It is not an urban legend of yesteryear, the ancient Romans did launder their clothes in urine; and not their own urine. (um…if it makes a difference). Fullers, or fullones (akin to today’s dry cleaners), collected the urine of travelers by placing pots on streets, a marvelous convenience after a long day on the road, we can certainly surmise. Also used was animal urine, as it had the requisite alkaloid nature to whiten those toga whites to as pristine a condition as would make any charioteer proud.
Males wore togas (and sometimes tunics), which were neither pinned nor sewn, but draped (and draped carefully). White was the order of the day, as true colors were reserved for boys prior to state citizenship at mid-teen years; and for adults, reserved for wear at certain assemblies, as dictated by the powers that were. They must have been terribly uncomfortable in that Mediterranean climate since they were usually fashioned of wool.
The ancient Romans were familiar with soap, so it’s a bit confounding for us to think they preferred urine. But it was all in the name of getting whites their whitest and brightest. Sulphur was another favorite, and another awful smelling Clorox alternative. Let’s face it: sometimes living “green” is just too unpalatable!
The children of the time dressed much as their parents, but also typically wore lockets, called bullas, thought to protect them from evil forces. Girls wore their bullas until the day before their wedding, when, I suppose, they were either capable of deflecting evil all on their own as adults, or their husbands could do it for them. Perhaps, like the modern wedding band, a lack of locket on a female was an observable indication of being spoken for. Boys surrendered their bullas on becoming citizens of the state and donning white togas, around the age of 16.
[ Attribution: Ancient Egypt – KingTutOne.com a
Resource Center for Ancient Egypt]
I think the ancient Egyptians had far better ideas. Except for the fact that children typically went naked until the age of around six years. Happy Penguin would be out of business! But their garments were typically fashioned of linen, a product of flax, which grew bountifully along the Nile. They also had an edge up on comfort and simplicity: men and older boys donned simple belted skirts. The women wore long straight sheath dresses, still popular today in varying lengths. We also love that they apparently eschewed the use of urine and sulphur in laundry matters, instead using elbow grease to ‘beat, rinse, and wring’ down by the river. Their whites likely got brighter around 1200 BCE when boilers were introduced- probably welcomed as an innovation on par with the front loading washers of today.
Anyone remember the commercial where a Chinese couple who owned a dry cleaners answered their happy customer’s comments of beautiful results by saying “ancient Chinese secret”? Then the ‘secret’ was revealed to be a popular brand of laundry detergent. The real secret to ancient Chinese laundry turns out to be plant ash and gleditsia fruit.
Plant ash is as it sounds, the ash resulting from the burning of plant material—leaves, stalks, roots. What you get is a residue with the added benefit of resisting insects. This can only be a good thing when we consider how many dedicated and ambitious worms it takes to make enough silk thread for just one blouse.
Gleditsia fruit is not one which peppered the ancients’ fruit bowl, but is actually an acrid medicinal herb, used as an expectorant in addition to a cleaner. Despite its curative action upon the lungs and large intestine, it apparently makes users quite sick, and is approved for no uses in modern times.
We have discovered that children of the time wore jade bracelets or anklets, which were thought to grant protection from harm. How delightful that these jade pieces are still popular.
It’s fun to look at the past, to see how things have changed, evolved over time. Elizabeth I, for example, required all children over the age of seven to wear hats on Sundays and holidays. In the late 18th century, button die makers in England were prohibited from leaving the country for fear of their trade secrets popping up abroad. (Did they really think they could prevent others from remarkable button manufacturing?) The simple plastic buttons so common on clothing today are a creation of the 20th century, during the 1930’s, cutting costs and adding simplicity not known before. Still, we love England, and thank it daily for being the first to invent smocking, a mainstay in many finer children’s garments today. It was originally used for the billowing shirts of estate workers, (shepherds, gardeners and such), during Anglo-Saxon times, but soon found its way to finer materials and fancier fare.
Just so you know: we promise that no urine is used in the laundering of your purchased garments. Animal, or otherwise.