These 30 Outrageous Vintage Hygiene Practices Are Actually Real
We complain a lot in this day and age; but in truth, we have plenty to to be thankful for. We have technology that enables us to connect with people all over the world, modern medicine, air conditioning — these are just a few of the things we take for granted. One oft-overlooked concept that deserves special appreciation is current personal hygiene.
Let’s explore some of the most disgusting practices people used to partake in, and thank our lucky stars we were born in the modern age.
In a time before toilet paper
Toilet paper is definitely one of the many things we take for granted. Soft, perforated squares connected together in a long scroll of 2-ply paper, conveniently designed so that it unrolls with a gentle tug is a relatively new invention. With something so common, it’s hard to imagine life without it — and to appreciate its genius design.
Up until 1888, people had to come up with some creative ideas to clean themselves. This often involved a whole host of uncomfortable-sounding materials, including, but not limited to: sticks wrapped in cloth and dipped in water, leaves, rags, or simply an unlucky hand.
Barbers used to perform tooth extractions
When you think about it, we put a lot of trust in our barbers — but this takes that trust to a whole new level.
In the dark ages, there were two types of barbers: surgeons who were trained to perform complicated operations, and those that focused on basic grooming. You may be surprised to learn that the barbers who performed tooth extractions were part of the latter camp.
Toothaches were commonly treated by drinking beer and wine, or if one had the means, by using herbal remedies developed by Eastern and Arabian cultures. If and when these methods failed, it was time for the tooth to go, and you had your local barber at the ready to take care of you.
People kept miniature toilets under their bed
You know that feeling when you’re falling asleep and all of a sudden you get the urge to go to the bathroom? Walking down the hall can seem like such a daunting task but there’s no way around it. Well, centuries ago people had their own solution.
Chamber pots were commonly stored beneath their beds. Whenever nature would call in the middle of the night, you’d pull it out, handle your business, and slide it back under. In the morning, you (or your unlucky maid) would dispose of its contents. On the second thought, maybe the 2 a.m.-trek down the hall doesn’t sound so bad after all.
Surgical equipment was unwashed and un-sterilized
People had no concept of germs, bacteria, or the reasons behind infections until the 1800s. If you had something inside you that needed to be cut out, they’d do it without washing or sterilizing any of the knives, forceps, or other equipment.
Obviously, this often caused more harm than good. There was also no decent anesthetic, so when you went under the knife, you felt it. The mark of a good surgeon was how quickly you could perform an operation. This meant that not only would the patient be in pain for less time, but the rate of success would be much higher — presumably because the wounds wouldn’t be open for too long, and therefore less likely to become infected.
Wigs were so popular in the 16th and 17th centuries because of syphilis
England suffered a massive syphilis outbreak in 1580. The spread of the disease rivaled only that of the Black Death, which wiped off half the continent centuries earlier. Syphilis is easily treatable with antibiotics nowadays, but back then it was a very serious affair. People would suffer open sores, blindness, dementia, and hair loss.
Back then, going bald at an early age would arouse suspicion. Louis XIV started going bald at the tender age of 17 (he probably had syphilis). To save himself the embarrassment, Louis hired 48 wig makers to make him a stylish toupee. Five years later, his cousin King Charles II followed suit (he probably also had syphilis). Aristocrats imitated the style, which began spreading as fast as…well, you get it.
Women used Lysol as birth control and for feminine hygiene
If women didn’t have access to birth control in the early 20th century, they often took some unhealthy approaches. One of the preferred methods was treating their private areas with Lysol. Yes, that Lysol. They also used it simply to freshen the area — it was believed to be safe and gentle. In truth, it was neither.
For what it’s worth, it didn’t work either. A 1933 study concluded that close to half of the 507 women surveyed that used this birth control method got pregnant.
Women who tried it were constantly being treated after suffering inflammation and burning sensations. There were even several reports of death.
Dentures made from real human teeth
Nothing beats the real thing, right? Back in the 18th century, when people lost their teeth or they rotted out of their heads, their pearly whites had to be replaced — just like now. People back then can’t be blamed for wanting their false teeth to look as real as possible, however they may have taken realism a step too far.
The first porcelain dentures were made by Alexis Duchâteau in 1774, but these often appeared too white, and were especially prone to discoloration. Ivory was commonly used in dentures, but it wasn’t the only rare, expensive material used.
Dentures made from human teeth were dubbed “Waterloo teeth” after the battle in 1815, when teeth were plucked from the corpses of soldiers lying on the battlefield. The practice had been in place for many years before that, however. In fact, George Washington’s dentures were not made from wood as is commonly believed, but from a combination of hippopotamus ivory, horse teeth, donkey teeth, and yes, human teeth. They were considered the finest false teeth of the time.
