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History of Hygiene
Graphs and Statistics



The first washing “machines”: The local river and a whole lot of sweat-power! This has been laundry practice for centuries, and it still used in many countries today. Fabrics are pounded on rocks, rubbed with abrasive sand, stomped on, or beaten with wooden implements. In many cultures, especially amongst the poorer classes, “changing clothes” was rarely practiced and garments were often handed down through generations.

Ancient Egypt: Egyptians vigorously scrubbed linen with natron – a naturally occurring mixture of sodium salts – then dried laundry in the sun.

Ancient Rome: Laundry was regularly cleaned by “fullers”, who collected urine from the public, heated it with water and used the mixture to soak clothes. Males would jump in and stomp on the soaking items before they were rinsed and wrung out.

1000s: The Dutch were laundry “experts”, soaking clothing for up to 8 weeks in a mixture of lye – water run through the ashes of a wood fire – and sour milk to get it really white.

Middle Ages England: Many layers of clothing were worn, but rarely washed. And it was advised etiquette to blow your nose on your hands and wipe them on your clothes! Clothing was kept smelling nice using dried flowers or by adding fragrant plants to the wash water.

Question  How would you feel about..

  • Urine being used to wash laundry? In addition to use in Ancient Rome, “chamber lye” was another name in England for urine, collected in chamber pots and used for stain removal and pre-wash soaking in the 1600s.
  • The laundry process taking several days to complete? In England the “Great Wash” was a domestic event done every few months, often with the help of a hired washerwoman. An 1860s French housekeeping book describes the lengthy process, involving prewashing in cold water, repeatedly rinsing until water runs clear, soaking for 24 hours, repeatedly soaking in warm lye (including heating the water again and again…), soaping the lye-soaked linen, beating with washing sticks, and rinsing with lots of water.
  • Washing laundry through ice holes in the frozen river! This was practice in cold climates such as Finland and Russia into the 1900s.
  • Early fabric softening? Cotton clothes were soaked in mixtures of water, soap, and olive, tallow or corn oil to make them less scratchy...but also more greasy. This was common practice in the USA in the early 1900s.

Lightbulb  Laundry Developments

1600s: The first “drier”/”iron”? Mangles and wringers consisted of rollers to squeeze water out of laundry, and to “iron” the fabric smooth.

1800s: The earliest washing "machine"? The scrub board was invented, possibly in Scandinavia.

1851: The first motorised washing machine was built in the USA.

1855: The first rotary clothes line? The USA Journal Scientific reports an American patent for a rotary washing line in this year. Australian models were made in 1912 by Gilbert Toyne and 1946 by Lance Hill.

1920s: The first electric washing machines.These were manually controlled and used an agitator or rocking action. Spin dryers were also developed during this decade in the USA.

1937: The first automatic electric washing machine. This was a front-loader that automatically washed, drained, rinsed, and spun. This development was soon followed by automatic clothes dryers.

Click here for a brief History of Laundry Product Developments


useful stuff...

How Australian pandemics have changed! The 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic caused over 10,000 deaths in Australia,14 whereas the 2009-10 H1N1 pandemic ("Swine Flu") caused 191 deaths.15 English knights were required to bathe at least once in their lives - during the ritual of their knighthood ceremony. Because of this tradition, during the reign of King Henry IV there originated an order called "Knights of the Bath".16 The term "shampoo" came from Indian language and originally meant "massage".17 English society ladies held vacuuming parties after invention of the horse-drawn electric vacuum in 1901.18
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