Our personal hygiene habits and health practices have changed drastically over the course of human history. Today, we have tons of reputable and dependable options to choose from when we get sick or simply want to stay clean. But that wasn’t always the case. Our ancestors were forced to try out some pretty bizarre, and sometimes downright disgusting, ways to prevent and cure illness. Join us as we explore some of the most disturbing vintage hygiene tips and home remedies of the past.
Families All Shared The Same Bath Water
Christians in Medieval times were encouraged to maintain personal cleanliness, but that wasn’t always easy for the lower classes. The elite could afford to fill a tub of heated water for each member of the household every evening, but this was impossible for poorer people.
Instead, entire families would share the same bathwater. Since seniority meant that people bathed from oldest to youngest, the baby of the family was often stuck being washed in some pretty murky water.
Going Bald? Grab Some Chicken Feces
As we already know, history is filled with some pretty bizarre medical and hygiene remedies. One of the strangest of those comes to us thanks to a medical book from 17th-century called The Path-Way To Health.
The book reveals that men who were going bald were advised to treat their scalps with a mixture of lye and chicken poop. That can’t have smelled or felt very pleasant, as lye is caustic and low-grade varieties of it are today used for cleaning ovens and de-clogging drains.
Gingivitis Was A Status Symbol
No, really. During Elizabethan times, only the wealthiest members of high society could afford refined sugar. So if someone had teeth that were completely rotten and falling out, complete with gingivitis, it was a sign that you were wealthy.
Poor people and peasants would occasionally fake gingivitis in an effort to appear to be of a higher social status. It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I was so fond of sweets that her teeth all turned black eventually.
Laundry Day Didn’t Come Along Too Often
As with most things, only the wealthy and elite were able to afford elaborate and extensive wardrobes throughout history. Most common people and peasants were limited to one outfit (and set of undergarments) to last the entire season – that’s only four outfits per year!
If you think that they washed their clothes more frequently since they were worn more, think again. Laundry day might roll around every few weeks if you were lucky or if there was a special event to attend.
Toilet Paper Has Not Been Around That Long
Although there’s evidence that the Chinese used paper to clean themselves back in the 2nd century, the mass manufacturing of modern toilet paper did not begin until the late 19th century, when Joseph Gayetty released paper that came in flat sheets was medicated with aloe. It was called “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper.”
In 1879, Scott brothers founded the Scott Paper Company. The Scott Paper Company’s product was the first toilet paper sold in rolls and the brand is one of the biggest TP names in the world today. Toilet paper continued to improve over time to the luxurious, plush stuff we’re used to today. Just think about this: in 1935 Northern Tissue invented splinter-free toilet paper.
Dentures Were Taken From Cadavers
We’ve all heard that George Washington had a set of wooden dentures. That’s not quite true. They were made from a combination of ivory and real human teeth. This might sound horrifying, but some of the earliest sets of dentures were made from the teeth of cadavers.
In fact, dead soldiers were the source of most of the dentures available during the 18th century. Fortunately, denture technology has improved and people are no longer walking around with dead folks’ teeth in their mouths.
Crocodile Dung Was Used As A Contraceptive
Throughout history, people have gotten pretty creative with the methods they’ve used to prevent pregnancy from occurring, but this example from ancient Egypt is particularly “imaginative.” There are papyrus scrolls dating to 1850 BC that indicate that women used crocodile dung as a contraceptive.
They’d collect the droppings, break them into smaller pieces, and insert in their private areas where it would soften and form an impenetrable barrier. Elephant dung was used in a similar way. This one might top the “unhygienic” list!
The King Had A Bathroom Assistant
Centuries ago, the English monarch had an employee with a very specific and personal job. The male assistant was called “The Groom of the Stool” or “Groom of the King’s Close Stool” and their role was to assist the king with all manner of bathroom functions.
It’s not known today how completely “hands-on” this aide got to the king, but it’s well documented that the Groom was responsible for supplying a bowl, water, and towels and that they also kept a close watch on the king’s diet and bowel movements. Pictured is the 1st Earl of Holland, who was Groom of the Stool to Charles I.
Styling Your Hair Was Messy And Damaging
One of the most distinguishing beauty trends of the 1920s was the elaborate and trendy hairstyles adopted by fashionistas. Unfortunately, to get these looks, women had to experiment with damaging heated tools. They had to make their own curling irons by heating iron bars over coals. Many a woman burned her hair this way, all in the name of beauty.
The tools weren’t even the worst part, however. The styling products they had to use to get their perfect curls were usually petroleum jelly-based and smelled terrible.
