In a world where daily cleansing of the body was uncommon, and even looked at with suspicion, it should come as no surprise most people were negligent regarding cleaning of the teeth and gums. As a result, dental problems prevailed. Ancient Sumerian texts contain references to dental problems, including toothaches and loss of teeth. They believed the teeth were under continuous assault by “tooth worms”. Combatting said worms was a source of concern. While that does not present the modern imagination with an attractive mental image to ponder, it does indicate that concern over the condition of the mouth was present in ancient times. Little was done in the matter of protecting the teeth, other than by fortuitous accident. For example, forensic evidence indicates some Ancient Roman citizens had healthier teeth than most of their contemporaries around the empire.
Examination of preserved corpses from the ruins of Pompeii confirms the Romans, despite lacking even the most basic implements for the care of teeth, had remarkably little tooth decay. Modern science attributes this phenomenon to the lack of refined sugar in the Roman diet. Pompeiians may have had relatively healthy teeth, though it cannot be attributed to an adherence to dental hygiene. Dental hygiene in the ancient world was universally poor, nearly non-existent, though the art of dentistry, that is, extraction and even filling of decayed teeth, developed in several cultures. So did numbing of the affected region among those suffering from toothache. The Aztecs alleviated toothache pain by chewing on coca leaves. Centuries later pharmaceutical cocaine was an accepted analgesic used by dentists on their patients.
Hygiene in general improved throughout the 17th century
During the 1600s personal hygiene improved, as medicine and living conditions gained ground against the superstition and squalor of preceding generations. Amongst the poor and less well-educated classes, bathing remained an activity regarded with suspicion. So did changing into clean clothes, often because no other clothes were available into which to change. The poor of the 17th century did not maintain diverse wardrobes. Typically, all that was changed was what were called “smallclothes”, today more commonly referred to as underwear. Laundry, like bathing, was an activity consigned to one day of the week, often the day preceding the Sabbath. Labor was proscribed on the Sabbath, but watching one’s wardrobe dry on an outside line, or before the fire, was not considered labor. Nor was it considered entertainment, also proscribed, though it was about the closest thing to it in some areas.
The wealthy began to consider bathing with more favor, and relaxing in one’s bath, often while playing chess or at cards, was a pastime of the affluent. There were those who opposed bathing; that their position was considered eccentric is attested by the fact they are still remembered for it. Bathing, shaving, donning clean clothes, and making an attempt to suppress, however temporarily, the parasites seeking refuge on one’s body became a ritual. So did the practice of donning various scents, and both men and women attempted to cover failings of the complexion with powders and pastes, many liberally laced with toxic metals including lead and mercury. Men with short hair concealed it under elaborate powdered wigs. Men with longer hair powdered theirs as well, at least when engaged on social functions. Males and females carried perfumed handkerchiefs, to protect dainty sensibilities from the aroma of the great unwashed.
It has long been said that a dog is man’s best friend (while diamonds are awarded that status for women). Upon further consideration, perhaps that role more fittingly belongs to the pig. First of all, he is almost entirely edible for those not prohibited by religious or moral scruples. Those parts not suitable for consumption have proven useful as well. His bristles provided brushes, including toothbrushes, pigskin provided (and provides) fine leather, and other parts of the animal were used for soap and candle tallow. For centuries, pigs provided a service to mankind in the control of waste, in communities large and small. Pigs ate waste, from household kitchen garbage to the offal found on city streets. Well into the 19th century, pigs roamed freely in many cities, their existence tolerated because they helped keep the streets clean.
Although packaging materials didn’t begin to clog waste disposal systems until the 20th century, organic waste did. Cities were populated with nearly as many horses and mules as humans, or so it seemed, and they produced an immense amount of dung. So did cattle and sheep driven to market, and so did humans as they went about their daily affairs. Even privy pits needed to be emptied somewhere, at least those that did not flood in heavy rains, allowing their contents to overflow into streets. Pigs dealt with the waste. A pig could (and did) roam the streets of town before being converted into soap, brushes, work gloves, and candles to scrub by. Months later he could still be providing service in the form of smoked ham, prepared by a butcher wearing a pigskin apron. Afterwards, a diner could use a pig bristle toothbrush to clean his teeth.
