40 Gross Yet Amusing Hygiene Practices from History

Before the days of hand sanitizer and penicillin, our ancestors had to get their hands dirty in order to stay clean. Indeed, what they thought of as “good” hygiene practices were frequently far more disgusting than our modern methods. So what made urine a common cleaning agent, and why did women keep eagle dung close by during childbirth? Find out with this list of 20 hilariously gross interpretations of hygiene.

40. Most toilets were disgusting

In the Middle Ages, “the smallest room” was often the most disgusting. In fact, some castles had small chambers called garderobes that featured little more than an open-air hole that dropped your droppings into a ditch or moat below. Alternatively, you simply did your business in a small pot and stored that under your bed.

39. The Groom of the Stool was a person who helped the king poop

The “Groom of the King’s Close Stool” was an official position created during the reign of Henry VIII. It might not sound glamorous, but a young nobleman would often take this coveted role, and his responsibilities included keeping the King’s portable commode at hand and screening the royal bowel movements.

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38. Bugs with your beer

Folks in the Wild West enjoyed nothing more than a foaming glass of ale in their local saloon. But one common habit was horrendous by modern standards. You see, a towel hung from the bar in the Old West – and everybody used it to wipe their mouths after slaking their thirsts.

37. Seam squirrels

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If you’re living in an environment where hygiene isn’t the best – like in the Wild West – mattress material matters. After all, you wouldn’t want your bedding to be a breeding ground for lice and fleas. Those critters love mattresses made of straw or hay, which is exactly what many were made of in frontier days. Lice even had a nickname of “seam squirrels.”

36. Poisonous mercury was used to treat syphilis

Syphilis started to pose a serious health threat in the late 1400s, and mercury was used to treat the dreaded STD. The treatments were painful, and physicians often – and unsurprisingly – ended up killing their patients through mercury poisoning.

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35. A rare bath

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For us, it’s such a commonplace activity that we rarely give it a second thought, but for the folks of the Wild West it was a rare luxury. We’re talking, of course, about bathing. With water in short supply and hot water requiring an open fire and lots of effort, getting into a bath was far from a daily occurrence in the frontier lands.

34. Bloodletting

Historians believe that bloodletting as a medical treatment was first employed by the Egyptians. And it seems that ancient Greek doctors were also keen proponents of this gruesome practice. The medic would cut a patient, allowing blood to drain from the body. Greek doctors held that a principal cause of illness was a surfeit of blood. As a result, draining some off was seen as a cure for a variety of conditions.

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33. Acceptable B.O.

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One barrier to keeping clean for those living on the western frontier was the conviction that washing could actually be bad for your health. Some believed that excessive washing could cause the pores to dilate, thus giving disease an easy passage into the body. This was absolute nonsense, of course. And the result was that people were surprisingly tolerant of body odor.

32. Using rushes on the floor often resulted in hidden filth

Hay or rushes were often strewn on the clay floors of homes as a covering in medieval times. These rushes would often be neglected for as long as two decades, and, therefore, could harbour all kinds of waste, filthy and excrement.

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31. Bath water was re-used over and over and over again

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Even into the 19th century it still took a lot of work to collect and heat water for a bath, so a full tub was often shared between several people. The father would get the first dunk, of course, with the rest of the family taking turns until the youngest child had enjoyed their dip.

30. The laundry detergent of the day was often urine

Ammonia is a tried-and-true cleaning agent, so you can’t really blame ancient Romans and early Europeans for harnessing it from the best source they knew of at the time: urine. Apparently, it’s great for getting stains out of clothing.

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29. The pain of hair

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The women of ancient Greece banished unwanted hair not by shaving or waxing but by plucking. That’s tugging out every single hair individually, something you probably shouldn’t try at home. Perhaps weirder still, some women wore false eyebrows made from goat hair that had been dyed. How convincing these were is a moot point.

28. Too cold to bathe

Anything we would recognize as a modern bathing facility was rarer than hen’s teeth on the frontier. And cowboys, soldiers and pioneers roaming the range might go for weeks or even months without a proper hot bath. Often they just had to take their chance when they came across a creek that looked reasonably clean. That tended to rule out winter baths altogether.