Women dilated their pupils with a poisonous plant for fashion
“Belladonna” is Italian for “beautiful lady,” and that’s what women in the 16th and 17th centuries hoped to become by eating the plant. But you may know it by another name: “nightshade.” One effect of poisoning from the Belladonna plant is dilated pupils — a highly desirable trait back in the good ol’ days.
Women would risk congestive heart failure, hallucinations, stomach ulcers, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), and gastrointestinal tract infections (among other awful symptoms) all for beauty.
Women would not only consume the plant, they’d also rub it on their cheeks to make them rosy. It’s not like people were ignorant of its harmful effects, either. In fact, nightshade had been used as a hallucinogen for centuries prior — medieval women would often rub it on their thighs and get the sensation of flying, which is a theory as to why witches are often depicted flying on broomsticks.
Irradiating yourself for the hair loss
One of the most recognizable effects of the difficult process of radiation treatment for cancer patients is hair loss. It’s an unwanted symptom that patients are forced to endure as part of a painful process of chemotherapy. But people used to irradiate themselves just to lose their hair.
People in the early 1900s would spend up to 20 hours under X-rays to make their hair fall out. As you’re no doubt aware, prolonged exposure to radiation causes general malaise, cancer, and increased risk of birth defects for pregnant women. If you feel the need to zap off hair, consider laser hair removal treatment instead.
Women bleached their hair with urine
We’ve already mentioned how urine was used as a laundry detergent, but this takes it a step further. Queen Elizabeth was considered very stylish during her reign. Her wide-set eyes, pale skin, and red hair, were things of beauty — so much so, that women sought to imitate her red, curly locks of hair.
Hair dye and bleach has come a long way since the Elizabethan era. Back then, if you wanted to lighten your hair you would have to subject yourself to a host of toxic chemicals. Urine was often added to the mixture. The lengths people went for beauty boggles the mind.
Women used eagle’s dung during childbirth
Childbirth during the Middle Ages was horrific. It was not uncommon for women to die during the process, and there was little nurses and midwives could do to ease their pain. Sometimes noblewomen wore holy girdles when they were having difficult pregnancies. Much of what women relied on for a successful birth was prayer.
Another solution was eagle dung. Nurses often applied a concoction of eagle’s dung and rosewater on the woman’s thighs to relieve labor pains. Usually the women wore all sorts of charms and amulets that were supposed to speed up contractions as well. Of course, it’s doubtful that any of these methods actually worked the way they were intended, but if they eased the expectant mother’s mind perhaps they served a purpose.
If there’s one task you probably feel safe doing every morning, it’s combing your hair. But it wasn’t always so.
Celluloid is a plastic compound that was found in a variety of innocuous items in the late 1800s — its mold-able qualities made it a cheap alternative to ivory. There was one big drawback however, it was highly combustible when hot.
Celluloid didn’t even have to be touched by flame to catch fire, it was enough for it just to be near a heat source. A few unfortunate groomers even lost their lives while combing their beards or hair. Despite the danger, celluloid was still used in these products for many years until it was finally phased out of production in the 1930s with the advent of safer plastic materials, though it’s still being used to manufacture tennis balls and guitar picks.
Servants were dipped in honey in Ancient Egypt
Everyone that’s tried to enjoy a picnic on a summer day can attest to the annoyance of flies. Egyptian pharaohs were wise to the problem too, apparently. To keep flies and other bugs from annoying the Pharaoh, servants would slather themselves in honey to attract them away from their esteemed ruler.
The sticky solution was popularized by Pepi II Neferkare who ruled from age nine to 100. His honey-dipped and controversial practice was quite the noteworthy hygiene invention.
Try convincing one of your friends into doing this next time you plan some outside fun. Supposedly, it’s good for the skin, too.
Mouse skins for eyebrows
As we’ve established by now, women in the 1700s were concerned with their appearance — enough to poison themselves and put lard in their hair. Eyebrows were no exception, but according to some historical evidence, women had a particularly strange way of keeping them perfectly shaped.
Women would shave their natural eyebrows off and replace them with perfectly shaped substitutes made from the skin of a dead mouse.
There’s some debate as to whether this practice was real or a myth — most of the evidence comes from satirical poems, but based on some of the other beauty practices of the time it seems entirely plausible.
Powdered chalk is still used as a setting powder in makeup today — it’s a natural mineral that’s generally harmless when it comes in contact with skin. You may however, have noticed the warning on the box that says “for external use only.” This is because ingesting more than a small amount of limestone is hazardous to your health.