Women who didn’t address underarm hair became, by default, poorly groomed
Of course, the presence of body hair, regardless of where it was present on the body, was in and of itself no reflection of the level of personal hygiene practiced by an individual. But advertising created the image that it was, and that it was indicative of indifference. The implication was that a woman who did not remove “unwanted” hair was likely to exhibit the same attitude in relation to washing. According to the advertisers, a woman looked better, felt better, her clothes were more flattering, and she appeared healthier without visible body hair. Most manufacturers of depilatory products aimed at women focused their efforts on the upper class, certain that those of lower classes would be sure to emulate them. The main focus continued to be on lotions and powders which served as depilatories.
Shaving remained a male activity until around 1910. It was around that time that the hemlines on skirts began to move upwards. As they gradually rose, they exposed ankles, then lower calves, and occasionally knees were glimpsed. As more leg was exposed (advertisers called them limbs; the mention of a woman’s legs was vulgar) so was more body hair, equally as unsightly as when exposed in underarms. And as unhygienic. In 1915, eager to support American womanhood in their desire to achieve superior hygiene, Gillette introduced the first safety razor designed for women. It was called Milady Dècolletè, and Gillette conveniently engineered it so that it accepted the same blades as intended for safety razors for men. Just a few years later, the age of the flapper, dancing the Charleston, ever shorter skirts, and the rise of film stars dawned. As far as hygiene was concerned, American women were ready.
World War II changed hygiene practices around the globe
When World War II began, more British homes had outdoor privies than inside toilets. In America, the outhouse was a common sight in rural and poorer areas. Hotel rooms with private baths typically cost extra. Daily bathing, except among the wealthy, was still relatively rare. Except for the wealthy, men didn’t bathe every day, didn’t shave every day, didn’t change their clothes every day, not even when they typically wore a suit and tie to work. Then came the war. For millions of men around the globe, military days, at least during training, began with a shower and shave, clean pressed uniforms, well-scrubbed hands and faces scrutinized by sergeants eager to find a speck of grime which would render the unfortunate presenter “filthy”. Bathrooms and showers (latrines in the army, heads in the navy) were scrubbed and scrubbed again.
Even in the field, men were required to maintain levels of cleanliness, and the military went to great lengths to ensure the means were available. Lectures and films on personal hygiene and the means to attain it began in boot camp and continued throughout one’s service. Following discharge many veterans found the practices too ingrained to shake. They also found the women in their lives had been through similar indoctrination working in war industries or when maintaining the home. The role of personal hygiene and good health had been a focus during the war, and not only in the United States and the British Empire. German industry introduced new types of soap during the war, and German propaganda stressed the need to maintain levels of personal hygiene unheard of a century earlier. By 1940, cleanliness had truly become next to godliness.
In recent times a number of shocks, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, pandemics, and the like, has led to shortages of one of the modern age’s seemingly most critical commodities, toilet paper. Fear of running out of the material has led to shortages caused by hoarding, as if there were no alternatives to the reassuring presence of extra rolls on hand, as it were, and lots of them. It gives one pause to wonder, what was used before toilet paper first made its reassuring appearance? Of course, stories of Sears catalogs and corn cobs are well known, as are those of newspapers, pages from books, and old rags. But what about before then. Only three centuries ago, paper was both expensive and scarce, books were relatively rare. There were several methods of attending to a still unpleasant task of basic hygiene, most of them somewhat unpleasant to contemplate.
The Ancient Romans supplied public toilets with buckets of salt water and sponges. Since the toilets were public, the sponges were as well, and wringing out a used sponge in used salt water seems, shall we say, repulsive? Yet it had to be done. An alternative used by the Romans, as well as the Greeks, was a piece of ceramic, kept by the person, cleansed in salt water or vinegar, and often inscribed with the name of a person held in low regard by the owner of the ceramic. They were known as pessoi. Somehow, the idea of carrying around a device for the cleansing of one’s rear, using it, and then continuing to carry it, like a compact or a watch, does not appeal. Plus, it certainly did not offer the comfort lauded by modern manufacturers of toilet paper in praise of their products.
The hygiene of Polynesia affected European society
When European ships explored the islands of the Pacific in the 18th century, their reports had a profound impact on European society. The reports of sea captains, Cook and Bougainville, Wallis and Bligh, described peoples living as one with nature, savages by European definitions of the day, yet with a defined society and culture. In some circles they reflected the radical propositions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and man living in a state of nature as “noble savages”, the natural state of the human race. Among the behaviors Europeans found surprising, as well as titillating, were the Polynesians ignoring the customs of covering their bodies with clothing, and their daily bathing. Cook and others described the Polynesians bathing, not only by immersions in water, but by scrubbing themselves with vegetation which formed lathers, perfuming themselves with oils, and ritual washing before dining.
Upper society considered such attention to grooming as another sign of the savage nature of the natives, indications of the deadly sins of pride and envy. Observing the natives admiring their own images in reflective pools, the Europeans made cheap looking-glasses a major trade item, highly appreciated by the Polynesians. To European society they became symbolic of the childish vanity of the “savages”, as was the time and effort expended in the daily cleansing of the body. In short order, contact with the Europeans brought diseases, chiefly measles, to the Pacific archipelagoes against which there was no natural immunity. The diseases ravaged Polynesian populations, while missionaries condemned the sin of wasting time better spent in humble prayer than on ablutions and self-decoration. To them, excessive cleanliness contributed to the less restricted sexual behaviors practiced by the islanders; behaviors which made the islands legendary among the sailors who visited them.
Personal hygiene historically affected relationships among peers
Among the Europeans beginning in the medieval period, and continuing well into the 18th century, it was widely believed that undergarments, usually made of either linen or wool, served to cleanse the body of the wearer. The impurities transferred to the undergarments during the day were transferred in turn to the bedding during the night. Airing the bedding sent them on their way. Sleeping fully clothed prevented this transfer of grime, and was thus considered as immoral as sleeping clothed in nothing at all. Gradually nightshirts came to be considered the proper dress for bed, though they were typically worn over the undergarments worn during the day. Benjamin Franklin scandalized John Adams when he first took an air bath, sitting naked before an open window, before donning his nightshirt alone and retiring to bed. Franklin came to consider his “air-baths” essential to his good health.
Because the undergarments were not washed with frequency they quickly became discolored. Those areas which showed, especially around the neck, were available for public viewing, and therefore public judgments. Rather than changing the underwear, or washing it more frequently, a means to hide the neck area evolved. The neckcloth, often decorated with a lacy front descending from throat to chest, covered the less than presentable state of the undershirt’s collar. Much later, the detachable collar, at first made of starched linen and later of celluloid, served a similar purpose. Gentlemen presented their “linen”, as the visible portion of the neckcloth came to be called, as decorative and a sign of cleanliness, no matter how grimy was the collar the neckcloth served to obscure. When viewing the Founding Fathers in their finery, it is interesting to reflect that each is concealing an unpresentable, grime-streaked collar under all that lace.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
“King James Bible”. Various books and verses cited in text. Online
“Baths and Bathing Culture in the Mideast: The Hammam”. Elizabeth Williams, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October, 2012. Online
“Did people in the Middle Ages take baths?” Article, Medievalists.net. Online
“The 1647 Westminster Confession and Subordinate Documents”. Article, the Westminster Standards. Online
“Cherokees in Transition: A Study of Changing Culture and Environment Prior to 1775”. Gary C. Goodwin. 1977
“Medieval Monastery”. Article, Mark Cartwright. Worldhistory.org. December 14, 2018
“Everyday Life in the Middle Ages”. Suzanne Comte. 1988
“A history of humanities disgusting hygiene”. Helen Murphy Howell, Owlcation. August 5, 2022. Online
“Of lice, and men: An itchy history”. Emily Willingham, Scientific American. February 14, 2011
“Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”. George Washington. Circa 1747. Online
“Would simple signs in your bathroom increase handwashing?” Article, The McMorrow Reports. Online
“Groom of the Stool”. Ben Johnson, Historic UK. Online
“Life as sea in the age of sail”. Article, Royal Museums Greenwich. Online
“How Our Ancestors Did It: Shaving Through History”. Fendrihan, February 12, 2016. Online
“Soaps and Detergents History”. Article, Cleaning Institute. Online
“The Wars Over Christian Beards”. Ted Olsen, Christianity Today. August 28, 2013
“Washing in the Ancient World”. Tim Lambert, A History of Washing. Online
“The hogs that created America’s first urban working class”. Gwynn Guilford, Quartz. July 16, 2017
“Overlooked and undervalued: Underwear in the Middle Ages”. Madeleine Colvin, Medievalists.net. Online
“Showering daily – is it necessary?” Robert H. Shmerling MD, Harvard Health Publishing. August 16, 2021. Online