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A Brief History of Hygiene

Updated on February 15, 2008

Hygiene Past to Present

Brushing teeth, washing hands, and hot showers are a necessity in today's world where these hygienal rituals are performed daily. One would be gawked at if they were to come to work covered in grime, and grimaced at by co-workers if they left the bathroom without washing their hands. Though hygiene is an important "duty" to protect oneself and others from sickness, back in ancient times, till up to the early 1900s, the nature of our ancestor's hygiene could be seen as dubious.

So in our journey of washing the grime to uncover hygiene's history, we start in ancient Rome.....

Ancient Rome

Due to the expense of indoor toilets affordable only to aristocrats, commoners had to make do with the 150 public latrines sprinkled around Rome. These public latrines usually were also situated or connected to public baths, sensible since they shared the same water supply. These latrines contained numerous buckets called dolia curta. The dolia curta was the ideal urine pot, but also was easily transported when fullers (laundry cleaners who used urine in large vats) bought them. An amusing tidbit in Roman public latrines was that it acted as a popular loitering spot. People would sit there, talk to others, and ultimately hope to get invited to dinner!

Cleaning clothes during this time was never a truly essential chore. People were used to the smell, grime, and dirt. Though the cleaning that did occur would either be a quick rinse in a river, or hiring a fuller to soak and scrub there clothes in large vats of urine which acted as ammonia.

The emergence of soap is credited to the Celts of Gaul. Made from animal fat,or sheep tallow, soap proved to be more effective than olive oil and coarse salt.

Hair care during this time was strange, and painful. Men especially did not want hair on them. In public baths it was not unusual for other men to shave one another. Excess hair to them was "dirty" attracting lice, and hair removal was almost like a pastime. Akin to the nail filer of today, Rome's popular hair remover was a chilling tool called a strigil. The blunt tool's handle was usually made of ivory, and it was shaped like a flattened rectangle curving so one could grip it. Oil was rubbed on the part that was to be shaved, and instead of washing it off, oil had to be scraped off, resulting in sometimes painful shaves. Emperor Augustus of Rome was said to have a face ridden with sores due to excessive use of the strigil.


Middle Ages

Bathing evolved in the Middle Ages into a more thorough, and comfortable affair. It was not uncommon for a family to have a portable tub, which was padded and lined with cloth. Aristocrats were able to afford rudimentary models of the bathrooms we have today. It would be tiled, and surrounded by bath mats. Even though bathing was easier during this time, it was still not an everyday occurrence. Usually every few days, one would just shave, clean the face, hands, and feet.

Soon etiquette books on hygiene were being published informing the public that it was rude to blow their nose on their hands and not wipe it on their clothes (obviously germs were not acknowledged during this time), that one should keep their nails clean, one should brush their teeth every morning, and that one should wash their face daily.

Aristocrats during this time considered handwashing mandatory before a meal and it was carried out ritualistically. There would be two bowls placed before the handwasher, one bowl with filled with scented water and another one that was empty. The aristocrat would extend his hands over the empty bowl and rubbed them together while a servant poured scented water over top of them, the water falling into the empty bowl. Then a second servant would dry the aristocrat's hands with a dry towel.

Cleaning clothes had also improved in technique. To achieve a fresh scent and cleanliness, people would bundle their clothes with sweet smelling roots and boil it in a pot of water. When storing away the clothes, it was popular to sprinkle dried flower petals on them to help keep a sweet scent.

Barber washing feet

Modern Advances in Hygiene

It was in 1860 did a monumental breakthrough by French chemist Louis Pasteur ignite the eventual discovery of germs. During the 1800's to the early 1900s, surgeons were not aware of germs, they even used the same surgical instruments uncleaned with multiple patients (especially during the Civil War). It was due to Pasteur's belief in the germ theory that he found a way to immunize diseases, and find a cure to rabies.

With the presence of germs confirmed, new steps were taken in hygiene to prevent these germs from proliferating, sickening, and spoiling. Milk after Pasteur's discovery was pasteurized (heated to destroy germs), and this process was named after him for his groundbreaking discovery.

Surgical instruments after this were soon required to be sanitized, the doctor's hands cleaned, and the patient's wound cleaned. Advances in public utilities made it possible for the creation of the modern bathroom, new dental products that prevented cavities were produced, stronger powered soap, with less abrasiveness was made, the importance of daily cleaning began to be stressed, and the general public soon began to shift into a cleaner, sweeter scented direction.

Thanks to discoveries, customs, experimentation, and public demand, hygiene is now an essential everyday part of our lives. Due to our past ancestor's desire for cleanliness, it has benefitted us today through improvements, discoveries, and solutions.

Louis Pasteur


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

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    • profile image


      3 years ago

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Enjoyable facts

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Поюморочно-разюморочные операции с сыпучими, пылевидными и опасными шиньонами должны производиться с применением средств механизации и использованием средств индивидуальной защиты, соответствующих характеру выполняемых забот.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      My partner and i utilized to acquire high on living although of late We've established any level of resistance.

    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • profile image

      clean girl 

      6 years ago

      Yes, we are all geeks and so are you for even being on this site!!!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      All of you lame kids are GEEKS

    • profile image

      clean guy 

      7 years ago

      I read these posts, and see the comments from three or more years ago ... 10 years ago ... I always wonder - what are you doing three years later? are you clean? are you dead? am I dead? I would be interested to see some research on posters years later

    • profile image


      7 years ago


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      i need more info on hygiene in the 1900's?

    • outfoxprevention profile image


      7 years ago

      Interesting article. I'm writing a few hubs on hygiene too!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      If that is the case then why dose india use the ganges as a toilet and as a disposle means for corpses. i am also going to have to dispute what has been wriiten about muslims and hindus bathing daily. I am curently reading the history of Marco Palo and his travels and it is mentioned several times that the people of the middle east and india were no more clean than weterners. he went out of his way to describe the lack of hygiene in this particular part of the world.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      this is so wrong, the european world were filthy in the middle ages and throughout histories, in islam and in india, it was part of religious ritual to wash every day and after sex and going to the toilet. the british during their empire, cottoned on to the fact that this may be a good idea, instead of using perfume and defacating and urinating in pots under their beds. hygeine came from the east and was adopted by the west contrary to popular belief, see anything written by respected historian Will Durrant

    • profile image

      Chuck Norris 

      8 years ago

      im chuck Norris and this page is BULL CRAP

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      need more infdo 0n history of hygiene


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