The Ancient Roots of Modern Hygiene Part 1

old fashioned tubIf you’re worried that modern society makes us all vain, have no fear. Truth is, we’ve been primping, prepping and peacocking for centuries.

Case in point: one particularly fussy Iron Age man found preserved in a peat bog. After all of that time underground, his hairstyle endured thanks to an early form of hair gel made from plant oil and pine resin.[1]  And our ancient ancestors cooked up more than hair gel. Since we can breeze into a store for a selection of health and beauty products, you’ll be impressed by what the ancients tenaciously concocted with their limited resources.

Join us on a journey of beauty and hygiene from its high-end roots in the ancient world to its modern day pervasiveness. We’ll hit on the major landmarks that led up to our well-stocked health and beauty aisles sweet smelling soaps and advanced plumbing systems.

Let this thought comfort you as you read: if ancient man had cell phones, he too would have taken selfies.

The psychology of “yuck”

Did our persnickety hygienic practices spring from our society, culture and social norms? Nope. We’ve always practiced hygiene because of our capacity for disgust.

Disgust can be learned and influenced, but it’s also an innate adaptive protection against disease.[2]  We’re naturally disgusted by grime and foul smells because they’re associated with disease and death. And we know to avoid death. We’re even disgusted by foul smells emanating from our own bodies.

The sense of disgust alerts us that an unsavory foreign invader might be near, without requiring our conscious effort. The smell of poop rockets to your brain, you perceive it as unpleasant, and your nose involuntarily wrinkles.[3] People with stronger “clean instincts” evaded diseases that felled their more unkempt brethren and passed clean genes on to offspring. Eventually, clean genes dominated and proper hygiene became the norm.

Soap: hygiene’s basic ingredient

acme soapSince we’ve been concerned about disgust for as long as we’ve existed, it should come as no surprise that we’ve been inventing products that fight it for nearly as long. That’s why the first and most basic ingredient in our history of hygiene is soap.

According to legend, laundry women invented the first soap when rain cascading down Mt. Sapos mixed animal fat with ash and puddled to create a cleaning agent.[4]

Another tale credits the discovery of soap to Cro-Magnon man as he roasted meat over the fire. The meat fat dribbled into the fire’s ashes. When the rains came it produced a magical foam. This foam could have been a very ancient relative to our bars of soap.[5]

Are these stories true? Who knows? But they get one thing right: making soap is pretty easy on a chemical basis. Just mix oil or fat with an alkali, and voila – soap! Whether by accident or design, people across the globe discovered this formula early on and started making their own soaps.[6]

  • 2800 BCE: Babylonians combined fat and ashes to make some of the earliest soaps.[7]
  • 1500 BCE: Egyptians manipulated animal and vegetable fat to create a soap-like substance.[8]
  • 600 BCE : Phoenicians used goat tallow and wood ashes for cleansing.[9]
  • 175 – 150 BCE: Germans and Gauls rubbed their hair with a combination of ashes and animal fats.[10]
  • CE 130 – 210: The Greek physician Galen recommended soap for medicinal purposes.[11]
  • CE 600: Soap guilds formed in Naples, Italy and fragranced bar soaps resembling what we know of today were invented.[12]

Today we have soaps and detergents that tackle all of our needs. We have soap for the dishes, soap for the floor, soap for our skin and soap for our hair. It’s amazing to think all of these products have humble beginnings in ashes and fat.

Primping in the ancient world

Other than disgust, another primary sense ties for the role of importance in the history of hygiene and beauty: delight. Grooming and beauty literally delight our senses of sight, smell and touch, making it fun to preen and paint ourselves. This primitive sense sparked our obsession for the finer aspects of hygiene.

Not so hairy “cavemen”

If you thought prehistoric men preferred to stay hairy, think again. Prehistoric cave paintings indicate that people have been shaving for about 30,000 years.[13] Before our razors with quattro-lotioned blades, they used shark’s teeth, shells and volcanic glass to get the hairy job done.[14]

Best use of natural resources

Natural sea sponge.

Natural sea sponge.

Our Bronze Age ancestors inventively leveraged natural resources to make themselves sweet smelling and beautiful. Wood, metal, stones, olives, grapes and flowers all featured prominently in their cosmetic arsenals. Some of their tools might look very familiar to us. They used a volcanic rock called pumice stone and sea sponges to polish and scrub their bodies.[15] The Bronze Age royals proved particularly fussy about grooming, realizing that beauty empowered their wealth, social standing and religious purity.[16]

Egyptians invent cosmetics

Cleopatra epitomized ancient primping. Even death didn’t stop this last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty from remaining a style icon. Her black rimmed eyes and ruby painted lips blazed trails for our modern lipsticks and eyeliners.

Appearance also captivated Cleopatra’s people. Egyptians were famous for their cosmetic and hygienic practices. A preserved traveler’s box from Egypt’s 18th Dynasty reveals their priorities: pumice, tubes of eye paint and a comb were featured as contents.[17]

The Egyptians also noticed that using normal ash and fat-based soap on their hair left an unsightly dull residue. They added citrus juice to soap to cut through the oil on the scalp and received shiny and fragrant hair as a result.[18] Thus, the first rudimentary shampoo was born.

Hygiene in the afterlife

Ancient Egyptian women and men wearing kohl eyeliner, from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes (15th century BCE).

Ancient Egyptian women and men wearing kohl eyeliner, from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes (15th century BCE).

We also have evidence of cosmetic importance from burials:

  • Celtic chiefs often took combs and razors into their graves.[19]
  • Many Russian rulers couldn’t face death without a mirror.[20]
  • Egyptians required combs, hair pins and eye palettes for grinding up eye paint in the afterlife.[21]

Without celebrities and supermodels to look up to, the ancients still polished and painted themselves to achieve an imagined ideal.

But wait! There’s more…

If you’ve enjoyed this journey so far, don’t miss our Part 2 next Tuesday. There’s so much more to learn about our ancient history of battling our own “yuck.”


AshleyBellAuthor: Ashley Bell is a full time nonprofit outreach and program manager and part time history detective. She likes to look to the past to explain where we are today.


[1] “An uncommon history of common things”, National Geographic Society, 2009. Retrieved from http://public.credoreference.com/content/entry/ngeouc/hygiene/0.

[2] Curtis, Valerie, “Dirt, disgust and disease: a natural history of hygiene”, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2007, Pg. 660–664, Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2652987/.

[3] Smith, Virginia, “Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity”, Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 15, 2008), Pg. 12, 13, 47-50, 126 – 140, 226.

[4] “The History of Soap”, Today I Found Out. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/03/the-history-of-soap/.

[5] “A Short History of Soap”, Napa Soap Company. Retrieved from http://www.napasoap.com/pages/A-Short-History-of-Soap.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eastman, Peter, “The Dish on Soap”, Slideshare, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/PEastman/history-of-soap-8439499.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] H B Walters, ‘Athena Hygieia’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 19 (1899:165-168), p167. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/hygeia.aspx.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “The History of Soap”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Smith, Virginia.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “The History of Soap”

[19] Smith, Virginia.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

5 responses to “The Ancient Roots of Modern Hygiene Part 1

  1. Wow very interesting…

  2. Pingback: The Ancient Roots of Modern Hygiene Part 2 | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: AntiquityNOW Month: Factoid Friday! Hygiene and the Yuck Factor | AntiquityNOW

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s