Hygiene throughout history

Life, death and illness

Public sanitation

Hospitals and health care

Food hygiene

Home hygiene & laundry

Personal care - bathing, skin care & deodorant

Hair extremes - hair care & hair removal

Things that clean & sanitise

Oral hygiene

Toilets & toilet paper

Imagine diseases such as whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles and diphtheria being an expected part of childhood.

Imagine streets filled with garbage, vermin and human excrement.

Imagine hospital operations being performed without sterile instruments.

Thankfully, these situations are no longer the norm for most Australians – but why not?

Not much was known about the transmission of disease before the 1800s, when scientists began to prove that microorganisms caused phenomena such as food spoilage. It has been since this time that we have come to understand the enormous benefit of hygiene in preventing the spread of disease-causing organisms (‘pathogens’).

In many countries, including Australia, greater understanding of how disease is spread led to changes in public sanitation, improved hygiene practices and development of products to help maintain personal hygiene, hygiene in the home, public hygiene and hygiene in industrial settings.

Of course, vaccinations, medical advances, improved nutrition and living conditions have also played a huge part in improving health; these have gone hand-in-hand with improvements in personal and public hygiene to decrease death rates and disease in Australia.


Life, death and illness

In Australia, life expectancies have increased, and death rates have fallen over the past 130 years. Infectious diseases have declined dramatically.[i]

Over roughly the same period, Australia’s population is has increased by over five times – and has become more concentrated in capital cities. Even with more people living in closer proximity, deaths from infectious disease remain low.

Sadly, the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is approximately 10 years lower than of non-indigenous Australians.[v] And, many developing nations have much lower life expectancies and higher death rates than in Australia today. For example, there are stark difference in life expectancy and mortality rates between Australia and the African Region. In Africa, many infectious diseases are still prevalent including tuberculosis, cholera, measles, leprosy, meningitis, whooping cough and HIV/AIDS. In fact, in the early 21st century, infectious diseases were responsible for half of all deaths in Africa.[vi]

2016 Life expectancy (years) Healthy life expectancy (years) Child (<5) mortality rate (per 1000 live births)
Australia 83 73 4
African region* 61 54 77
Difference 22 19 73

*As defined by the World Health Organization[vi]


Public sanitation

Early public sanitation

Sanskrit writings describe the purification of foul water by boiling and filtering.

During the time of Greek physician Hippocrates, ‘hygiene’ became known as the branch of medicine dedicated to the ‘art of health’ (as distinct from therapeutics, the treatment of disease).

The system of aqueducts built in Ancient Rome provided inhabitants with fresh running water, which was piped directly to homes of the wealthy, and to public fountains and baths. This greatly improved domestic sanitation and sewage disposal.

‘It is more important to prevent illness than to cure the illness when it has arisen’ – from The Yellow Emperor’s Treatise on Internal Medicine (China). Clean water was known to be important in disease prevention, so wells were covered, devices were used to filter water and the Chhii Shih (‘sanitary police’) removed all animal and human corpses from waterways and buried all bodies found on land.

How would you feel about…

Living in 1800s England? A rapidly increasing population without enough toilets meant that most human waste made its way into cesspools, dungheaps, cellars or the street. Waste and garbage entered rivers, polluting the water and causing foul odours. In 1842, public health reformer Sir Edwin Chadwick published in his Sanitary Health Report:

  • ‘only two or three public privies…for the great bulk of the inhabitants’
    ‘the whole area of the cellars of both houses were full of night soil [human excrement]’
  • ‘a square court…occupied entirely as a dung receptacle of the most disgusting kind’
  • ‘a dunghill in one street…is never removed…the malarious moisture oozes through the wall, and runs over the pavement’

Modern developments

Human contact with waste was minimised in Japanese cities because it was collected for use as crop fertiliser. Sewage was not discharged to rivers so pollution of waterways was minimised.

The Public Health Act was instituted in England in 1848, followed by the 1866 Sanitary Act, making local authorities responsible for sanitary regulation including sewage disposal, water supply and housing density & occupancy, and introducing penalties for persons suffering from dangerous infectious diseases who endangered others in public places.

English physician Dr John Snow showed that cholera was spread by water.

