You’ve seen people that have gone to the restroom without washing their hands. You know people that double dip at parties. But did you know that there isn’t a person alive that was as gross as your average European in the 1800s? Or your average Roman royalty in the 900s?
We’ve gathered some of the best, or rather worst, routines, practices, and traditions that people of the past followed. Just a warning though, you might want to grab the anti-bacterial hand sanitizer for these horror stories.
How often do you change clothes? Every day? Twice a day? Well, back in “the day,” most people only changed about once a season. This was generally the lower to the middle class, as the upper class had more money to make clothes. TV and movies depict the Old Englishwomen having a breakfast dress, tea dress, dinner dress, etc. But in actuality, it’s more likely that no one changed that often. Even royalty. Why would they? Practicality was key during these times.
You likely already know this one, but up until the 20th century, it was common practice for even the highest classes to share bathwater with their family. Boiling water for a bath ten times just wasn’t something that was possible in one night. Nor practical. Some communities even shared bathtubs. They would take turns using the same water. In Japan, they would all gather together and bathe in their hot springs or bathhouses once a week. Of course, the women and men were usually separated with the kids joining the women. Just imagine how much dirt and grime was floating around in that weekly (or even monthly) pool of water.
Count yourself lucky if you’ve never heard of the Groom of the Stool. The most intimate job working for the king was that of the Groom of the Stool whose job was to assist with excretion and ablution. Yes, this man wiped the king’s butt. It might seem like an unwanted position, but due to the intimacy that it involved, many secrets were shared with the groom. This led to it slowly becoming a coveted and even powerful position. The king would often take his word over anyone else’s as the king had been forced to trust him.
Imagine a doctor purposely letting leeches suck you dry. That’s what the 19th-century population dealt with on a regular basis. The process had been used for centuries as it was believed that draining blood would get rid of toxins and evil spirits in the body. But in the 1800s, bloodletting skyrocketed in popularity.
Bloodletting is now known to be a dangerous practice where leeches are used to drain blood from the body. You can still purchase the high-end jars that were reserved for leeches that used to be available at any pharmacy.
Nowadays, making wigs is no difficult task. They are safely colored and formed without any dangerous materials. The worst thing done is coating the hair with silicone (which can be found in conditioner) to make it shine. But back before they had silicone readily available, they used animal fat to form the wigs and make them shine. You can imagine how this would make the scalp breakout. But what’s even more dangerous is that it made the people very flammable.
If you think pregnancy is hard and painful now, then you haven’t heard about giving birth in medieval England. While there are many traditions that women stood by, one of the most disturbing was what they used to relieve pain. Aside from herbs and opiates, they added eagle dung to the mixture. Where they put it, you don’t want to know.
Lead poisoning is no joke and leads to diminished IQ, damaged hearing, learning disabilities, and possibly increased criminality in children. Yeah, lead poisoning actually makes you do bad things. In the early 1900s, no one knew how harmful it was and put it in everything from paint to dolls to telephones. Adding to paint was bad, but the Romans actually used a must they cooked in lead pots to make food. That’s extremely direct. It’s a good thing it’s becoming illegal for use in most industries.
Yes, this actually happened. They didn’t add it as a garnish, but rather ate it straight. It was mostly done by women as eating it made them feel ill. When they felt ill, their skin paled. During this time, pale skin was seen as attractive. Powdered faces plus draining all of the blood from it was equal to a Snapchat filter all the way from Medieval times to the 1900s.
Today, eating chalk is known as a nutritional deficiency called pica.
Did you know that x-rays can cause cancer when exposed for too long? Neither did the people in the early 1900s. When discovered in 1896, doctors thought they would be the new cure-all. They soon found out that after hours under the rays, hair started to fall off! But it also exposed the skin to radiation…so that didn’t end well.
Once upon a time, people carried around bouquets. Not because it was pretty, but because the streets (and their family) stunk so much that they needed a relief. You remember how we talked about sharing baths and not changing clothes. The cities may stink now, but people sure have improved. And we don’t dump our sewage on the sidewalks anymore.
Where x-rays were used to remove hair, something else was used to add it. A 17th-century handbook advises men to put chicken dung on their scalps to cure baldness. Today, we assume this was some angry wives’ tale and we applaud her for thinking of it. Get that sexist pig back, girl!
Today, bedpans are reserved for the sick and disabled, but pre-1900s, everyone had one in their bedroom. They were stuffed under the bed and if you needed to go in the middle of the night, you used it then shoved it back under the bed. The next morning, the maid (or you) would throw it out the window into the street or yard below. As previously stated, everything stunk.
These days, tooth decay is a very bad thing that only those who can’t afford insurance is faced with. But at one time, it was something reserved for the wealthy. Why? Because only the wealthy could afford sugar! Guess that caught up with them eventually.
By real, we mean like Locks of Love for teeth. In the 1800s and before, if dentures ever were created (which was rare) then they fixed them with real teeth from fallen soldiers and younger people who had died with healthy teeth. When someone died, their teeth were pulled and taken to the dentist to recycle.
This has to be the harshest punishment of all. Whenever royalty was annoyed by flies and other pests, instead of getting one of those nonexistent fluorescent lamps, they had their servants distract them. They did this by covering their servants in honey and drawing the flies a few feet away from the Royals. This was most common in ancient Egypt, but other countries practiced it as well.