Some Of The Makeup During Elizabethan Times Could Make You Ill
In past centuries, people wanted to be fair-skinned in order to show that they were members of the upper classes and didn’t have to labor in the fields. It’s a far cry from the sun-kissed selfies that dominate social media these days.
To achieve a pale appearance, women and men alike would paint their faces with white makeup. Unfortunately, the paint they used contained lead which caused a whole host of health conditions. It made the eyes puffy, attacked the tooth enamel, and in some cases caused the skin to blacken (the opposite effect than the users were seeking). It could even be deadly.
People Washed Their Faces With Urine
During the 17th century, people believed that urine had anti-aging properties. The upper classes would wash their faces with it daily.
Surprisingly, some people still believe in the benefits of “urotherapy” and believe that the minerals and nutrients in the bodily excretion can treat a wide variety of skin maladies. The key ingredient is urea, but dermatologists say that natural urine has such low amounts of it that the benefit doesn’t really outweigh the ick factor.
People Used Lysol As A Feminine Hygiene Product
That potent product we scour our kitchens and bathrooms with today started out with a much different purpose: as a feminine hygiene product. In the 1920s, its manufacturer claimed that douching with the liquid would help “marital bliss” by preventing odor and itching. One prominent American obstetrician also said the product was beneficial during childbirth because it reduced infection.
Luckily, doctors discovered that Lysol is not healthy for use in such manners. In 2013, The Smithsonian Institution included Lysol feminine hygiene ads in an exhibit of “hilarious and shocking” advertisements.
Sore Throat? Gargle With Snail Slime
Anyone who has ever touched snail slime will probably be repulsed by this old home remedy for a sore throat. But as we keep seeing, people used to have some very unusual ways to deal with their ailments.
Doctors used to advise people to combine a pound of sugar with a pound of snail slime, creating a thick and sweet syrup to coat the throat. Although the texture might be similar to honey, it’s hard to imagine the taste would be. Also, where does one get a pound of snail slime?
Shoe Polish Could Knock You Out
During the early 20th century, most show polishes contained a dangerous ingredient called nitrobenzene. Nitrobenzene works really well as a shoe polish, turning even the most scuffed-up shoes shiny again, but it could cause you to faint in seconds if you happened to inhale any of it.
However, the danger subsided once the polish had dried. Modern shoe polish is still unhealthy in large quantities but is unlikely to cause fainting spells.
Just like many other health care items on this list, mouthwash has a long and disgusting history. The very earliest recorded instance of mouthwash comes from ancient Rome, whose citizens would rinse their mouths with urine.
It was believed that the ammonia found in urine was a disinfectant, and people continued using it as a mouthwash until the 18th century. Other ingredients used in mouthwash over time include berries, tortoise blood, and vinegar.
Would You Eat A ‘Human Mummy Confection?’
According to ancient Chinese medical sources, some elderly and dying men in Arabia decided to submit their bodies for mummification in honey. It was thought that the result would be a healing candy that could help others.
The process was called mellification, and it involved the dying person switching to an all-honey diet. After death, their bodies would be stored in stone coffins filled with honey. Up to a century later, they’d be unearthed and eaten by people who had broken limbs and other ailments.
Ancient People Brushed With Toothpaste Made From Oysters
Even though our minty fresh toothpaste is a relatively new development in the realm of oral health, people throughout history have tried taking care of their teeth in a variety of ways. During the Middle Ages, for example, early forms of toothpaste were made from herbs. That’s much more pleasant than what the ancient Romans are said to have brushed their teeth with: the smashed brains of mice.
Ancient Egyptians supposedly brushed with salt and pepper, and the Greeks with pureed oysters. We think most of us can agree that we’re thankful for modern dentistry.
Hairstyles In The 18th Century Were Breeding Grounds For All Kinds Of Stuff
The elaborate and sky-high hairstyles that were so popular during the 18th century have a dirty history. The taller the hair, it was thought, the more leisure time the person had to prepare it. So these hairdos were definitely status symbols.
The styles were achieved with a combination of unwashed hair and a slew of things that would add texture and volume to the hair, including a mix of animal fat. Needless to say, people didn’t wash their hair frequently after spending so much time styling it, so it was often filled with a variety of vermin.
People Rarely Did Laundry In The Winter (If They Did At All)
We already learned that most people only had a couple of different outfits that weren’t washed regularly. To make things even worse, a lot of folks just wouldn’t take their clothes off at all during the freezing winters.
