The history of hygiene and cleanliness is an odd one. Throughout history, different civilizations put varying levels of importance on cleanliness. Hindu texts from ancient times have some very elaborate codes of hygiene. The religion of Islam puts a serious emphasis on cleanliness for both religious services and in non-religious settings. Still the science of hygiene has been one that the majority—being outside the aristocracy—did not care for or showed much interest in. That of course all changed with the emergence of the germ theory of disease, notably when Dr. John Snow found out that cholera spread through contaminated water. Once this happened, the past two centuries have seen a immense surge in interest in hygiene.
The Romans on Hygiene
The ancient Romans were always ones to set trends. When you control nearly half of the known world, it’s not surprising that habits and practices would be replicated by people all over the place. The Romans, we know, certainly cared about hygiene. Otherwise they wouldn’t have built the hundreds of public bathhouses that in many parts of Europe still stand to this day. The Romans also appreciated or preferred their clothes to be clean as well, but they didn’t use soap to clean them.
No, they used another cleaning agent, one that’s still very prevalent today: ammonia. Like today’s ammonia, the cleaner that Romans used came from diluting ammonia in water, creating a solution of ammonium hydroxide. In addition to cleaning clothes, this solution was great for brushing teeth and as mouthwash. Plus, since ammonia results in a generally streak-free shine, one of its most common uses is to clean glass and porcelain.
Where Does One Get Ammonia
Where do you obtain this wondrous cleaning product in the ancient world? Well, that’s the catch. The ammonia was obtained from…urine. In humans, ammonia is an important source of nitrogen for living creatures, which is used to construct amino acids—the building blocks of protein. Once your body has made use of enough ammonia, it sends the rest out as waste in urea, which comprises urine. The Romans somehow figured this out and also deduced ammonia’s cleaning properties. The way Romans obtained ammonia from urine was a little interesting, to say the least.
The cleaners—called fullones, who were mostly slaves and young boys—would place vessels on street corners. People would use these as public restrooms. Once full, they were then carried back to the cleaning areas known as fullonica. The urine was diluted with water, the clothes soaked in the mixture and, after a thorough cleaning, were then rinsed to get rid of the smell of urine. Though it may seem slightly disgusting, the system worked very well. The ammonia in urine worked as an excellent whitener—notably in Roman toothpaste—as well as a brightener of colors.
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