5 Ways The Past Used To Be Unbelievably Disgusting
If you could hop in a time machine and venture back through history, you'd see many amazing things ... and probably smell way more amazing scents. The past reeked, is what I'm saying. That's because before the 20th century, most of the world was a toilet. Look at how ...
The Streets Of 19th-Century Cities Were Full Of Horse Corpses, Poop, And Garbage
We have an image of Victorian folks as prim and proper, with Downton Abbey cast members nibbling on tea cookies and fainting on couches. But big-city life in the 1800s was anything but PBS-friendly. Major cities like London and New York were absolutely covered in rotting animal corpses and literal tons of poop.
By 1880, New York City was dragging more than 40 dead horses off the streets every day. They'd die in the middle of hauling something, and the owners just left them where they fell. Remember, horses can weigh 1,500 pounds or more, so how in the world could they move them? Well, they'd often leave the beasts in the sun and wait for them to rot into pieces so that the slimy chunks could be picked up.
There were at least 150,000 horses providing transportation and hauling freight in New York City at that time, which meant a mind-boggling 100,000 tons of horse manure per year and 10 million gallons of fragrant horse piss. A contemporary observer described the streets as "literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting ... smelling to heaven." Poorer New Yorkers would offer their services as "crossing sweepers," clearing a path on sidewalks so folks could walk around without getting too much crap caked on their boots. But this didn't help much, because the weather was in on this awful joke.
When it rained, all that waste turned into a slippery mud, and when the weather was dry and windy, people were coughing up lungfuls of poo-dust. (Think about that the next time you're whining about pollen.) And as you'd imagine, diseases were rampant. Big cities were basically a Fallout game that replaced a nuclear bomb with so, so much horse feces.
And then there were the pigs. Hog farming was big business, and there were so many that farmers gave up keeping them on farms and simply let them roam the streets in great packs (there was plenty of garbage around for them to eat). Unfortunately, the dogs and pigs would then also defecate in the streets, creating a wonderful cocktail of excrement. When Charles Dickens first visited New York in 1842, he snarked hard on Broadway's hog problem, writing that the pigs lived a "roving, gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life" on "equal, if not superior footing" with humans. That's a clever way of saying Get me the hell out of here.
People Used To Throw Their Turds Out The Window
Before indoor plumbing was widely adopted, it was routine for people to chuck their muck out the windows of their homes. Legends say that in the 12th century, France's King Phillipe Auguste was unlucky enough to get pelted with a flying turd, so he wisely decreed that people had to holler a warning before they flung their dung.
From then on, it became routine to cry out Prenez garde a l'eau! (or "Beware of the water!"), which eventually became "Gardyloo!" in Britain. If you were down in the street and heard somebody yell "Gardyloo!" you'd yell back "Hold your hand!" and pray they heard you before it was too late.
In 1800s New York, people were supposed to bring their sewage down from their apartments in the early morning and politely deposit it in an ever-growing outdoor heap (they referred to it as "night soil," which is way funnier than it should be), but instead they usually just went for a window whenever it was convenient.
Fancy ladies of the era didn't only carry parasols to protect their delicate complexions from the sun; they were trying to shield themselves from a literal rain of poo. Etiquette books even instructed young gentlemen to wear hats with wide brims and walk on the outside of the curb so they'd spare the ladies from the worst of any sudden dookie deluge.
Those Powdered Wigs Were Filthy, And Covering Hair Loss From Disease
Those lords and ladies in period movies always seem so elegant, what with their lavish outfits and powdered wigs that look kind of like pretentious birds nests. But in real life, they were some of the most appalling, sickly people you could ever meet, riddled with lice and STDs.
The powdered wig thing began in the 1500s, when an epidemic of syphilis was sweeping Europe. There were no antibiotics yet, so victims suffered from weeping sores, blindness, dementia, and patchy baldness. And so wigs were made from horse, goat, or (if you were especially fancy) human hair, and people powdered them to deter the lice and cover up their own body odor. Every now and again, they'd send the wig back to the wigmaker to have it boiled, then they could enjoy a few lice-free minutes before becoming infested again.
