Prevention & Recovery

A history of being clean: How clean were our ancestors?

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

A history of being clean: How clean were our ancestors?

For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a public two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, a scraping of the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the seventeenth-century aristocratic Frenchman, it meant changing his shirt once a day, using perfume to obliterate both his own aroma and everyone else’s, but never immersing himself in – horrors! – water.

By the early 1900s, an extraordinary idea took hold in North America – that frequent bathing, perhaps even a daily bath, was advisable. Not since the Roman Empire had people been so clean, and standards became even more extreme as the millennium approached. Now we live in a deodorized world where germophobes shake hands with their elbows and where sales of hand sanitizers, wipes and sprays are skyrocketing. Here are some interesting facts about the history of being clean.

1. Napoleon and Josephine were fastidious for their time in that they both took a long, hot, daily bath. But Napoleon wrote Josephine from a campaign, “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.”

2. The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to be clean, but both sexes anointed their genitals with perfumes designed to deepen and exaggerate their natural aroma.

3. The world’s earliest known bathtub, from around 1700 B.C., was found in the Queen’s apartments at the Palace of Knossos on Crete, and is made of painted terra cotta.

4. The Sybarites, a luxury-loving people who lived in southeastern Italy beginning in the 8th century B.C., invented the steam bath.

5. People rarely used soap to wash their bodies before the late 19th century. It was usually made from animal fats and ashes and was too harsh for bodies; the gentler alternative, made with olive oil, was too expensive for most people.

6. The Roman imperial baths were so gigantic that a single chamber – the hot room of the Baths of Caracalla – housed 20th-century productions of Aida that included chariots, horses and camels, as well as the cast and audience.

7. In Finland, where the sauna is a national institution, when government leaders cannot agree on an issue, they adjourn to the sauna to continue the discussion.

8. The accumulated sweat, dirt and oil that a famous athlete or gladiator scraped off himself was sold to his fans in small vials. Roman women reportedly used it as a face cream.

9. Recycling saintly secretions: St. Lutgard’s saliva was believed to heal the sick, as were the crumbs chewed by another medieval saint, St. Colette. A man sent from England to the Netherlands for St. Lidwina’s washing water, to apply to his afflicted leg. The water from St. Eustadiola’s face- and hand-washing cured blindness and other illnesses.

10. Medieval Christians proved their holiness by not washing. A monk came upon a hermit in the desert and rejoiced that he “smelt the good odour of that brother from a mile away.”

11. A monk from the monastery at Cluny reported, “As for our baths, there is not much that we can say, for we only bathe twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.”

12. An “arsewisp” was what genteel medieval and Renaissance people cleaned themselves with after defecating – a fistful of hay or straw.

13. Teeth were cleaned in the middle ages and the Renaissance with green hazel twigs and woollen cloths.
 
14. Because so much sex went on in the public baths of the middle ages, the term “stew” or “stewhouse,” which originally referred to the moist warmth of the bathhouse, gradually came to mean a house of prostitution.

15. Elizabeth I of England owned a gold ear-pick, decorated with rubies.

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Excerpted from The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg. Copyright 2007 by Katherine Ashenburg. Excerpted with permission from Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.16. Elizabeth I boasted that she bathed once a month, “whether I need it or not.” Her successor, James I, reportedly washed only his fingers.

17. Austrian peasant men courted by secreting a handkerchief in their armpits during a dance. When it was sufficiently sweaty, they wiped the face of their chosen girl with it – according to folk belief, she would be instantly smitten.

18. 16th-century French deodorant: “To cure the goat-like stench of armpits, it is useful to press and rub the skin with a compound of roses.”

19. Shortly before Louis XIV died in 1715, a new ordinance decreed that feces left in the corridors of Versailles would be removed once a week.

20. When John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism, coined the phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” he was referring to clean clothes, not bodies.

21. The 18th-century advocates of cold-water bathing claimed it stirred the libido. One bather wrote:

Cold Bathing has this Good alone,
It makes Old John to hug Old Joan.
And gives a sort of Resurrection
To buried Joys, through lost Erection.
And does fresh Kindnesses entail
On a Wife Tasteless, Old, and Stale.

22. The bidet, although usually associated with France, was invented in Italy in the 16th century.

23. Nicknames for the bidet:

The hygienic little horse (Italy)
The hygienic guitar (Spain)
The violin case (France)

24. When the Master of a Cambridge college was urged to provide baths for the students in the early 19th century, he responded that there was no need, since “these young men are with us only for eight weeks at a time.”

25. French peasants believed that a strong body odour promised robust sexuality: one of their proverbs was “The more the ram stinks, the more the ewe loves him.”
 
26. American hotels vied to be the first to provide a bath with every room, and the winner was Buffalo’s Hotel Statler. In 1908, they advertised, “A Room and a Bath for a Dollar and a Half.”

27. Booker T. Washington aimed to teach African-Americans self-reliance through what he called “the gospel of the toothbrush.”

28.  In the late 19th century, only three per cent of big-city American tenement apartments had bathrooms.

29. Ivory Soap’s famous advertising slogan, “It floats!”, came about accidentally: a worker left the soap’s mixing machine unattended, and the resulting lather floated as well as cleaned.

30. Listerine was invented as a surgical antiseptic and, without changing its formula, morphed over 40 years into an oral antiseptic, astringent and astonishingly successful mouthwash.

31. Kotex sanitary napkins began life as wood-fibre bandages for soldiers in World War One. The battlefield nurses used them as sanitary pads.

32. In 1931, halitosis was cited as grounds for divorce.

33. Almost one in four American houses built in 2005 had three or more bathrooms. And not just more bathrooms, but bigger ones: the average size of the American bathroom tripled between 1994 and 2004.

34. Seven hundred new antibacterial products were launched in America between 1992 and 1998. One of them is the “oral-care strip,” antimicrobial tape designed to be stuck to the tongue.

35. The increasingly respected “Hygiene Hypothesis” suggests that our rapidly rising incidence of allergies, asthma and other illness is due to over-cleanliness.

Are you worried about body odour? Click here for tips from a dermatologist on preventing it.

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Excerpted from The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg. Copyright 2007 by Katherine Ashenburg. Excerpted with permission from Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.
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A history of being clean: How clean were our ancestors?

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