terrible.” Researchers are pretty sure people weren’t
chewing it for the flavor, but knew it had medicinal benefits, though they maybe weren’t
aware of its dental perks. Around 3,000 years ago, people living in China
were developing methods of using plant ash to remove the toughest grease stains. According to The Epoch Times, for a long time,
the water left over from cooking rice would be used for bathing, but by around 420 CE,
bathing beans were more commonly used. They were made from all sorts of things, and
according to the writings of a Sui and Tang dynasty doctor named Sun Simiao, pig pancreas
was a common ingredient. After draining the blood from the pancreas,
it was mixed with plaster, bean powder, and fragrances. The resulting “bean” was used for both skin
and clothing, and would have been mostly recognizable to us as soap, even down to the foaming action. Sun Simiao recommended different ingredients
for people of different statuses. The higher your status, the more ingredients
your bath bean would have had. His Supplement to the formula of a Thousand
Gold Worth listed a ton of different combinations, and some had dozens of ingredients. With that many combinations, it’s not entirely
surprising that some of them were caustic, proof that just because it makes suds doesn’t
mean you should wash face with it. The smell of sulfur dioxide is unmistakable:
hot, rotten eggs. And it’s harmful. The Australian government says the chemical
causes respiratory damage. “I can’t breathe.” But it wasn’t always considered a health hazard. In ancient Greece and many cultures that followed,
it was used to purify homes. The first mention of it comes from Homer’s
Odyssey. When Odysseus kills some rivals, he asks their
home be purified by burning sulfur inside so the house is fit for less-horrible people. Burning sulfur was a widespread practice,
and this stinky gas was used for lots of different purposes. In India, it was burned in rooms were operations
and surgeries were to be performed to purify the air. It was still used during the Middle Ages,
too; sulfur was burned in homes and buildings were residents had died from the plague or
other diseases. The logic was strange: Scholars think it started
when people observed sulfur fumes killing plants and small animals, so they figured
it must kill other tiny things, too. To be fair, they weren’t entirely wrong. It was just harming them, too. A little elbow grease goes a long way, right? Sure, but in antiquity, they were talking
about literal grease. According to the J. Paul Getty Museum, ancient
Greco-Roman athletes cleaned up in a counterintuitive way: Before they headed off for a more traditional
bath, they scrubbed up with oil and an abrasive. Sand and ground pumice were common, and once
they were covered with that oily mess, they’d scrape it off with a curved tool called a
strigil. Both men and women did it, and it was one
of the most important tools in any athlete’s arsenal. They’d usually oil themselves up before heading
to the gym, and once they were done, they’d clean off the worst of the oil, sweat, dirt,
and blood with the strigil. It actually gets worse. According to Health and Fitness History, everyone
used a strigil, but the muck athletes scraped off themselves was thought to be extra special,
with a sort of medicinal power. It was often saved and used as an ingredient
in salves and poultices, so regular folks could gain a little athletic talent by osmosis,
presumably. It’s easy to forget how modern of an invention
toilet paper is. “And this…is toilet paper!” The idea has been around since at least 14th-century
China, according to ABC, but it took centuries it to catch on. Two-ply only showed up in the 1940s, and it
was advertised as something everyone should probably use by the 1960s. So what happened before that? Colonial Americans used corncobs. Old newspapers and catalogs were popular options
in the early 1900s. Ancient Rome has perhaps the most questionable
method, and it’s worth keeping in mind that they had very public toilets. Archaeologist Stephen E. Nash writes in Sapiens
that researchers know a lot about Roman toilet habits thanks to the facilities and frescoes
preserved in volcanic ash in Pompeii, including illustrations of the tersorium: a Roman-era
sea sponge on a stick, which people would use to wipe themselves after doing their business. And no, people didn’t carry their own personal
sponges with them. They were just as public as the toilets. If running water wasn’t handy, buckets of
salt water and vinegar would be left by the toilets, so people could rinse off the sponges
before leaving them for the next person. Let’s be glad most movies and TV shows about
ancient Rome left that part out. This might have been interesting to include,
though: In the 1960s, archaeologists were excavating ancient Roman sites in England,
and when they got to the toilets, they uncovered small, stone disks called pessoi. They were originally thought to be game pieces,
but further research and the common Greek saying, “Three stones are enough to wipe”
suggest they were actually a sort of reusable toilet paper. And that’s not all. According to Scientific American, some of
the pessoi started out as ostraca, broken pieces of ceramic that people would etch with
the names of other people they just didn’t like. They were usually used in voting to banish
someone from town. Later, it looks like they were recycled and
used to clean up after using the toilet. How satisfying must it have been to use stones
etched with the names of your enemies to clean up after a visit to the throne? A lot of hygiene jokes have been mean-spiritedly
directed toward the French, and according to a study published in Chicago Journals,
there’s a historic, cultural reason for that particular longstanding stereotype. After large areas of France were destroyed
during World War II, French leaders even called for a much-needed “hygiene revolution” as
the country’s cities were rebuilt and restored. Before that, laundry days happened maybe twice
a year, and it was believed that a good day of hard labor was all the cleaning the body
needed. The stronger a person’s body odor, the healthier
they were thought to be. The French lower classes held dirt and sweat
in the highest regard. “You’ve given our house permanent B.O.! Put it outside!” The upper classes had a different philosophy
about hygiene. Modesty was of utmost importance, and the
idea that someone would touch the most private places of their own body to wash them was
met with revulsion and shocked horror. Those that did bathe did so with their clothes
or at least underclothes on. Most people didn’t even bother with bathing,
only washing their hands and faces. Nuns were forbidden – washing anything above
their ankles, and the French aversion to touching oneself to wash was a huge hindrance in catching
up to the rest of the world’s idea of cleanliness. In 1865, it got so bad that a new law made
teachers responsible for teaching students why it was important to change their underwear
at least every few days. Yes, they had to pass a law. None of this is true today, of course, but
it’s been a tough association to shake. Bizarre beliefs about cleanliness aren’t just
found in the ancient world. Just a few decades ago, American women were
encouraged to engage in an insanely dangerous practice. In the first half of the 20th century, Lysol,
the disinfectant still used today, was marketed as both a douche and a form of birth control. And before 1953, it was even more dangerous. The original formulation of the cleaner contained
cresol, which Mother Jones says was linked to health consequences including burns and
even death. Yet women were still being encouraged to use
it to clean themselves in their most private areas. At the same time, it was also being marketed
as a treatment for ringworm and a germicide that could keep toilets sparkling. It’s unclear just what advertisers thought
was going on down there, but they continued to push Lysol as a feminine hygiene product
for decades after it was found to be not only ineffective, but dangerous. Through the 1940s, it was actually the country’s
most popular birth control method, even though it had been linked to deaths as early as 1911. Lawsuits had been filed in the 1930s after
women started claiming Lysol was giving them burns, but the manufacturers were cleared
and sales continued. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Lysol stopped
marketing itself as a feminine hygiene product, and it fell out of favor as birth control
after the birth control pill came onto the market. Check out one of our newest videos right here! Plus, even more Grunge videos about weird
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