Good hygiene practices that we are used to today, such as washing our hands or even showering every day, should not be taken for granted. Humanity has never had such a virtuous period (although we are unfortunately not yet immune to pandemics, despite everything). Personal hygiene is fundamental today, both in terms of public health and social relations. We’re used to being clean and aromatic, but that hasn’t always been the case.
We have a lot of data on the prudence of ancient civilizations like the Egyptians or the Arabs, in terms of personal hygiene. In your own way and with the means offered
by nature, they tried to maintain a social order that also included cleanliness, in order to limit the spread of epidemics.
We also have great evidence of hygiene in ancient Roman culture, but for some
the reason, we have lived through dark centuries, during which epidemics really dominated the
What has changed in the course of human history? What made us become “hygienically modern”?
Let’s take a little excursion on our hygienic conditions through the centuries, also to
Remind us how much today we take for granted high standards of cleanliness that they weren’t always so immediate.
Most of the information on the hygienic, medical, and aesthetic practices of the Egyptian people can be found in ancient Papyri like that of Ebers, true scientific treatises always shrouded in mystery.
The purification of the body, in Egyptian ideology, was strictly linked to that of the soul and it was done through purification. This city has also been defined by other civilizations as a model of hygiene and refinement. Herodotus himself described the Egyptians as an example of hygiene to follow: “They prefer to be clean rather than beautiful. They always wear clean linen clothes. ”
The figure of the pharaoh, elevated to divine power, was subjected every morning to a fundamental hygienic ritual in order to fully realize the powers conferred from above. This ritual, which denotes the strong correlation between cosmetics and magic and the sacred of the Egyptians, was called the “bathing ceremony” and was divided into three phases, each with a different magical and religious significance.
The Egyptian people were therefore a true ancient model of rigor and hygiene, to such an extent that we received many recipes such as the famous Cleopatra’s exfoliating baths with milk and oats.
The Romans have always been an example of the mantra: “mens sana in corpore sana”. In Imperial culture, cleaning was of fundamental importance, a ritual that involved long baths which, in turn, preceded laundry (a true act of cleaning). The detergents were quite different from what we know today, because they worked directly with nature, without chemical treatment. Strontium was the most widely used substance for washing the body and, as expected, it was an extract from the root of Saponaria Gypsophila struthium, which contained high concentrations of saponins. Its ability to foam in water, similar to modern soap, allowed the Romans to use it for cleaning purposes.
The diligence used by the Romans in cleaning was contextualized in Terme, which was a physical place and a meeting place to fulfill the cult of pigeons. Poppea Sabina, Nero’s wife, was the most famous person for her “cleanliness and beauty” in ancient Rome. The recipe for her super bath involved the use of boiling water to which some ingredients were added in a specific sequence: salt, baking soda, donkey milk, and honey. The final touch was the addition of olive oil and rose petals.
Although the Middle Ages was a time of plague and marked by dirt, mingling, and plague, it was very important to bathe within the wealthy class – far more important than it was during the Renaissance. Inspired by the Roman era, the baths are long rituals during which you can chat or practice a hobby. In many of the old estates, near the kitchens, there were rooms reserved for ladies who enjoyed spending time socializing while taking a shower.
The definitive closure of the public baths was made by the Black Plague in 1348 as an absurd belief that the disease could penetrate more easily through the pores of the skin dilated by the diffused heat. It was a serious blow to people’s hygiene, especially since the availability of water was very difficult in the context of crowded cities and without the basic services of a normal life.
The idea that water could carry disease was so ingrained that a full shower could be taken at most twice in life, and it was preferable, instead, to wash clothes once a month (because clothes represent the body’s protection from external diseases).
Baths, when taken, were a sign of new stages in life and laid the foundation before marriage and after death.
‘700 AND’ 800
Personal hygiene has not made progress since the Middle Ages: the use of water was taboo, and bathing often meant risking death, especially for the poorer social classes. It was not customary (not even recommended) to wash often, in order not to run into diseases such as bronchial pneumonia, since the heating and the hairdryer were not present or were not within everyone’s reach. It was best to wipe with a sponge very quickly once a week at the most. For the aristocrats, cleaning was generally easier, because it was possible to wash them in hot water baths, which later also washed the servants. On the other hand, residents had to go to polluted rivers and streams to wash thoroughly, although this was rarely done.
The poet Giacomo Leopardi seems to have only taken two baths in his life!
This is also why perfumery has become so important: perfume was believed to purify and protect against many diseases. For this reason, fragrances have been literally abused. The whole was scented to cover unpleasant odors: a soothing balm that could not be treated.
When we finally wash
At least until the first postwar period, few people actually knew or dealt with chemicals, to the point that the first product known to the general public was soap.
Thanks to the convergence of residents with soap, the industrial revolution helped us to overcome epidemics such as the Spanish epidemics thanks to the simple practice of personal hygiene.
Two scientists recognized the importance of the chemicals and personal care market as a potential for large-scale industrial development: Henkel and Lever. The first experience in the use of sodium silicate soap, reducing the content of fatty substances and improving detergents. For his part, Lever began using vegetable oils as an alternative to animal fats to obtain soap. Thanks to increased access to chemicals and technological development, the concept of personal hygiene has changed, leading us to the modernity we know today.