Origins of our hygiene rituals

7th of March 2012
Origins of our hygiene rituals
Origins of our hygiene rituals

In a new ECJ series of articles, we look at hygiene and cleanliness through the ages. When did we human beings become aware of our own personal cleanliness, and that of the world around us? And when did we discover that lack of hygiene could be dangerous, and sometimes fatal? In this first part, we start back in ancient times.

Brushing our teeth, washing our hands and having a shower - these are all hygiene rituals that we perform daily without question. Hygiene is now seen as an important duty, to protect oneself and others from sickness. But back in ancient times - and right up until the early 1900s - our ancestors' hygiene practices were somewhat dubious.

Water is the key ingredient that has always played a vital role in personal hygiene and clean drinking water was the first human necessity even for the most ancient civilisations. People have been using water for washing and bathing since Neolithic times - records show vessels like leather, earthen or shell containers were used to transport water, and it was heated and boiled on hot stones. Bathing rituals, particularly in natural hot springs, must have started about then as did artificial 'staving' or sweat-bathing.

In ancient Egypt most people bathed daily in the river or out of a water basin at home. Wealthy homes had a bathroom where servants would pour jugs of water over their master (equivalent to a modern day shower). A cleansing cream made of animal or vegetable oil mixed with powered lime and perfume was used instead of soap. People rubbed themselves daily with a perfumed unguent oil that had soaked in scented wood. The mixture was left in a pot until the oil absorbed the wood scent. Perfumed oil was used to prevent the skin from drying out in the harsh climate.

It was the ancient Greeks who first built public baths but it was the Romans who made the bathhouse the centre of their social lives - the bath was a large part of communal life in the Roman Empire and the buildings they created for the purpose were architectural marvels. Washing was a daily ritual, even for slaves, with olive oil being used as a kind of soap. The rich enjoyed running water in their palaces and mansions from lead pipes connected to the aqueducts, with waste water piped away into the sewer or a trench.

Cleaning clothes optional

Cleaning clothes during this period was not an essential chore so everyone was used to the smell, grime and dirt. When laundry was done, it was by a fuller who soaked and scrubbed clothes in vats of urine that acted as ammonia.

Wherever they went, the Romans introduced public baths that would not be matched in most of Europe for 1,000 years. The real inheritors of the Roman system of baths were the Arabs and then the Turks. Muslims and Jews also had a much better record of general cleanliness than Christians.

By the Renaissance, public baths had more or less died out in western Europe, due largely to the Black Plague, which people thought you would catch more easily if your pores were opened from bathing. Dirt was seen as protecting against germs, while water was thought to be unsanitary (which it often could be).

In the early Middle Ages, it was actually considered bad for your health by Christians to wash off dirt and grime - the stink was good. This also partly came from the Church which was trying to distance itself from the Romans who were always bathing - usually in groups of men and women, which it believed led to sex. Some early church leaders were well-known for never washing anything but their fingertips before eating and they claimed they had not disrobed in years.

Bathing then evolved during the Middle Ages to become a more thorough and regular affair. Many families had a portable tub which was padded or lined with cloth, while aristocrats could afford basic models of the bathrooms we have today. But bathing was still not an everyday occurrence, more usually every few days.

It was at this time that etiquette books on hygiene were first published - informing the public 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, brush their teeth every morning and wash their face daily.

Aristocrats considered hand washing mandatory before a meal and it was carried out ritualistically. Two bowls would be placed in front of the hand washer - one empty and one full of scented water. The aristocrat placed his hands over the empty bowl and rubbed them together while a servant poured the scented water over them. A second servant dried the hands with a dry towel.

Doing the laundry had also improved in terms of technique. Clothes were bundled together with sweet smelling roots and boiled in a pot of water to achieve a fresh scent and cleanliness.

But the habit of cleanliness was largely imported from the non-European world. The Bengali entrepreneur Shekh Din Muhammad introduced shampoo - a Hindi word - when he set up a ‘shampooing bath' in fashionable Brighton in the UK in 1814. Turkish baths became popular during the Victorian era in the UK but a fully functional family bathroom was not the norm until after the Second World War.

Before the late 1800s Europeans usually covered up body odours with perfumes and many noblewoman carried bouquets of fragrant flowers to cover up the smells they were emitting. People tended to think they got sick from bathing rather than realising it was the cold and germs causing their illness. The teachings of the Protestant religion that preached a 'gospel of cleanliness' in the 19th century, however, brought about a new enthusiasm for personal cleanliness among the masses.

Time consuming bathing

For most people, however, the whole business of taking off their clothes, getting into water and washing their hair was a time consuming process simply because of the mechanics involved in hauling in the water; heating it on the wood stoves; bringing in the hip baths; making the soap; cleaning the clothes and towels afterwards, etc.

Bathing usually required more than one person to put it all together. For the wealthy that meant many servants. For the lower classes it was a family affair. They would put up a blanket in a corner, hopefully by the fire, and bring in the tin tub. Because bathing was a big affair, they sometimes cut corners to hurry up the process such as the whole family using the same bath water. Starting with the men of the house, then the women and children and lastly, the babies. By then the bath water was so filthy they couldn't see the bottom of the tub.

In 1884 the first soap to be pre-cut and wrapped was launched: it was called Sunlight. After that, other brands were developed and soap advertising began to reflect the changing social values attached to cleanliness.

The microbiological and macrobiological sciences of hygiene were fully incorporated into personal and public healthcare during the first half of the 20th century. The first International Hygiene Exhibition, for example, took place in Dresden, Germany in May 1911. Highlighting the value of hygiene to health, it attracted five-and-a-half million visitors and led to the founding of the Deutsches Hygiene Museum.

Next edition - The early pioneers who discovered the dangers associated with germs how we started to tackle them through better hygiene practices.



Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited