Animal Fat Hair Gel and Other Bizarre Hygiene Trends from the Past
From Lysol and moss to mice and mercury, maintaining the beauty and health standards of the past was certainly burdensome at times — not to mention off-putting. In the past, wine wasn’t just for drinking, and a bath could leave you dirtier than when you started.
Take a look at some of the strange, repulsive and downright nonsensical hygiene habits deemed sensational by past societies.
The popular idiom “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” has interesting Germanic roots — and not much to do with the process of bathing. Nonetheless, the woodcut illustration (below) that accompanied the phrase’s first-known appearance does depict a somewhat truthful interpretation of yesteryear’s bathing habits.
Back in the days before indoor plumbing, folks had to go out and collect water, and then they had to heat that water up for bathing. The process took a long time, so families often shared bathwater, bathing in order from oldest to youngest. No thanks — we’ll take an over-chlorinated motel hot tub over that.
Victoria Green, a writer for National Leather Collection’s blog, recently took a deep-dive into this 18th century beauty trend. According to Green, “women’s eyebrows during that time were plucked very thinly, pencilled high and curved or shaved and replaced.” Replaced with what? Mouse skin.
That’s right — folks trapped mice and used their pelts to fill in their brows or create artificial ones. (Not unlike adhesive false eyelashes, right?) Moreover, lead-based foundation was still all the rage, leading to receding hairlines. And smallpox scarring? Still a thing. This led to folks cutting mice pelts into fun shapes — stars and hearts — and applying them to their bodies to hide any blemishes.
Childbirth is often cited as one of the most painful experiences in a person’s life, but, thanks to modern medicine, most folks these days have access to all sorts of painkillers and pain-lessening techniques. Pregnant folks in medieval times weren’t so fortunate.
According to The History Girls blog, mothers had amulets placed on their stomachs to speed up contractions or coriander applied to their thighs to entice the baby. Worst of all? Eagle dung was often rubbed on the expectant parent to alleviate pain. Sometimes — if they were lucky — the dung came with a side of rose water.
Before the days of adhesive pads, there were sanitary belts and pads. However, before this “modern” invention, folks used even less appealing absorbent items to deal with menstruation, including moss.
Although moss — the original green pad — doesn’t sound like a great hygiene tool, it was certainly safer than other products marketed toward women. In the late 1920s, for example, Lysol disinfectant tried to appeal to women as a “feminine hygiene” product. Using it allegedly led to “preserved youth and marital bliss” — and probably chemical burns if the product was anything like today’s Lysol.
Don’t trust every 17th-century medical handbook you read. In The Path-Way to Health by Peter Levens, the English author suggested men apply chicken manure to their scalps to cure baldness.
But the Rogaine of yore gets worse. Levens writes, “Take the ashes of Culver-dung [chicken manure] in Lye, and wash the head therewith.” Lye is a solution made from potassium salts — common in the soap-making process. But manure? That probably won’t help you look like a spring chicken — but you may smell like one.
These days, a glass of red wine might be considered heart healthy by some, but the antioxidant-packed libation served a different health purpose once. Not only was wine used as a mouthwash, but doctors also administered it as an antiseptic on wounds.
According to Live Science, wine does have an antibacterial property capable of vanquishing plaque and germs that cause sore throats. However, the acidic drink also softens tooth enamel. Nonetheless, wine was a vast improvement over the common mouthwash used in ancient Greece — urine.
Discovered by German scientist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1895, X-rays were popularized in America by Thomas Edison and his assistant, Clarence Dally. After the duo caught wind of Röntgen’s discovery, they developed an X-ray machine of their own and debuted it to the public at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
In the early 20th century, X-ray machines gained popularity in an unexpected way. Patients who weren’t too keen on hairy arms or legs underwent a hair removal procedure that involved hours of exposure to X-rays. Although patients’ hair successfully fell out, the X-rays had a terrible side effect: They caused cancer.