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27. Urine was touted as a great face wash and tooth whitener

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Urine has served a number of purposes throughout time. Elizabethan-era women used urine as a face wash to make their skin fair, while Romans used urine as a sort of mouthwash to whiten their teeth.

26. Urine was also one of the best antiseptics at the time

Since people didn’t know how to manufacture sterile alcohol during the Middle Ages, urine was frequently used as an antiseptic because it was actually cleaner than water at the time. Wine was a common alternative too.

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25. Eau de horse

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With all the difficulties pioneers and cowboys faced when it came to regular bathing, having a powerful body odor was far from unusual. And since so many of those on the frontier spent a lot of time riding, smelling like a horse was almost normal. So, the truth was, you could often smell a cowboy approaching before you actually saw him.

24. Careful with that water

Humans need clean water to thrive. But in the rough and ready frontier lands of the Old West, this basic necessity wasn’t always readily available. What water there was could become polluted by noxious liquids from leaking outhouses or by stagnant water that harbored flies. Rainwater collected in barrels was also vulnerable to contamination.

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23. Red-hot pokers were used to cauterize cuts and flesh wounds

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A deep cut might require a few disintegrating stitches nowadays, but treatments for medieval injuries were far more taxing. Before the days of non-invasive surgery, in fact, the preferred method for stemming blood or sealing a wound was pressing a red-hot poker directly onto the skin.

22. Women used rags wrapped around moss as sanitary napkins

How did women keep fresh in the days before disposable sanitary products? Well, patches of cloth were commonly utilized, and they were frequently washed and used again. It’s also quite likely many women used moss as an absorptive inner layer between two rags.

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21. Mind that bed

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If you were on the road and needed a bed for the night, frontier towns would often have a flophouse or a saloon with a few rooms. But just how hygienic those lodgings were was open to question. You might wonder who’d slept in a bed before you, and what illnesses they might have had. Then, you could question just how fresh the linen you were sleeping in really was. Lice and fleas were no rarity.

20. Doctor or quack?

If you were sick in the frontier days and visited someone who styled themselves as a doctor, that was absolutely no guarantee that they had any medical qualifications at all. There were properly trained medical practitioners in the Old West, but they were few and far between. That meant you had a good chance of being treated by someone who could only really be described as a quack.

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19. A powerful purgative

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An apparent favorite treatment for frontier doctors was the liberal prescribing of powerful purgatives. So liberal, in fact, that it verged on the dangerous and could bring predictably unpleasant results. One such drug known as ipecac syrup would result in copious vomiting. The idea was that purging the body would combat an illness. Modern doctors wouldn’t recommend this treatment.

18. Schooling the Spartan way

It was actually state law in Sparta, perhaps the most martial society in world history, that children must be outstandingly brave, methodical and merciless. For boys, this meant leaving home for boarding school at the age of seven. School was a time of insufficient food, remorseless military drill and just a basic nod to formal subjects such as arts or sciences. And it lasted until you were 30 years old.

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17. Malarial misery

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There seems to have been no end to the eccentricities of the frontier doctors, whether they were actually medically trained or not. One treatment for malaria, for example, involved the patient being stripped naked and left in the open air to get thoroughly chilled. This process was accelerated with buckets of cold water. This was intended to induce shivering. If that got too extreme, opium was administered.

16. Eagle dung was present at most births

Giving birth was a difficult and highly dangerous feat for women in the era before clean surgical tools and epidurals. During medieval times, in fact, the best a woman in labor could hope for was a poultice of eagle dung, which was believed to help ease the pain.

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15. Wigs were adopted to avoid lice, but often ended up harboring bugs as well

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Lice and nits were prevalent in 18th-century Europe, and they didn’t discern between rich and poor hosts. Wealthier folk often shaved their heads to rid themselves of the bugs, replacing their hair with a wig made from human or horse hair. Unfortunately, the wigs often became infested with lice as well.

14. Hats helped keep lice at bay

When Mary, Queen of Scots, returned to Scotland from France, she found it disrespectful that the men kept their hats on at the banquet table. It was for good reason, however; the hats prevented lice from falling onto their plates.

