We all have our little hygiene habits…things we do to keep clean, keep illness away, and the doctor at bay. But how have these habits changed over the years? What was seen as normal hygiene practice fifty, one hundred or even one thousand years ago, today seems downright disgusting. Today we’ll be exploring some of these hygienic customs, in this episode of The Infographics Show, Disgusting Hygiene Practices You Won’t Believe Were Real.

1. Chicken manure

four assorted color roosters

Few men like to lose their hair early in life, and it was no different back in the 17th-century. The Path-Way to Health, written by Peter Levens and published in London in 1654, advised men to put chicken manure on their scalps to cure baldness. The book says to mix the chicken dung with a strong alkaline solution of potassium salts made from ashes, which are used in soap making. This produced a gross broth that was guaranteed to spring those hair follicles back to life.

2. Boiling Oil

bowl being poured with yellow liquid

Cauterization is the name for searing a wound with a hot piece of metal to stop heavy bleeding. It was a common practice in the middle ages, up to the 15th century, and was thought to sterilize and heal cuts and gashes. Sometimes patients were even treated by pouring boiling oil into the wound to cull the bleeding. But they were often plunged deeper into the shock they were already experiencing from their injuries. Thankfully this barbaric healing method is now long in the past.

3. Urine

white ceramic male toilet
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Before modern antiseptics had been developed, it was thought that urinating on a wound would disinfect it, a practice purportedly going back to medieval times. But while urine in the bladder is sterile and bacteria-free, when it leaves the body it quickly picks up bugs from the urethra and surrounding area, and can cause further infection and disease. Though this is an old tradition, still today there are rumors that peeing on a jelly-fish sting can help to heal it, but we can’t find evidence to support that theory.

4. More Urine

Old timey folk sure did love their piss. In the middle ages in England, many layers of clothing were worn, but rarely washed, and it was common to blow your nose in your hands and wipe them clean on your clothes. “Chamber lye” was another name in England for urine, collected in chamber pots and used for stain removal and pre-wash soaking in the 1600s. A mixture of urine, lye and river water was the best recipe for cleaning clothes until modern soaps and detergents were developed.

5. Mercury

An extremely toxic chemical element, Mercury was once used as a medicine to treat various diseases, including syphilis, typhoid fever, and various parasites. The use of mercury in medicine was controversial because of the toxic effects. In America, mercury was once seen as a medicine to treat almost any disease, but large parts of the population turned their backs on established medicine in the middle of the 1800s due to the unpopularity of using mercury, and thankfully this medical poison was eventually abandoned.

6. Rough Linen

We all hate tooth decay, but these days we have toothbrushes, floss and mouthwash, and if all else fails, expert dentists to sort out the problem. However in ancient times, before anyone understood how tooth decay came about, it was thought that microscopic worms were causing the issue, by eating away at the tooth. There were no dental schools or clinics, and standard oral hygiene was well below the level we have today. So without any real understanding of why these holes appeared in teeth, the legend of the tooth worm was born. Medieval people would rub their teeth and gums with a rough linen cloth in an attempt to get rid of the tiny worms.

7. Filthy hands

In 1850, Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives with three words: wash, your, hands. Up to that date most surgeries and medical operations were performed with dirty hands. The situation was so bad that up to 20 percent of women died during childbirth, and that was at the best maternity hospitals in Europe and America. The reason being that medical students and their professors at these hospitals, often began their day performing barehanded autopsies on the women who had died of childbed fever. They then proceeded to the wards to examine the laboring women about to deliver their babies, passing the fever on numerous times.

8. Communal baths

The Romans’ were  famous for the public baths but it’s highly debated how hygienic these communal wash areas were, and in a 2016 study published in the journal Parasitology, researchers found that it’s unlikely these baths kept them any cleaner than the barbarians at their gates. The researchers examined fossilized poo, combs, and other hygiene tools, and found evidence of dysentery, lice, and other parasites, and as much as the Romans’ love for home design and plumbing gave rise to more of these baths when they conquered a region, the level of hygiene was rarely improved.

9. Dead Mice

What do dead mice and teeth have in common? Ancient Egyptians believed putting a dead mouse in your mouth would ease toothache. In some cases, they mashed the mouse and blended it with other ingredients; the resulting mushy mixture was applied to the painful area. As odd as this procedure may seem, it wasn’t only the Egyptians who looked to their little mammal friends for help. In Elizabethan England, one remedy for eradicating warts was to apply half a mouse to the offending spot.

10. Cleaning the crack

Before the invention of toilet paper, different cultures all had their inventive ways of wiping their behind after emptying their bowels. Ancient Romans would wipe with an old sponge dipped in salt water; 17th-century sailor’s used an old rope dangling from the ship that they would hoist up after doing their business; before modern day plumbing, many Americans used leftover corn cobs; the Japanese used flat sticks known as “chugi”, and if all else failed, many cultures simply used sticks, dirt, or their bare hands.



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