Between the heavy wigs, all those layers of ruffles and lace, and the lack of AC, in the summer, everybody sweated so much that they stank like bulldog farts. They powdered their wigs (and faces) with toxic white lead, covered their thinning eyebrows with falsies made out of mouse skin, and hid their sores with fake moles. Smelly, dying from lead poisoning, riddled with syphilis, AND covered with bits of dead rodent? Sounds like a hell of a party.
In Britain, the age of crazy wigs came to an end in the late 1800s, when William Pitt levied a hefty tax on hair powder. Over in France, the fad was done in by the Revolution. It was of course a terrifying time for the French aristocracy, but at least as they were marched off to the guillotine, they could take some small comfort in the knowledge that after they lost their heads, they'd never have to wear those itchy wigs again.
Bathing Could Actually Make You Dirtier
While ancient Rome has a reputation for advanced plumbing, their sanitation was actually godawful, they had exploding toilets full of rats, and the water in their famous bathhouses was rife with parasites. And even after Rome fell, bathhouses continued to thrive across Europe into the middle ages, only getting more sleazy.
In medieval bathhouses, people enjoyed wild drunken dinner parties, so dudes could scarf down greasy sausages in the same tub where they were soaking their own greasy sausages. Rub-a-dub hookups were common, and a lot of bathhouses also had thriving sidelines as brothels. However, the bathhouse business was eventually finished off by the Black Death, as there was a belief that washing was bad for your health because it opened up your pores and let the diseases in. Yeah, it was probably that. Definitely not the fact that you were wading in a stew of other people's asses.
So, in a perfectly logical response, people just stopped bathing and let themselves build up a nice protective layer of human filth. The monks of Westminster Abbey, for example, bathed a mere four times a year. Royals washed a bit more often, but they were super weird and neurotic about it. England's Queen Caroline used to climb into the tub fully dressed and have her attendants scrub her down with the milk of asses and mares. That was the height of royal bath-time luxury in the 1700s: soggy bloomers and donkey milk.
By the early 1900s, people were finally bathing at home, but they found ways to make that impressively awful too. Baths were a once-a-week thing, with family members all taking turns with the same increasingly gray, tepid water. The man of the house would typically go first, followed by Mom, then the kids, everyone washing in Dad's taint-water.
Dentistry Was Disgusting In Every Possible Way
For centuries, "dentist" wasn't really a job, and people would trust their teeth to tradesmen like barbers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and wigmakers. What the wigmakers lacked in qualifications, they at least made up for with convenience. You could go to the same dude to have the lice boiled out of your wig and get your oral abscess drained!
The default treatment for a toothache was to just pull the tooth, and it was an agonizing and dangerous business. You'd think these proto-dentists would want to keep things as simple as possible, but they were surprisingly, insanely ambitious. Centuries before the discovery of anesthetic or antibiotics, people were already doing dental implants. In ancient China, they'd stick bamboo pegs into your gums, while Egyptians would hammer in pieces of copper. In many cultures, it was common to transplant teeth from animals. Sometimes it worked, but often the patient's body would reject that tooth and they'd end up a raging infection that "doctors" of the era were poorly equipped to treat.
The process of keeping teeth clean wasn't much better than it was for the rest of the body. They made toothpaste by grinding up lizard livers, mice, and other stuff straight out of a witch's cauldron. Urine was a common toothpaste ingredient until the 18th century, and while it was arguably effective (some hippie types still swear by it), it was also freaking piss. In China, they developed toothbrushes with coarse bristles made from hog hair, and these remained pretty common worldwide until the introduction of nylon bristles in the 1930s.
And while American dentistry was making huge advances, dentists didn't wear gloves until the AIDS scare of the 1980s, and even then they resisted it. So the next time a person has both gloved hands shoved into your mouth while seemingly trying to rip your gums out, just think, "Well, it could be worse. It could be 1986."
For more, check out The 7 Most Horrifying Birth Control Methods From History:
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