The first septic tank was invented by Frenchman John Louis Mouras and used by communities to remove solids from waste before the liquid was discharged into a body of water. 1893. This design was improved by use of trickling sand filtration.

Sewer systems were constructed in many European and US cities, initially discharging untreated sewage to waterways. When this became increasingly unacceptable, experimentation towards improved treatment methods resulted in sewage farming, chemical precipitation, filtration, sedimentation, chemical treatment and activated sludge treatment using aerobic microorganisms.

The Plague was brought to The Rocks area of Sydney by rats from ships. This led to one of the first major clean-ups of Sydney: slums were demolished, streets limewashed, 1423 dead animals removed from Sydney harbour, 44,548 rats destroyed, more than 28,455 tons of garbage taken out to sea and another 25,430 tons of garbage burned.

Permanent water chlorination started to be used in some UK and US locations.

The first patents for residential garbage compactors were filed in the USA.

Australian Drinking Water Guidelines were published by the National Health and Medical Research Council, providing guidance on what constitutes good quality drinking water.

How would you feel about…

Living in New York, circa 1865? ‘Domestic garbage and filth of every kind is thrown into the streets…In winter, the filth and garbage, etc., accumulate in the streets to the depth sometimes of two or three feet.’

(Sources: See Public sanitation[xi])


Hospitals and health care

Early hospitals and health care

Quarantine was stressed in Ancient Israelite law, preventing contact with diseased persons and their items, as well as with corpses and carcasses. Diseased garments were burned, and isolation measures put in place for individuals and the household in the case of infectious disease outbreaks.

The sick were laid out in the street so that passers-by could offer advice!

The earliest hospitals are thought to have been established in Sri Lanka. From 230 BC. Early hospitals in India were established.

Aulus Cornelius Celcus of Rome advocated cleanliness, wound washing and treatment with vinegar and thyme oil, both of which have antiseptic properties. Other early antiseptics included pitch, wine, copper, silver and mercury.

How would you feel about…

Operations as a last resort? Before anaesthetics, pain was dulled using marijuana, opium or hashish in China and India, and alcohol, cocaine or morphine in Europe and the USA. Acupuncture was also used in China. Surgery was still an excruciating affair, with patients being strapped down and the surgeon’s skill based on how quickly the procedure was done. Amputations were cauterised with pitch.

Modern developments

Ether was the first anaesthetic to be used during surgery, followed by chloroform, then nitrous oxide. 1877. Local anaesthetic was introduced. However, longer and more complicated operations without sufficient knowledge of infection or antisepsis meant that the infection rate was very high.

Hungarian physician Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, working at the Vienna Maternity Hospital, made the link between the prevalence of puerperal (childbed) fever and dirty hands. He ordered doctors, nurses and midwives to wash their hands in chlorinated water before contact with each patient. Despite a dramatic decrease in the death rate he was ridiculed for many years.

British surgeon Dr Joseph Lister introduced the use of antiseptic in English hospitals. Previously, approximately 50% of hospital patients died due to infection after surgery. Lister used carbolic acid solutions to soak wound dressings, spray on surgical instruments, and spray on the wound during surgery. 1939-1945. Dakin’s solution containing sodium hypochlorite was first used using World War II as an antiseptic to treat infected wounds.

Latvian surgeon Ernst von Bergmann introduced steam sterilisation of surgical instruments.

German physician Dr Robert Koch proved that microscopic organisms cause disease, isolating the organisms which caused anthrax and tuberculosis.

Today, knowledge about the causes of infection, use of antiseptic, anaesthetic and post-surgical pain relief makes health care a much less terrifying (and life-threatening) prospect!

How would you feel about…

Needing treatment for disease like a hole in your head? The ancient practice of ‘trepanning’ or ‘trephining’ was making a hole – 2.5 to 5 cm in diameter – in the skull to allow disease to escape from its victim. Skulls treated in this fashion have been found in Europe and in Peru.

(Sources: See Hospitals and Health Care[xii])


Food hygiene

Early food hygiene

People in cold climates stored food in snow and ice, while those in warmer climates employed a range of different techniques including leaving water out overnight to freeze or adding saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to water to lower its temperature. Dehydration. One of the oldest known food preservation techniques used sun-drying to prolong the life of food. Salt. Salt was the first food additive used to preserve food. Honey. Honey was also used to preserve certain foods, especially fruits.

