Halloween is upon us! The ghouls are preparing for their yearly sojourn into the land of the living and the pumpkins are just about ripe for carving. ‘Tis but the perfect time to share some wild, weird, and downright scary and unbelievable facts about the history of laundry!
So gather ‘round. We’re going to treat you to some of the spookiest things you’ll ever hear about ancient cleaning methods.
1. Ancient Greeks cleaned clothes with fat from sacrificed animals.
There are many myths and folklore surrounding the entry of modern-day laundry soap into the history of humanity. One of the most widely-believed early accounts of the use of soap comes from the small Greek mountain, Mount Sapo, which sits atop the river Tiber, circa 100 BC.
As the legend goes, Mount Sapo was a mountain where people left their animal sacrifices. Over time, the animals left on the mountain to rot would melt into an unrecognizable mess. Fat from the carcass would mix with the mountain ash and travel downhill through the river where women were busy getting their whites white. The women discovered that the combination of animal fat and ash was great for cleaning their fabrics!
This substance became known as Sapo clay, the earliest known ancestor of our modern-day detergent. Up until the early 20th century, detergent still contained animal fat.
2. Urine was, at some point in laundry history, a preferred alternative to soap.
Along with its historic use as gunpowder material, fabric dye enhancer and teeth cleaner, urine’s most beneficial use in history (even as recent as 150 years ago) was in the laundry room!
Despite the early rise of detergent soaps, many early Europeans preferred using urine for cleaning their clothes. The ancient Romans had public peeing chambers to collect urine. When full, the Romans sent the vats of urine to fullonicas (laundry facilities). Watered down, the urine of an entire population would be poured over a tub of dirty clothes. And someone was unfortunate enough to have been tasked with stomping on a knee-deep tub of urine and dirty linens to work as a human washing machine. Gross, right?
3. Europe went through a 1000-year period of filth when people stopped washing themselves and their clothes.
After the fall of the Roman empire – a period marked by magnificent public bathing spaces – things got a little dirty. Europe went into a downward spiral in terms of hygiene. Some very pious personages in the church convinced people that bathing was sinful and could lead to promiscuity. As a result, everyone from the lowliest of peasants to the working monarchs refused to wash themselves.
Soap was the devil’s handiwork. Doing the laundry was downgraded from a full grade-A urine treatment to simply washing and drying some clothing items in water. Unsurprisingly, many historians called this period “The Great Unwash,” more popularly known as “The Period that Allowed the Black Plague to Thrive.”
4. And, perhaps the spookiest, scariest fact of all: Even today, we only see 30% of all the nasty gunk on our dirty linens.
Truly hygienic linens take more than just a few wash cycles and the appearance of cleanliness. Fortunately, modern laundry technology such as stronger detergents and more thorough cleansing processes have made laundry convenient and truly clean! Plus, we no longer need to solicit our neighbors for the contents of their chamber pots just to take care of our dirty clothing.