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Top 10 Reasons History Was Beyond Gross

by Gregory Myers
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

In the history books, they do talk about a plague or two and give us some health warnings from the past. Still, they mostly don’t go into too much detail about just how dirty history really was. The likely reason for this is that if you showed people just how gross history was, they probably wouldn’t think highly of many of the prominent—or not-so-prominent—figures who came from the past. If you are someone who appreciates good hygiene, be glad you were born when you were.

Related: Top 10 Everyday Objects That Have Drastically Changed Through History

10 In Medieval Times, People Only Bathed about Once a Week

Did People in Medieval Times Really Not Bathe?

The medieval period is an interesting time when it comes to hygiene. While the population did not have much of what we have today, they did better at certain things than in other time periods before and after. They did make attempts at basic plumbing sometimes, and they did attempt to keep themselves at least somewhat clean.

Of course, we would still find their habits rather off-putting, as they tended to only bathe about once a week. Considering that they also had no air conditioning in the summer and spent a lot of time working outside, you can imagine what people probably smelled like. To make matters worse, they usually had to bathe in public bathhouses unless they were really rich. However, at the very least, they had already figured out soap, so they usually smelled pretty nice after they bathed. This was because when making their soap, which was largely animal fat, they also added dried herbs to provide a pleasant olfactory sensation for those around them.[1]

9 Ancient Romans Used Pee to Whiten Teeth & Clean Clothes

WEIRD Ways The Romans Used URINE In Their Daily Lives

The Ancient Romans were known for being quite advanced for their time when it came to hygiene and public infrastructure as well. Part of their knowledge of early chemicals caused them to realize that ammonia was in pee, making it a really good cleaning agent. Today, we use ammonia for cleaning, but we have found ways to get our hands on it that are more hygienic.

Unfortunately, the ancient Romans had not yet figured out that kind of chemical extraction stuff and just used fresh pee. They used it to whiten their teeth, marking them as one of the first cultures to do whatever it took to get that pearly white smile. If you went back in time to ancient Rome, you would also find them cleaning clothes using urine, which is something most of us would find pretty much intolerable. We have to give them some credit despite the ick factor, as they already had an early understanding of what is now a very important chemical agent for modern use.[2]

8 Having More Than a Couple Outfits Was the Height of Luxury

Getting Dressed in the 14th Century – Ploughman

Today, people will talk about how they have a few too many clothes if they have filled up their closet and dresser, and women are stereotypically known for having a lot of outfits. This allows people to easily remain in clean clothes and have a lot of different fun fashions to show off. Unfortunately for those time travelers who like clean clothes and plenty of fashion choices, you would find the past a really dull place.

Until about the 1700s, women tended to only have two to four changes of clothes on average, and the men usually had less. However, if you went back further to the Middle Ages, you would find that most people just had two outfits and didn’t really care much about fashion. Those two outfits were for the most utilitarian use. One outfit was worn while the other was being cleaned. Then rinse and repeat.[3]

7 Wigs of Animal Hair Were Rarely Properly Cleaned

Sweat, horsehair and bugs: the lowdown on legal wigs

Wigs today are quite different than what was available in history. Many people grow out their hair for locks of love for people who lost their hair due to cancer, and some wigs are made of real, high-quality human hair. They go through incredibly rigorous cleaning and safety practices and are totally hygienic. Many of these wigs are so good people can wear them for years without anyone even being the wiser. They have certainly come a long way from when they were made from animal hair.

That’s right, most ancient wigs, including wigs all the way up to the more modern time period of powdered wigs, were usually made of horse hair. Wigs made of animal hair are hard to properly clean, but the bigger problem is that they tend to attract lice. However, many ancient people saw them as a shield during a lice outbreak. In fact, there was a period in ancient Roman history when it was common to shave your head and wear a wig, so the wig would get lice and you would not.[4]

6 Gross Origin of “Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater”

The source of the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”

Ever heard the expression “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” and wondered what it meant or where it came from? Well, the expression means that you shouldn’t throw out something that looks bad and forget there might still be something good in it you forgot or didn’t notice. This all goes back to an old German proverb but was first heard in English, stemming from a practice from the American frontier. At the time, settlers were a bit ignorant about hygiene, didn’t have a lot of water, and made some really bad health decisions.

You see, about once a week, usually the night before church, the family would draw up the water needed for bathing and prepare themselves to get “clean.” Pa, almost certainly the filthiest, always bathed first in the water. Then, Ma got to bathe, followed from there by the oldest to the youngest children. Some families had all the boys go first and then the oldest to youngest girl, but the baby always went last. With this practice, it is actually not that surprising that families on the American frontier often had children who died before reaching adulthood.[5]

5 The Thames Once Backed Up with Human Waste

History and Sewage: The Great Stink of 1858

Some people complain about the pollution in modern rivers today and how they are not what they used to be. One of the many examples is the Thames. It isn’t exactly awful, but it certainly wouldn’t be a great place for a casual swim. However, we don’t single out the Thames in terms of today, as there are far worse examples, but we compare it to what it once was when it reached its true nadir.