It was just too cold to remove your one set of clothes and then stand around completely nude while you heated the water, washed the items, and waited for them to dry. Fortunately, people didn’t sweat as much in the winter so at least they had that going for them.
Laquered Teeth Were A Desireable Look
Common in ancient Vietnamese and Japanese cultures, the concept of teeth lacquering or “blackening.” It was thought to be a symbol of maturity. With our obsession with pearly whites today, this is a difficult beauty trend to imagine would ever take off again.
Despite the odd (to us today, anyway) appearance, the process also damaged the natural teeth. The chemicals used to create that glossy black finish corroded tooth enamel. Fortunately, this trend died out during the colonial area.
Tampons Have A Long And Disgusting History
Women have sure suffered throughout history, and the development of modern tampons is just one example of what they’ve been through. Over the centuries, anything from dung to dirt to goose fat to honey to rock salt has been used. One particularly novel early tampon was made of a wad of sticks wrapped in linen.
The earliest paper tampons originated in ancient Japan, and although the material was a step forward, these were not absorbent and needed changing up to a dozen times a day.
Hair Removal Via X-Ray
After X-rays were discovered in 1896, people were obsessed with the possibilities that lay ahead for humankind. And after noticing that exposure to X-rays caused hair loss, people were thrilled. Hair loss clinics were opened, and thousands of young women subjected themselves to the procedure.
Only months after receiving the hair loss treatments, however, patients developed all sorts of health problems ranging from atrophy to cancer. This was one of the most dangerous beauty treatments in history.
Radium Was Used In A Ton Of Cosmetics
In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, and much like with X0-rays, people were excited for all the possibilities. There was a craze for radium-based products. An ad for one of these products claimed that “Radium Rays vitalize and energize all living tissue. This Energy has been turned into Beauty’s aid.”
Of course, the majority of people who used radium beauty treatments became sick and many died from the exposure.
Cannibalism For Health Reasons Was Popular Among The Wealthy In 17th Century Europe
Human cannibalism is the act of eating the flesh or other body parts of a fellow human being. There are varying accounts of cannibalism occurring in different places throughout human history, usually as a last method of survival during famine or other disaster.
However, there’s evidence that many wealthy Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries partook in the gruesome act, believing the flesh of other humans to be good medicine. At first they ate Egyptian mummies and then moved on to skulls and human fat. King Charles II was said to drink a concoction of powdered human skull in alcohol.
Beaver Body Parts Provided Another Form Of Contraception
The poor, poor beavers. Using the dung of an animal as a home remedy is one thing, but some people used beaver body parts as part of a concoction that was thought to be a contraceptive.
According to Discover magazine, “Native women in today’s New Brunswick brewed tea out of preserved beaver testicles, which could have provided androgen to influence their hormonal balance and decrease fertility.” We hope this method of birth control is used much today.
A Plant Called Silphium Is Now Extinct Due To Overuse In Home Remedies
Have you heard of silphium? It’s a plant that’s now extinct due to being used so much during ancient Roman times. Silphium was highly valued by many ancient Mediterranean cultures and was said to have been a gift from the god Apollo.
The plant was used as both as an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive. People would simply eat the silphium or season their food with it to experience these benefits.
Have A Toothache? That’ll Cost You The Tooth
Ah, the old days of dentistry. Those aren’t days most of us would ever want to visit. If you were unfortunate enough to get a toothache in the times before modern dentistry practices, your tooth would end up being pulled most if the time. Especially if that tooth was brown and rotting.
Tooth-pulling was frequently performed in barbershops. Oddly, barbers were licensed to perform minor surgeries such as tooth extractions.
People Used Sulfur To Get Rid Of Freckles
Today, most people embrace their freckles. After all, it’s good to have unique qualities. But at times in the past, freckles were undesirable and people who had them would go to great lengths to remove or hide them.
One way to accomplish this was by rubbing sulfur on the “afflicted” area. Anyone who has smelled the substance knows how unappealing it is. Fortunately, we have more self-acceptance of our freckles today. And good concealer for days we want to cover them up.
Flowers Were Used To Hide Body Odor
We only just recently discovered that there is a complex molecule responsible for body odor. And the concepts of bathing every single day and wearing deodorant are relatively new as well. Before that, people were just trying anything and everything to mask the smells.
In the past, people would frequently carry flowers around with them in order to hide their own natural odors. In fact, little bouquets of flowers were so popular that they even got a special name: nosegays.
Animal Dung Was Used For A Variety Of Home Remedies
As we’ve already read, various kinds of animal dung was used in home remedy recipes in the olden days. Contraception was one of the things dung was used for, and it was also thought to be an effective painkiller during childbirth.
It was specifically the droppings of eagles that were used to make the questionable remedy. It was mixed in with oil and vinegar before being consumed. This one makes us so thankful for modern medicine!
You Wouldn’t Want To Go Swimming Here…
Although a castle moat might look like an inviting place to take a dip, you would never want to put so much as a big toe in there. The water surrounding the manors of old was used by castle keepers as a place to dump anything unwanted, such as human waste or leftover food.
It’s hard not to think about all the movies we’ve seen where someone falls into a moat… pretty disgusting what that would have been like in real life!
Floors Were Scattered With Straw
If you stepped into any home in Medieval times, you’d notice that the floors were covered with straw which they called “rushes.” These served a few purposes. For instance, some would sprinkle sweet-smelling herbs such as lavender, rose petals, or daisies to the rushes in order to mask bad smells from the lack of plumbing.
But the rushes were actually pretty unhygenic and also posed trip hazards to the women in their long gowns. Rushes could be damp and full of germs. Let’s just hope people didn’t walk around barefoot on them!
No Silverware? No Problem
This hygiene fact might not be as shocking as others on our list. But it’s still interesting! If you’ve ever visited the Medieval Times restaurants, then you’ll be able to relate to this. Medieval people didn’t have silverware (which is why you have to eat your turkey leg with your hands at Medieval Times).
They ate absolutely everything with their bare hands. Occasionally, they’d use bread as a utensil, but they still ate that with their hands. And you know there were no hand-washing stations around…
Sterilization Wasn’t A Thing, Even During Surgery
Germs were pretty much unknown to most people until the 1800s. When people fell ill, no one knew why. The lack of knowledge of germs and their role in illness and infection extended to the operating room. During surgery, doctors didn’t even sterilize the equipment.
There’s a long detailed of surgeries, even going back to ancient times. Some of them were even quite successful. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that medical professionals started to sterilize their surgical equipment.
Cold Sores Were “Cured” With Mercury
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So the people who used to use mercury as a simple treatment for cold sores would probably have been skeptical of the treatment, had they known how toxic mercury was. They’d just take some of the silvery substance out of a thermometer and apply it right to the cold sore.
The people who were seeking relief were instead left in a worse position than before. Luckily, we have lots of safe options for getting rid of cold sores today.
The Lead Problem Is Ongoing
Unfortunately, this problem is one that we’re still dealing with today. It used to be a lot worse in the past, however, and many people weren’t even aware of the ways they were exposed to the toxic substance. From water systems to bathrooms to the paint that people used in their homes, lead was everywhere. Its danger was still unknown.
Many modern areas have filters and other ways to keep lead out of the water supply, but as we’ve seen in places like Flint, Michigan, the problem is still a bad one for many people.
Injured? Just Burn The Wound
Although cauterizing wounds is commonly done today, modern medical standards are very different than when they’d do this in medieval times. The thought process behind burning a wound shut was that if you burn a cut, you’ll stop the bleeding.
A big problem that medieval people ran into with this method is that cauterized wounds tend to become infected very quickly. This meant that cauterizing exposed the injured person to greater risk.
Graham Crackers Were The Food Equivalent Of A Cold Shower
Graham crackers are something we know as a sweet snack and a key component of S’mores. But when they were invented, the idea behind them was that they were supposed to be so bland that they’d kill your sex drive.
Inventor Sylvester Graham believed that consuming meat, alcohol, and fatty foods led to uncontrollable lust. The original recipe didn’t contain any sugar. After Graham died, Nabisco took over and transformed the crackers into the sweetened treats we know and love today.
At Long Last, Deodorant!
1888 was an important year in personal hygiene, as that was when deodorant was invented! The first commercial deodorant was developed and patented by a woman named Edna Murphey.
People had finally had enough of masking their foul bodily odors with flowers or other equally ineffective decoys.Deodorant was cheap, it was effective, and people learned that they really liked to smell good. The product was a hit right off the bat.
People Thought Kerosene Would Deter Bed Bugs
Bed bugs are not a new nuisance by any means. No, they’ve been around for ages. But way back when, people thought that kerosene would keep the annoying critters away and they’d even douse their beds in the combustible liquid.
Kerosene is a cooking and lighting fuel commonly used to power jet engines of aircraft. Even if it was effective at getting rid of bed bugs, it wasn’t a smart idea to sleep in the flammable stuff!