For many women in the 1700s and 1800s poisoning yourself was part of looking beautiful. Put chalk on your face and you’ll look pale, but why not eat a bunch of it too, so you’ll turn even more pale? The practice eventually died out by the 20th century — perhaps people just got sick of getting sick — though the trend of consuming chalk seems to be making a comeback in recent years, albeit for other reasons.
Men “cured” baldness with chicken droppings
Even today, people come up with some dubious solutions for male pattern baldness. In the 16th century, if you weren’t a fan of wearing a wig, you might consider a “natural” remedy. One of such remedies involved a trip to the chicken coop.
The idea was that mixing chicken droppings and potassium together and applying said lotion to your head would stimulate the hair follicles into growing. It’s tempting to think this all started as a prank someone played on a poor, desperate man.
Regardless of its origin, the practice was outlined in a medical guide published in 1654, proving that old cliché: “Don’t believe everything you read.”
Birth control made from beaver genitals
Oddly, this method wasn’t covered in health class. Native Canadian women in the 1500s believed that drinking a potion made from a male beaver’s private parts was an effective way to ward off pregnancy. Like many hygine practices of the past, you have to wonder what the thinking was behind them. Does it actually work? Well, maybe.
In theory, the concoction could induce a hormonal imbalance that would decrease a woman’s fertility, but there’s more effective, easier, and safer options available these days (in case you didn’t know). While you may be tempted to test the theory, it’s much better to use a more modern method — the beavers will thank you.
Soak a dead body in honey for a century and then consume it to revitalize you and improve your health. Sounds crazy, right? Not so! According to ancient Chinese medical sources, cadaver confections were a popular way for people to stay young and healthy for longer.
The craziest part is that you would have to donate yourself before you actually died. The mellification process apparently worked better when you were still alive for the start. The person would only eat honey until they died from malnutrition and then be entombed in honey for years before others would feast on them.
Mouthwash made from urine
When you’ve got coffee breath, what do you do? Brush your teeth, pop a mint, rinse your mouth out? It’s a safe bet to say you’ve never tried this method: Ancient Greeks and Romans would gargle with urine to fight off halitosis and whiten teeth.
For whatever reason, Romans had a special affinity for Portuguese urine — so much so that Emperor Nero taxed the import of bottles.
Urine contains ammonia, which is a cleaning agent, so perhaps there’s some method to the madness.
Thankfully, we’ve got plenty of options available today to freshen your breath without calling your Portuguese buddy for a favor.
Lard in the hair
Tall hairstyles were very much in vogue throughout the 1700s. To get their hair to stand up and stay up, lots of women would use lard, and forego washing their hair for weeks at a time. The animal fat would often be mixed with some type of fragrance before applied to the hair.
Lard in unwashed hair can have some disturbing consequences — namely, it attracts insects and vermin. Apparently it must have been worth it, since women were willing to risk a few nibbles from the creepy crawly creatures for beauty. We advise against the ol’ lard shampooing technique.
People brushed their teeth with all kinds of things
Brushing your teeth today is a fairly pleasant experience — largely due to the fact that toothpaste freshens your breath and leaves you with a nice taste in your mouth (provided you don’t drink orange juice right after). But it wasn’t always so.
Ancient Egyptians would brush their teeth with ash from ox hooves and eggshells. Greeks and Romans would crush up bones, oyster shells, bark, charcoal, and MOUSE BRAINS into powder for their dental hygiene. The Chinese at least thought about taste, mixing in salt, ginger, and herbs to the formula.
Persians finally got hip to the fact that abrasive powders would scrape away tooth enamel around 1,000 A.D. — their preferred toothpaste was made from herbs, honey, and burnt snail shells. Yum.
Romans used Silphium as birth control
We’ll never know for certain whether Silphium worked as birth control because Ancient Romans consumed so much of it they made it extinct. The plant was so popular among promiscuous ancient civilizations that they printed it on coins. When your nation’s favored birth control method ends up on currency, you know it’s a big deal.
The plant also had many other medicinal uses, such as the treatment for madness. It was so valuable, Romans considered it worth its weight in gold.
It’s been theorized that the shape of the ancient plant’s seed was the inspiration for the heart symbol. Whether this is because of its connection to sexuality or to the “madness of love” is debated.
Dying teeth black
For centuries, many people in Southeast Asia were in the habit of dying their teeth black as a sign of beauty and maturity. The process was called “ohaguro” in Japan and survived there until it was banned in the late 19th century. Shiny pitch black items were seen as beautiful.
