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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.