The study of history is often limited to the writings and actions of larger-than-life men. What we often forget is that there were centuries of societies before us that lived everyday lives, just as we do, and did weird, gross things, just as others in the centuries after us will say we did. You’ll find that a lot of the gross things in social history revolve around hygiene. Before the advent of flushable toilets, laundry machines, and a basic understanding of the importance of clean water, a lot of nasty things happened. Here are just a few…
#1 The Great Stink
Victorian London, 1858. From the beginning, London used the Thames as a dump for all waste, including human waste. As the population grew, so did the waste. Most homes did not have flush toilets, and even the ones that did simply sent the waste into the same waterways that led to the Thames. As you might imagine, disease spread rapidly. Waterborne diseases like Cholera plagued the city for years, and then, in 1858 during a particularly hot summer, the problem became airborne. As the heat began to rise, the waste in the river fermented, creating an overwhelming smell. All attempts to cover it failed, and officials began to worry about the health of the city’s population. A plan to build a new sewage system that would divert contaminated water from the river resulted in more disease. Many streets and wharfs were cut off during construction, and affected citizens lost access to their neighborhood water supply. With pails in hands, they walked to the closest water source, the waste water of the Thames. Cholrea spread quickly. Ultimately, the new sewage problem was solved and waste was successfully diverted from the river, but “The Great Stink” of 1858 will forever be known as the catalyst for London’s modern sewage system.
#2 Before the Laundromat
We take for granted how easy it is for us to wash our clothes. Today we have machines that do all the hard work for us; we simply have to wait. The ole fashioned washboard, which was used to scrub clothes clean by hand in a bucket of soap and water, wasn’t invented until the Industrial Revolution. So, what did people do before when they needed to wash their clothes? The answer is diverse, but I found a few commonalities. Some people just simply didn’t. It wasn’t a priority. To my surprise there was one solution used across centuries in different parts of the world, from the Roman Empire to the United States during the homesteading years. That solution was urine. They washed their clothing in human urine. Why? Urine has ammonia, which has bleaching properties. Would we call that clean today? Definitely, not, but they didn’t have the power of Tide, and to be honest, proper hygiene has undergone a slow evolution.
#3 Henry VIIi’s ulcers
Henry the Eighth is best known in the context of Anne Boleyn, the wife he beaded, but he also suffered from several health issues, many were likely caused by diabetes and poor hygiene. The varicose ulcers on his legs caused him a great deal of pain and worsened over the years. Today, we know the cause of this condition is a lack of proper circulation resulting in pooled blood in the veins; it can be treated with compression and elevation. However, Henry’s ulcers were left open to drain, and without proper wound care, infection settled in them. The result was a horrendous smell. After a jousting accident, Henry’s condition slowly worsened until he could barely walk. No longer able to participate in the sport and exercise he loved, he spent his time eating a high-caloric diet of wine, bread and meat, causing more strain on his heart and worsening the ulcers. Once a strong athlete with a robust personality, his legacy became that of an obese king with a nasty attitude.
#4 the stench of versailles
Today, Versailles is standing proof of French architectural achievement. In the 18th Century, we may have marveled at its beauty but scoffed at its smell. King Louis XIV boosted that he had only bathed twice in his lifetime, and there was a common belief at that time that bathing caused disease. Despite the availability of baths, his courtiers followed his lead and rarely bathed. Hygiene in the palace was abysmal at best. The famous white wigs we associate with French aristocratic fashion served a greater purpose. Lice thrived in the court, and syphilis, a side effect of which is hair loss, spread rapidly and affected many. While they kept their clothes as clean as possible, the palace was filthy. Courtiers regularly used chamber pots to do their business and often emptied them directly out the window. During lavish parties, when everyone was heavily intoxicated, they would abandon all civility and use any available corner to do their business. Yes, those beautiful halls of ornate design and remarkable chandeliers were once covered in feces and urine.
#5 Roman mouthwash
In a time before fluoride and toothpaste, the Roman’s reverted to some interesting dental hygiene practices. Believe it or not, mouthwash was actually invented centuries ago and well-documented for the first time in Rome. They weren’t using Listerine, so what was this so-called mouthwash? Urine. Yes, they believed that the ammonia found in pee could whiten their teeth and kill germs. Even weirder…the stronger the urine, the better it was. For whatever reason, they designated Portuguese urine as the best quality mouthwash, making it so popular that Nero placed a high tax on it. They didn’t stop there. They clearly found beauty in a nice white smile and went to great lengths to try and accomplish it. Powdered mouse brains became a popular whitening toothpaste, whether it worked is unknown. Hopefully, it remains so.
#6 No swimming in the moat
Depending on the time period, we often think of castles as a home for royalty or, in modern times, a relic of the past. We romanticize them and their beautiful architectural features, often with little understanding of their purpose. Medieval castles were rarely permanent residences, and they were used effectively as a line of defense. The towers (or turrets as they are sometimes called) functioned as a place for archers to keep a watchful eye, and the moat made it difficult for enemies to attack the castle. What we rarely read about in history books is the condition of the moat. There were not flushing toilets in the Middle Ages, and chamber pots were typically emptied by simply dumping them in the moat. Another thing castles didn’t have…window panes. After a few weeks and a substantial build up in the moat, the smell would seep into the castle. This is why they were rarely used a permanent residence.
#7 roman bathroom of nightmares
The Romans made porta potties look like the bathroom at the Four Seasons. Privacy was not a concern when designing a place to get rid of your waste. Imagine this…you’re stepping into a traditional restroom during the height of the Roman Empire. You sit down on a long marble slab with several strategically placed holes, wave at your friends sharing the experience next to you, and do your business. When you finish, you grab the sponge on a stick laying beside you, dip it in the water running below your feet, wash yourself, and dip in back in the water for a quick clean before leaving it for the next guest. That was a normal restroom experience in ancient Rome.
#8 King Louis’s Fistula
King Louis XIV of France is famous for many reasons and infamous for many more, but you may not have heard of his contribution to surgical medicine. In 1686, King Louis developed a perianal abscess that wouldn’t heal after physicians tried, to no avail, to treat it with some questionable tactics. Among the treatments were burning with a hot iron, which caused it to crater, and covering it with rags soaked in the extract of leaves and flowers. All it did was fester, and Louis found himself changing his clothes several times during the day when the pus would stain them. Eventually, the abscess became an anal fistula that caused him a great deal of pain. When Louis had enough, he resolved to allowing surgeons to take their shot at fixing it. While lying on his stomach, with his legs held down, Louis underwent three hours of surgery with absolutely no anesthesia. Surprisingly, it worked. Louis was so pleased that he lifted the rank of surgeons, who were previously below physicians in the medical hierarchy, and granted them titles and great wealth. One surgeon created a tool just for the surgery; today, it sits in a medical history museum in Paris.
- Owlication. “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene” and “Medieval Castles Were Smelly, Damp, and Dark”
- Tudor Society. “The Physical Decline of Henry VII”
- Tidsskriftet. “The Sun King’s anal fistula”
- Toiletology. “History of Toilets in Ancient Rome”
- Historic England. “The Great Stink – How the Victorians Transformed London to Solve the Problem of Waste”
- History of Yesterday. “The Smelly History of French Royals at the Palace of Versailles”