It was the summer of 1859, and the great city of London was in the worst crisis it had been in in a very long time. You see, it wasn’t necessarily that there was no plumbing at all, as they were already doing some of that, but it was more that most of the dumping from the plumbing system just went straight into the river. On top of that, anyone who didn’t have access to modern plumbing would usually throw poo into the nearest body of water. In London, that was the Thames. The Thames became a thick brown sludge of human poop that could barely flow, and it smelled so bad that you could taste its nauseating stink from miles away. This foul summer became known as the “Great Stink” and led to reforms to stop pumping so much waste into the river.[6]

4 The Roads Used to Be Covered in Horse Poop

The Great Manure Crisis and the Problems with Horses in Victorian Cities

Today, people complain about potholes, but back in the day, people had much grosser problems to deal with when traversing city streets. If you have ever wondered why so many people in the past wore boots, it is because of all the horse manure on the roads. If you have ever spent any time around horses, you know that just mucking out a stall from one day of horse pooping can actually be a nasty job.

Now, with no cars around and so many people using horses as the main form of transportation, you can probably imagine that there was a lot of horse manure around. This doesn’t mean that cities did not make attempts, but you can only do so much to hold back the tide, and in London and many big cities in 1894, they found themselves in a crisis. Streets in London and other large cities were filling up with poop, and efforts to keep them clean simply were not enough.

The problem worsened with the many animals used to transport people and goods—no cars in sight—and even smaller cities growing quickly. However, going back to medieval times would have been even worse. Then, there were open sewers and no plumbing systems, so, of course, the streets were filled with horse manure.[7]

3 Deodorant and Mouthwash Are Very Modern Inventions

The SNEAKY way Listerine INVENTED a Medical Term

Today, if someone goes without their morning shower and deodorant, they feel gross and are worried about what others will think of them. They use mouthwash, especially after eating something like garlic, and many do it habitually in the morning. We take these things for granted as a normal part of our ablutions. To most people, this behavior is as natural as breathing, but it wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t care about any of this at all.

Deodorant was not invented until 1888, and like all new things, it didn’t become a thing everyone did overnight. Back then, people didn’t really care much about that sort of thing and had to be told in advertisements that they were disgusting in order to get them to use deodorant. Mouthwash is a recent innovation that was only invented in 1878. Like deodorant, people had to be told they needed it and had something called halitosis or bad breath. By basically making up a new medical condition, Dr. Joseph Lawrence could sell his new invention to the world and make the people think their bad-smelling breath was something they really needed to worry about. That product was Listerine, of course.[8]

2 Ancient Roman Toilets: Rats, Methane Flames, and Poop Sponge Sticks

Public Latrines in Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome gets a lot of credit for their amazing public plumbing system, but it wasn’t nearly as good as it might sound in the history books. Now, we want to be clear: To their credit, the ancient Romans did have a much better system than the rest of the world at the time. However, that doesn’t mean we would have found it to be anything less than a horror show.

As the old pipes they used were quite wide and with how the system was designed, rats got in and out really easily and could come up on you while you were doing your business. This meant it was not uncommon to get bitten by a rat while using the toilet. Worse yet, you could walk up to a public toilet and find it belching open flames from all the methane buildup in the pipes. If this wasn’t bad enough, wiping wasn’t any better. At public toilets, the ancient Romans used a communal sponge on a stick, rinsing it off with water before passing it on to the next unfortunate soul.[9]

1 The Black Plague Happened Because People Were Disgusting

The GROSS Story About The GRUESOME Hygiene During The Black Plague

Many things are blamed for the Black Plague, and among them is that many cats were killed, which led to the increase of rats. However, while there may be some truth to this, it is unlikely cats would have been enough to save them from the amount of rats and filth that they lived in. In the days of the Black Plague, most people just piled up their garbage outside their front door and maybe eventually cleared it all out when it started to smell too much. Some cities tried to force people to keep their part of the street clean, but this wasn’t always enforced, and people would often fix the problem by just dumping it all into the nearest body of water.

Worse yet, while people may not have just flung their poo into the street like some urban legends claim, they weren’t exactly neat with it either. Those who were poorer just threw it into the nearest river. Those who were wealthier and had space on their property usually had a cesspit that was barely covered, where they just threw all their poop and let it build up into a morass of vile excrement. Some people even had the job of emptying out these pits when they got too full, and they tended to be very well paid for their trouble.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen