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