No, it is not sterile. Literally, urine has been used to clean everything at some point in time. The Romans used it to clean their teeth, color their togas, and wash dishes. But the most dangerous thing that’s ever been done with it was when soldiers used to use it to clean their wounds. Using it on the outside of your body is bad, but infecting your own wound with it is beyond bad.
You know how castles used to have those bodies of water around them? Those were known as moats. The moats were used as a sort of border and water supply, but most of all, they were used to dump waste from food and…those chamber pots. At least it helped with defending the castle.
In ancient times all the way up until the 1800s, the word sterile hardly existed. Meaning, no one knew how germs traveled. They rarely washed their dishes and even worse, their surgical tools. They didn’t know that there were things there that you couldn’t see. As long as they wiped the surface then they called it good.
You’ve heard the phrase, “wrong end of the stick.” Many people believe that its origins date back to ancient Europe when people used a stick to wipe. Yeah, wipe. One end of the stick was the handle while the other was the end you used to wipe. And yes, this stick was shared. Getting the wrong end of the stick meant trouble for those without a sink or anti-bacterial soap.
You know that in order to heal their patients, often doctors of the 1800s thought it was a good idea to pull out the leeches. Sounds bad, but before then, things were much worse. If it was believed that the host was possessed by evil spirits, they thought that draining them of blood was the best option. And the only way to do this was to forcibly pin them down and drill a hole in their head to let the spirits escape.
Much like the lead problem that led to the mental decline of so many, exposure to mercury was also a problem. For centuries the element was used in diuretics, antibacterial agents, antiseptics, laxatives, and other medicine. It is actually believed that during the 1800s when mercury poisoning was discovered, the term “mad as a hatter” was coined to describe the side effects. This in turn inspired Lewis Carrol to create the Mad Hatter character.
For a time, it was recommended for ladies who wished to lose weight to ingest tapeworms. Tapeworms are parasites that can feed on the inside of your intestines and cause you to not be hungry and to lose weight rapidly. Of course, this is very, very dangerous.
A long time ago, people would go to great lengths for lovely music. Way over in Scandinavia, horse hair was used to created beautiful violin strings. But the European west used what is now called catgut, which generally refers to sheep intestines. The people whose job it was to create these strings killed the sheep, gutted the sheep, dressed it, twisted the intestines, dried them, and polished them.
Chinese footbinding was a tradition that had women wear shoes that would stunt their growth. It was so intense that it caused many deaths in the 13th century. The ideal size was three inches, while five was acceptable. If the shoes weren’t working, they would have a physician break their toes and pin them down, putting the shoes back on for them to form.
The ancient Indian practice known as the Sati funeral took many lives in the late BCs. But that number had doubled by the 1800s when the practice became even more common. By 1920 it was banned, and by 1988, anyone encouraging it was banned. But what could be so gruesome? Well, when the man is the head of the household, it is expected that his wife does not remarry after he dies. In ancient times, and even in the 1900s, this gave her no worth. So whenever the man’s body was burned at his funeral, his wife would often jump into the flames and kill herself, not wishing to live without him.
This Tibetan practice is still often practiced today, though it is not as popular as it once was. It happens when the corpse is wrapped in white Tibetan cloth and placed in a corner of the house for three or five days. After a few rituals, the body is taken to the burial platform where the body’s clothes are taken, and they are put into a fetal position. Then smoke is used to attract vultures, and the family watches the birds eat the dead body of their loved one.
Known as Sokushinbutsu, self-mummification is a way where Buddhist monks train themselves to not decay after they die. The method takes about 3,000 days! It starts with eating nothing but nuts, berries, and tree bark until you get rid of every nutrient and ounce of fat in your body. Then, you sit down (often in a burial chamber) and meditate until you die, ringing a bell every day until one day it stops ringing.
Kutti pi is an old Indian dish that consists of the flesh of an unborn fetus from an animal. At one point it was considered a delicacy and often given to pregnant women to keep them and their unborn healthy. Today, it is considered taboo and is hard to find as butchers will not touch fetuses any longer.
This drink of Chinese origins was once popular in ancient Korea. At one point, baby mice were drowned in wine and were used as a cure-all for anything from liver disease to asthma. There is no telling what health benefits they could have received, but chances are it was all because they were too poor to afford anything of actual substance. The way it was made was mice less than three days old were drowned in the wine and left to brew for a minimum of twelve months.
In the Victorian 1800s, one of the creepiest things that they did was this. They took family photos with loved ones’ dead bodies. No one really knows why they did this, but there are tons of photos circulating the internet of them doing so. The practice is called post-mortem photography and was said to have helped their families move on. We’re sure that hugging your dead sister is perfectly healthy.
Charlie took to the written word like a fish takes to water. That is to say; they found themselves immersed in literature from before they were born. They've been known to tell their friends how they can still remember the passages their parents read to them when they were in utero - Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and a bit of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in to balance it out. Charlie keeps their feet wet, whether they're whipping up pithy one-liners to tease your brain or busy working on their second novel (the first one is available on Amazon under a pen name they refuse to disclose). You’re sure to get a kick out of giggle-worthy explanations and outrageous hints, and still come away feeling like you’ve just expanded your knowledge base.
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