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13. Bathing was avoided because it was seen as evil or sexually deviant

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Bathing had a mixed rep during medieval times. While many people regularly scrubbed up – especially during the Black Plague – others avoided the practice because they believed it allowed the devil to enter your body.

12. Dentists prescribed a smoke treatment to rid the mouth of tooth worms

Before people really understood the reasons for tooth decay, they believed “tooth worms” were the cause of oral aches and pains. To get rid of them, you were supposed to burn a candle and let the smoke fill your mouth. This would supposedly cause some kind of nasty creature to pop out of your incisors.

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11. Bloodletting was common and believed to release “humours”

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Many early civilizations believed that the human body had four fluids, or “humours,” that needed to stay in balance for a healthy life. If the humours were out of balance, bloodletting was frequently used to get them back in sync.

10. The Romans wiped with a communal sponge after using communal toilets

Roman public toilets were often huge, consisting of stone benches lined with close-set holes. And since there were no stall dividers, men would sit side by side and use the occasion for socializing. They perhaps got a little too comfortable with each other, though, as they shared a sponge used to wipe themselves after a number two.

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9. Vaginal fumigation was used to treat infections

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During the Middle Ages, vaginal fumigation was a medically prescribed treatment for yeast infections, UTIs and menstrual cramps. Hot steam from herbal water was forced into the vagina via a long tube, most likely doing more harm than good.

8. Maggots were used to cleanse wounds

Penicillin only became readily available in the 1940s. Before this, maggots were widely used to clean dirty wounds like burns, abscesses and even bone infections. It worked because the maggots would eat up the dead tissue, leaving only healthy tissue behind.

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7. City streets were often covered in human poop

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Before the emergence of proper city sewerage systems, people would often throw waste of all kinds onto the streets of medieval towns. Chamber pots were emptied directly out of windows, and rotting food and trash clogged the streets.

6. Discomfort in the bathroom

It seems that the Chinese began the use of paper in the bathroom as early as the 6th century. However, this aspect of modern civilization didn’t reach as far as Europe, or indeed Greece, for another thousand years or so. This meant that the ancient Greeks had to improvise after using the bathroom. And the solution they came up with to a lack of bathroom tissue appears eccentric to say the least. They used stones. Ouch. If stones had run out, they’d then turn to broken pieces of pottery, which sounds downright dangerous. Apparently, it was customary was to etch the name of an enemy on a ceramic shard before use. Sounds like a painful way of expressing contempt for an adversary.

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5. Bad hair day

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In our modern world, there’s no limit to the number of hair care products on the market. But women in the Wild West were far from spoiled for choice. In fact, all they had was coarse soap, not particularly known for giving that alluring luster to your locks. As a result, many women only washed their hair once a month. Every day was a bad hair day.

4. The high price of love

Sex in the Old West sometimes involved a commercial transaction, often finalized in a saloon or at least in the rooms upstairs. Unhappily, this resulted in an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases. One estimate cited by True West magazine indicated that at one point some 90 percent of prostitutes in the Old West had such a disease.

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3. Naked at the gym

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The Greeks are renowned for their love of physical exercise. They did, after all, found the Olympic Games back in 776 B.C. One of the central pillars of Greek culture was the gymnasium, where would-be athletes could go to work out just as they do today. But there’s one very important difference between an ancient Greek gym and a modern one. A clue to that difference lies in the very word gymnasium. Gymnos translates as “naked” in ancient Greek. And the gymnasium was where you exercised in the nude. Or at least men did – women were barred. So we’re probably unlikely ever to see a reintroduction of the ancient Greek-style nude gymnasium, even though the Olympic Games were revived in 1896.

2. Wiping painfully

Today, we have bathroom tissue and that’s something to be thankful for. In the Old West, no such convenience existed. After a visit to the outhouse, those old-time folk resorted to everything from corncobs or grass to clean up. We can only conclude that they were made of sterner stuff back in those days.

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1. Criminal doctors

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Some who called themselves doctors in the Old West actually had no formal medical qualifications whatsoever. Even worse, some of these so-called doctors were, in fact, criminals. Writing in American Heritage George Groh asserted that one well-known medical man was actually a convict on the run, while another was infamous as a horse robber.

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