Under standard conditions for temperature and pressure, mercury is the only metallic element that maintains a liquid form. This made it great for filling thermometers — until the metal’s toxicity was discovered.
Of course, handling a potentially toxic thermometer was nothing compared to the other ways people in the past encountered mercury. Doctors recommended applying the silvery element to cold sores in order to “cure” outbreaks. Aside from these topical antiseptics of yesteryear, mercury compounds can — surprisingly — still be found in eye drops, nasal sprays and mascaras.
Beautifying the Face
Queen Elizabeth I faced a great deal of hardships, but her life-threatening bout with smallpox may have had the most lasting impact on her. Although she made a full recovery, the disease left lasting facial scars. Believing her beauty lent her power, Elizabeth masked the pock marks — a choice that led to her eventual death.
Following a popular beauty trend of the time, the queen covered her face in ceruse — a mixture of vinegar and lead — and added a bold lip, thanks to a pigment full of heavy metals. Most historians agree that Elizabeth’s lead-based foundation caused her hair loss, mental disorientation, fatigue and digestive problems before eventually poisoning her to death.
No one likes going to the dentist, and it’s clear that people throughout the ages tried inventive ways to avoid doing so. For example, in Ancient Rome folks followed the advice of naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder when preparing toothpaste. Pliny noted Romans should make paste “of hare head ashes and teeth donkey, mixed with brain extracts of rat or rabbit.”
Translation: In Ancient Rome, folks mixed mouse brains with sodium bicarbonate to form a nice mixture, perfect for dental care. Since sodium bicarbonate — or baking soda — is still used in toothpaste, you better hope Crest sticks with mint flavoring and never decides to produce a throwback line.
Toxic diet culture has existed for ages — and this early-20th century advertisement shows it. It encourages dieters to stay thin by … eating tapeworms. But not just any tapeworms, of course. They were directed to eat “jar packed” and “easy to swallow” tapeworms that the ad insisted had “no ill effects!”
Although some sources suggest that the claims surrounding this trend — slimming aids in the form of tapeworm-egg tablets — are unproven, one thing is for sure: Tapeworms are dangerous parasites. Parasites that take up residence in your intestines will make you sick — period.
Powdered wigs were considered chic hairpieces for nearly two centuries, and their fascinating origins have ties to kings — and venereal disease. To keep things brief, long locks were a status symbol, and wigs made that symbol more achievable, especially for balding men.
Despite their trendiness, powdered wigs weren’t exactly clean. In fact, they were often full of lice. According to a docent at the historic Nathan Hale Homestead Museum in Connecticut, folks in colonial America used wigs to draw lice out of their natural hair and then groomed the insects from the fake locks.
In this day and age, the word “combustible” brings to mind the image of cheap electronics or appliances. However, in the late 1800s, “combustible” went hand-in-hand with a very refined-sounding item: the tortoiseshell comb.
Made from a rather unstable celluloid compound, the combs were known for going up in flames, even when there wasn’t a fire present. In fact, just being near a heat source was enough to make the combs go all This Is Spinal Tap (1984) on their owners.
Dealing with Body Odor
These days, you can get natural, aluminum-free deodorants delivered right to your doorstep. Although alum has been used in countries like Thailand and Mexico for centuries, antiperspirants didn’t make a widespread appearance in the United States until 1888 when Edna Murphey nabbed a patent for Mum, the first commercial deodorant.
So, what exactly did folks do before then? Well, they sure didn’t bathe very often. Instead, they carried around bouquets of flowers to ward off any bad odors. The term “nosegay,” which is used to describe a small bouquet, originated in the 15th century, meaning an ornament that appeals to the nose.
Marketed as “Undark,” radium became one of the most wondrous elements of the 1920s. Thanks to its ability to glow in the dark, it was applied to watch faces and and clocks. Most infamously, women who worked in the factories — later known as the Radium Girls — applied the substance to more than just the intended products.