The tradition has all but ended in most corners of the world, but the practice continues in some isolated Southeast Asian and Oceanic ethnic groups.
While it may disturb western aesthetic notions of beauty, there’s actually a utilitarian purpose behind the tradition: Coating teeth in the lacquer protects them from decay, much like sealants and fillings work in modern dentistry.
Moss was used like pads and tampons
Famed English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously referred to life in the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Perhaps he should have added “uncomfortable” to the list of adjectives.
Since pads and tampons weren’t invented yet, women had to improvise a solution.
Sphagnum cymbifolium, a bog moss commonly found in England was dubbed “blood moss” for its absorbent qualities. Of course, many say it got its name from its use on the battlefield — but plenty of historians have another theory. Medieval women didn’t have the luxury of going to the drug store to solve their monthly problem, so they used the moss to fashion their own pads. Reason number 54,738,953 why it’s good to be alive today.
Gum disease for the rich
Many people like to flaunt their wealth — usually through conspicuous consumption. A fancy car, a luxurious home, flashy jewelry, even gold teeth, are just some of the ways one might signal their wealth to others. One method we can confidently say has fallen out of favor is the process of rotting one’s teeth to show off their elevated socioeconomic standing.
The logic (though it’s odd to refer to it as such) is simple. Sugar was expensive, and sugar rots your teeth. Therefore, people with rotten teeth and gum disease must be rich. Lower class people in the Elizabethan era even began trying to fake gingivitis by staining their gums and teeth. Mention that next time your dentist tries to guilt you into flossing more often (just kidding, please brush and floss your teeth everyday).
People washed their clothes with urine
American pioneers didn’t have washing machines or stain removal sprays, so they had to get creative when doing the laundry. They did have a way of making their own soap, which they often made by running lye made from animal fat through the ashes of a wood fire. But what do you do about those deep stains that you can’t scrub out?
Well, often you soaked it in urine. Chamber lye, as it was called, was the preferred detergent for dissolving grease, loosening dirt, and bleaching dingy fabric. You’d lay your favorite clothes in urine over night, scrub the stains, lay it in urine another night, scrub it again and voila! Good as new.
People treated sickness by bleeding
Bloodletting was a common practice to treat all kinds of sicknesses up until the end of the 19th century. If you could afford it, leeches would be brought in to suck your blood. If you were too broke to bring in the leeches, they’d simply slice open a vein and let your blood drip out.
Doctors believed that blood was stagnant and held most ailments inside it — if part of your body was inflamed, doctors would often prescribe attaching leeches to the spot, or making an incision to let blood flow out of the area. Nowadays, doctors understand that this mostly did more harm than good. In fact, bloodletting likely contributed to George Washington’s death, when physicians drained substantial amounts of his blood to treat a fever.
No crocodiles in the moat, but you still wouldn’t want to swim in it
You’ve probably heard about crocodiles in the moats of the great castles of Medieval England. This is a myth, as there haven’t been crocs in Europe since the Cretaceous period — the truth about moats is actually much grosser. Remember the chamber pot from earlier? Well, it had to get dumped out somewhere.
Servants would often dump out discarded food and other waste in the moats surrounding the castles in which they worked. In fact, scientists found evidence that the moat of the Saranda Kolones castle in Cyprus still contains parasite eggs from Crusader’s waste.
Honestly, that might keep people out better than crocodiles.
People used lead makeup
Once again, Queen Elizabeth I might be to blame for inspiring this trend. Her pale skin was envious to women of the era. They wanted to duplicate it any way they could. One such method was to smear lead on their faces.
The lead would give them the desired color, and also smooth their faces. Considering this was pre-sunscreen and during the smallpox epidemic women may have had many blemishes to hide. Of course, the lead treatment slowly made them very sick. Constipation, gray hair, dry skin, and stomach pain were just some of the symptoms.
Unfortunately, many lipstick brands were found to contain lead as recently as 2007. Perhaps we haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe.
Would you want to jump in bath water right after scores of your smelly friends did? Of course not, because you weren’t alive in the Middle Ages. What’s more — these bathhouses were considered fun places to be, you’d be served food and hang out while you cleaned yourself.
They mostly fell out of favor during the Black Plague — people believed a healthy coating of dirt would keep you safe from the disease. On top of this the church began painting the bathhouses as a den of sin and debauchery. People didn’t realize most of the health benefits of hygiene until the 19th century.
Floors were so dirty people caught diseases
Rush floors were popular through the Middle Ages all the way up through the 16th century. They provided insulation, soft-footing for hosts and guests, and filled homes with a pleasing, sweet fragrance. Unfortunately, they were also a breeding ground for bacteria and disease. Even if the vacuum was around 500 years ago, this wouldn’t be the ideal flooring choice.
