Out of product! Ways people maintain hygiene at home

Alcohol instead of a shower, lemon instead of deodorant: this is how people kept clean when there were no hygiene products in stores.

Still, by historical standards, recently, people did not have a daily shower, no deodorant, or many other things necessary for hygiene. Knowing this, many twenty-first century residents are sure that all people in the old days smelled strongly and badly, clothes looked untidy close by, and it’s scary to think about underwear. In fact, of course, man has always – like any healthy animal – tried to take care of his cleanliness. It was just that it was much more challenging to maintain it.


Far from always and not everywhere, people avoided ablutions even in the darkest, modern standards. Except for the beggars, the dirtiest were the poor in those days when firewood was expensive, and it was impossible to cut wood without permission. The collected deadwood was enough only for cooking. So in the winter, the poor did not wash – they could not heat the water, but they calmly splashed in the rivers and streams in the summer.

Dirtier than the poor man in winter were only all sorts of ascetics who did not wash and did not change their clothes to earn their way to paradise with deprivation and torment – after all, the sufferings of life atone for sins and replace good deeds. There were also some sluts who did not like water so much that they gladly took ascetic vows.

Although, of course, almost no one could wash as often as in our days until the twentieth century nevertheless, ablution was ordinary. Moreover, they were often part of a love game (which caused outrage among the priesthood). The famous beauty Diane de Poitiers surprised everyone by swimming every day – not by the fact itself, but by the fact that she did it in cold water.

It must say that at some point, doctors rebelled against bathing much more furiously than priests. Magnifying glasses of good power were invented, and pores on human skin were opened. Doctors decided that washing out the fat from these holes makes them an open door for various infections and strictly recommended refraining from baths.

Few followed these recommendations: a white body was in fashion, and after washing, it looked much whiter than without it. But those who refused to take a bath rubbed themselves with lotions and colognes based on alcohol (which, by the way, was perfectly absorbed through the skin, so lovers of a healthy lifestyle were a little tipsy all the time).

Sweat smell

Although the smell of a freshly heated body seemed to many to be piquant and attractive (at least if the body is young and healthy), still no one liked the sweat. First of all, because sweat corroded the fabric, and changing outfits was not as easy as it is now. In addition, it was not always possible to remove sweat before it “aged” on the skin and turns into a stench, so they looked for a way to reduce perspiration.

Among the means used at different times were attempts to wipe the armpits, the space under the female breast, feet with a solution of vinegar, lemon juice, boric acid, and even formalin. As a result of the latter measure, the armpits lost the ability to sweat, and sweat appeared in significant drops in the most unexpected places. In women, usually in the neckline, Men even liked it – beads of sweat on a woman’s chest were compared to dew and pearls.

Even the richest ladies and gentlemen preferred thin linen that absorbs moisture to silk underwear (at least when there was no question about linen lice – silk saved them better from them). The shirts seemed to get the skin wet all day. If the day was hot, then they tried to change them several times. In general, whether a person smelled strong then depended, first of all, on how many changes of underwear he could afford.

But over the centuries, the wealthy bourgeois and noblemen did not fully understand how important a person’s condition is for maintaining his purity. Many sincerely believed that peasants and other hard workers were naturally smelly. In the nineteenth century, manual workers were even singled out as a separate race.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, another trick was used to protect clothes under the armpits from sweaty circles: special absorbent liners. They were sewn on before dressing and coupled to replace and wash.

One hundred and one ways not to drown in dirt

Until the second half of the twentieth century, they were washing clothes as often as we do now was impossible. To keep them more or less clean and fresh, they resorted to all sorts of tricks. They tried to air them out every night. They deftly removed individual stains. They made sure that they ironed the cloth as if it were denser and would not so readily absorb dirt. The edges of cuffs and collars were washed, and if fashion allowed, they were made sewn on and quickly torn off so that they could be changed more often and washed separately.

Shoes were regularly treated on the inside not to retain the stale smell of the feet. They sprinkled sleep-dried tea or herbs like mint, melissa, sage. They wiped the inside with alcohol, vinegar, manganese, or hydrogen peroxide, depending on the era. And, of course, they ventilated and frosted out whenever possible.

The women had very long hair. Washing their hair was a chore, and drying it by the fire was difficult and dangerous, so they did it once a month or less. Instead, they tried to protect their hair from dust and dirt with headdresses, and Christianity also set such a norm – to cover the head. In the evenings, they combed their hair, distributing grease from the roots to the entire length, and “aired” it by shaking it.

Of course, there were also eras when women walked around with dirty hair for a long time. For example, when the hairstyles of noble ladies were too elaborate and expensive to ruin frequently, or when the church branded women “too busy beautifying their hair” as potential harlots and obsessed with pride. Nor was it conducive to keeping men’s or women’s hair clean the fashion for styling with wax, unique pomade, or vegetable oil that overtook people in different countries in different eras. And yet, you should not imagine any beauty and any handsome man of the past with greasy locks.

Up until relatively recently, in the early twentieth century, lice were a constant headache of humanity. To partially get rid of them, the hair and scalp were rubbed with various remedies, starting with a trivial solution of vinegar. These same drugs, at the same time, reduced the amount of sebum on the hair.

People were worried about the purity of the breath. Humanity has learned to clean the teeth even in prehistoric times – using toothpicks, broken fibrous twigs, chewing resin, and so on. In addition, mouthwashes, chewing scented plants and citrus peels, and sucking up refreshing lozenges were used for fresh breath, depending on the era. The main issue with oral hygiene was the extent to which one had the time, energy, and money to care for his or her teeth.

True, it was customary to have teeth that were not entirely white – darkened by tea, coffee, and tobacco – until the second third of the twentieth century. Before then, teeth were only whitened when they wanted to look younger. To clean and whiten, they used ground coal, chalk, and even crushed porcelain. They did remove plaque but severely damaged gums and, over time, erased tooth enamel.

In general, people seldom gave up the fight for cleanliness, and our ancestors did everything possible with the means available to them not to scare each other by sight or smell.

Note* Always consult your doctor or other qualified health care professional for any questions you may have about your health or condition. Never disregard a health care professional’s advice or delay getting it because of what you read on this website.
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