Instructed by the factory supervisors to “point” their brushes with their lips, the women constantly ingested radium. They even painted their nails and teeth with the seemingly harmless glowing substance. Of course, this led the Radium Girls to later suffer from the effects of radiation sickness, including anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw.
A writer at Medium offers a surefire way to clear up your skin by essentially harnessing the power of foods and other items from your kitchen. According to the writer, onions can be helpful when clearing up acne because they contain sulfur, an element with an exfoliative property.
With this in mind, maybe this old-school treatment isn’t too much of a stretch. Back in the day, folks rubbed sulfur on their freckles in an attempt to remove them. Ridiculous? Sure. They were on the right track — sort of — but we’d take (perfectly natural) freckles over that rotten-egg smell any day.
Belladonna may sound like Stevie Nicks’ cool, witchy plant of choice, but it’s also a known hallucinogen and poison. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop people — primarily women — in the 16th and 17th centuries from ingesting it for the sake of beauty standards.
Reportedly, belladonna users took the plant in liquid form in order to dilate their pupils — you know, as drugs are known to do. Evidently, big pupils increased their attractiveness, as did flushed cheeks. In order to achieve that latter look, folks rubbed the poisonous leaves of the plant on their faces. Not great.
Rejuvenating face masks have become synonymous with self-care. After all, it’s important to hydrate and exfoliate your body’s largest organ. But proper skincare wasn’t always as enticing. In fact, exfoliating in medieval times was anything but enticing.
Among most folks — particularly members of the aristocracy — it was believed that urine helped remove impurities from the skin, and the warmer the urine, the better. Ammonia, an abundant component in urine, is indeed a useful antiseptic, but there are more hygienic ways to obtain this substance.
While there is an abundance of hair gels, pomades and sprays to choose from these days, folks in the 17th century didn’t have a whole lot of options. To make matters more difficult, hairstyles were quite gravity-defying. Thus, the most trendy people used animal fat to style their hair and wigs.
These elaborate styles — not unlike the glamorous locks found in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) — were often worn for ballroom parties and other lavish get-togethers. This era, of course, was also one of extravagant chandeliers. Open flames near flammable animal fat? You can see where this is going…
Nothing makes a statement like a snazzy pair of shoes, especially if those shoes are all spiffed up. In the early 20th century, a shiny pair of shoes was just as popular as it is today, but something called nitrobenzene was the popular ingredient to make it happen back then.
Unfortunately, the ingredient certainly caused some problems. Smelling too much nitrobenzene — easy to do after just applying the polish — could end with someone fainting. To make matters worse, alcohol and nitrobenzene don’t mix well. If you partied too hard in the presence of this shoe polish, you could end up with a serious case of poisoning.
Ancient Greeks — and many others throughout the ages — applied chalk to their faces. This harmless whitening powder was meant to signify a prominent status. If you were wealthy enough, you could spend your time inside, avoiding the sun, and a pale complexion was evidence of such a lifestyle.
Unfortunately, people (primarily women) in the 18th and 19th centuries took this chalk trend to the next level — as in a Tide Pod-esque level. Instead of just applying the powder to their cheeks, these folks ate the chalk. Sure, this made them look pale — because the chalk made them sick.
The doctors of yesteryear had to do a lot of observing — and a lot of guessing. One observation? Menstruation occurred in patients on a regular basis. Although they weren’t entirely sure why this monthly process happened, they guessed that it helped flush “bad humors” from the body.
These doctors then took that theory and expanded it to mean that bloodletting would help dispel “bad humors” from all bodies. Leeches became a popular way to extract blood — and allegedly cure sickness — and apothecaries stocked jars (pictured, right) full of fresh samples. One thing is for certain: There’s a reason a doctor’s business became referred to as a “practice.”