The top layer would be changed semi-regularly, but the bottom layer would remain undisturbed, often for decades. If you’ve ever been disturbed by what you’ve seen when you lifted a couch or table while moving, then you may have a faint idea of what may have been lying underneath layers of dead grass.
Burnt Herb Toothpaste
You may not enjoy brushing your teeth, but we’re betting that you enjoy the process a heck of a lot more than you would have in the olden days. Back in the day, most people just didn’t brush their teeth at all and it’s easy to understand when you know that the alternative was to use a combination of burnt rosemary and mint.
Besides smelling foul, it’s quite clear that the disgusting combination wouldn’t have done much to ensure a healthy mouth. The upside is that people used to believe that wine made a good mouthwash so at least you could rinse out the taste with some fine wine. Can’t have been too good for all the red wine staining though.
Unfortunate Tooth Wyrms
Medical ideas in the 1400s were a little strange. For one thing, they believed in the existence of terrible tooth worms. It’s not clear what these worms were, exactly, how they got into your teeth or why the supposed remedy helped. All we know is that tooth worms were the main reason for dental pain.
So, how can you get rid of the dreaded dental worms? Fill your mouth with smoke from a cigarette or a candle, then spit it out while leaning over a bowl of warm water. We suppose that worms, like bees, were somehow theoretically stunned by the smoke?
Sulfur to Remove Freckles
Freckles are naturally occurring if you spend time in the sun and nowadays, people think they’re pretty cute. Sadly, this wasn’t always the perception. Freckles were seen as blemishes on the skin and, at a time when clear skin was prized, freckles were not. However, the method for removing freckles was hazardous and could mark your skin quite badly.
Rubbing sulfur on your skin is an easy way to burn yourself and would never be recommended by doctors nowadays. Please, don’t try it. Sure, you get rid of the freckles, but you also get rid of your skin in the process.
Burning For You
As we all know, losing too much blood leads to death. As such, people in the old days were always looking for ways to stop the bleeding from serious injuries before the victims bled out. However, the idea of cauterizing wounds with red-hot poker irons seems worse than the prospect of bleeding out.
Besides the sheer pain from the process, (which hopefully you were unconscious for), the burns were still dangerous and could lead to severe health problems or death if not treated properly. The upside is that you weren’t bleeding and the wound was much less likely to get infected, but still.
Lead Water Pipes
We can thank the Romans for this bright idea. What’s interesting is that scientists already knew that lead could leech from products into water and that lead poisoning was a serious issue. Despite this knowledge, they continued to build comprehensive water piping systems that brought water to rich and poor people alike, spiked with a decent dose of lead.
They probably saw that the convenience of bringing water to more people cheaply outweighed the medical costs of lead poisoning via lead water pipes.
Bouquets of Nosegays
Bouquets of fragrant flowers and heavy perfumes were very popular among the aristocratic people of long ago. The reason? People didn’t bathe very frequently. In addition to general body odor, many people had to deal with the horrific smells of living in a city.
Cities being the places where refuse collected in the streets and human waste was left to rot in the gutters. On a hot day, the city’s smells could be overwhelming if you didn’t have something to cover your nose with like flowers or a perfumed handkerchief.
Mercury to Treat STIs
Beginning in the early 1500s when syphilis came to Europe, doctors began treating the disease with doses of mercury. That might not seem so far-fetched, but despite increasing evidence that mercury is quite toxic to humans, doctors continued to prescribe it well into the 1900s.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that penicillin was widely used as an effective treatment for syphilis. Before then, you just had to endure the madness that regular doses of mercury brought on. Mercury can make it hard to breathe, difficult to think, and eventually lead to organ failure.
No Utensils Here!
Not only did people not wash their hands, but they also ate with their hands too. Ancient tables were set with cups, plates of food, and knives for cutting through tough meat. Other than knives, you weren’t likely to find anything like forks or napkins.
Spoons may or may not have been present, depending on where you were, but usually, people drank soup like other liquids. Just don’t think too hard about those gross unwashed hands reaching into communal trays for food during dinner or at a fancy party…
Considering how dirty the streets were, it’s no wonder that people had to frequently restain and polish their shoes. They would get gunked up with everything that people littered and dropped around. Men often used a blackener to make their shoes darker and help them shine.
Nitrobenzene shoe polish was cheap compared to other dyes when it was created in the mid-1800s and men purchased it in droves. Unfortunately, when people are exposed to it, the chemical stops their blood from being able to effectively carry oxygen. This lead to many cases of fainting and death for people who used it.