If you thought mercury was just for cold sores, thermometers and fluorescent lighting fixtures in the past, think again. You may think mercury has been removed from medicine cabinets and from most household items today, but it’s actually still used in dental fillings.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) notes that “[mercury amalgam in dental fillings] has been used for more than 150 years in hundreds of millions of patients around the world.” However, states like Minnesota have taken up stricter measures than the FDA, even banning the use of mercury in cosmetics.
In the days before indoor plumbing, folks had to get creative when it came to restrooms. And by creative, we mean they did the bare minimum to avoid going outside. In medieval homes, toilets were just bowls covered by some wood with a hole punctured in it. Sometimes these bowls were kept in closets. And sometimes clothes were kept in those same closets.
For the wealthy, chamber pots were all the rage. Although they were a little more sophisticated in design — often with lids — they were kept right under the bed. Again, not great. It’s hard to even imagine the smell in people’s living quarters back then.
Precursor to the Sewer
Before indoor plumbing or sewer systems came to northern Europe, folks had to find a way to dispose of waste. Needless to say, they didn’t search too hard. More often than not, human waste was just emptied into the streets, which, in turn, weren’t cleaned very often.
If you were living in a fancy castle, things weren’t that much better, especially if the castle had a moat. Sure, most people romanticize moats and castles, so they would probably be scandalized to learn that moats were just big, stagnant dumping grounds.
Taking a birth control pill every day — from a packet that counts down like the world’s worst advent calendar — may seem like a bit of a hassle, but this method of oral contraception doesn’t hold a candle to some annoying methods of yesteryear.
In ancient Egypt, people — primarily women — drank mixtures of oil, celery and beer to avoid pregnancy or decrease fertility; sometimes they even resorted to a balm of crocodile dung. In Greece and Rome, folks used the plant silphium so often that it became extinct. Indigenous folks from modern-day New Brunswick brewed a tea made from the preserved body parts of male beavers to decrease their fertility.
If you thought the restrooms of yesteryear couldn’t get any worse, think again. Not only did society have insufficient ways to dispose of waste, there weren’t great ways to clean up either. Without toilet paper, folks had to resort to more readily available items.
For most people, this meant finding the nearest leaf — and hoping it wasn’t poison ivy. In Japan, folks used sticks (pictured, right) as a means of cleaning the nether regions. Needless to say, none of these methods sound like a “Charmin” experience.
In the Elizabethan era, aristocrats essentially made rotting teeth trendy. Because only the wealthy could afford sugar, tooth decay was a sign of riches. Lower class folks often faked gingivitis in order to look like they were from higher social classes.
In the end, this led to a lot of toothaches. And the only good cure for a toothache back then was to yank out the problem. More often than not, this was done by the local blacksmith.
Fun Fact: Cocaine was an acceptable over-the-counter drug offered to folks in tonic form from the 1880s until 1920, which is when the U.S. banned the drug. One of the cocaine’s most popular uses? Dulling toothaches.
Lye, a common ingredient in soap-making, is created by running water through ashes. For centuries, it was one of two major elements used in washing clothes. The other? Urine. Collected from chamber pots, urine was used in the stain removal and pre-wash soaking processes.
It can’t get worse than that — except maybe it can. Besides wearing clothes that had been soaked in urine, people didn’t have many clothes. If folks were lucky, they had about four outfits — one for each season — which means they didn’t change or wash their clothes very often.
Even today, honey has many practical and curative uses. Chinese medical texts dating back to the 16th century describe Arabian practices involving honey. The text says that elderly men ate honey — and nothing else — as they neared the ends of their lives.
The practice, known as mellification, involved a form of self-sacrifice in that the process of eating only honey eventually proved fatal. Once they passed, these men were then mummified by being placed in stone coffins filled with honey. After years and years had passed, parts of these mellified bodies were sold as a curative confection, reportedly capable of healing ailments.
This process is also described by Greek historian Herodotus. As the story goes, Alexander the Great’s body was preserved in a honey-filled sarcophagus.