The oldest method of cooking was over an open fire. This method was refined somewhat over time: in China enclosed clay ovens date back to 221 BC, in Japan enclosed wood or coal-fuelled ovens date to the 3rd century, and in Europe by the middle ages use of the hearth and chimney was common.

Recognition of food spoilage in China led to food prohibitions and recommendations aiming to minimise the danger of disease, for example: don’t eat discoloured, dirty or smelly food; cook raw foods using high temperatures; eat hot food.

In Europe, people ate from communal platters. This practice gave way to use of ‘trenchers’, plates made from very hard bread. These were fed to beggars or dogs after the meal. Edible trenchers were then replaced by wooden trenchers (for the lower classes), and metal plates (for the upper classes). People ate with their hands, except for soup.

Spotlight on… cooking developments (click to view)

Modern developments

Heat treatment processing of food began. Glass bottles were initially used but were replaced by cans and the canning industry.

French scientist Louis Pasteur first demonstrated and explained why heat treatment could prevent souring of beer and wine. This process was adapted to preserve other foods, particularly milk.

American inventor Clarence Birdseye was awarded patents for his quick freezing processes, used for fish. His apparatus of two hollow metal plates cooled to -25 °C by vaporisation of ammonia was the precursor to the design of freezers used today.

Powered, domestic refrigerators began to replace domestic ice boxes and the necessity for fresh ice every day. Fridges quickly became popular in the USA, with 50% of households having a fridge by 1938. They took longer to catch on in England, with 50% of households having a fridge by 1968. 1960-70s. Powered freezers grew in popularity in the USA and England.

French providores installed fresh produce vending machines, including for baguettes, cheese and raw meat, enabling around-the-clock access to their produce.

(Sources: See Food hygiene[xiii])


Home Hygiene & Laundry

Early home hygiene

The Ebers Papyrus (1600 BC) recommended that Egyptians sprinkle their house with ‘natron water’ – a solution of a naturally occurring sodium salts – to get rid of fleas. Other early practices included killing fleas by sprinkling oil dregs on surfaces, killing moths using a sheep’s stomach (!), killing fleas and lice by spreading horsemint around the house and rue juice on the body, and driving away flying insects by burning ‘fleabane’ (15th century).

Everyday cooking utensils in Ancient Israel were cleaned by rubbing with sand, and finer cooking utensils were cleaned with oil, plant juices and active clays. Plates were stored face-down to protect from dust and dirt.

Houses were swept with improvised brooms such as bundles of twigs or a handy bush. Rugs were taken outside and pounded with a ‘rug beater’. Everything was done by hand.

Did you know… 

English society ladies held vacuuming parties after invention of the horse-drawn electric vacuum in 1901.

Modern developments

The first carpet sweeper was invented in England by James Hume, but it didn’t work very well. 1876. The first efficient carpet sweeper was patented in the USA by Melville Bissell.

The first dishwasher was wooden with a hand-turned wheel to splash water on dishes. 1886. The first useful dishwasher was invented by US inventor Josephine Cochrane, with wire compartments designed to fit crockery and a motorised wheel to squirt hot soapy water on the dishes. 1920s. Dishwashers with permanent plumbing were installed. 1937. The first dishwasher small enough for the home was invented.

A vacuum sweeper with a rotating brush coupled to a suction device was patented in the USA by Daniel Hess; however, it is unclear if this design was ever made. 1869. The first commercially produced vacuum cleaner, the Whirlwind, was operated by a hand-crank. 1901. The electric vacuum was invented in England and transported from place to place in a horse-drawn cart – vacuuming was an event! 1908. A more portable vacuum was patented in the USA. Subsequent innovations included disposable bags (1920), the upright vacuum (1950), the cordless vacuum (1979) and ‘Roomba’ the robot vacuum cleaner (2002)!

(Sources: See Home hygiene[xiv])

Early laundry

The local river and a whole lot of sweat-power! This has been laundry practice for centuries and is 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.

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

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. In China, honey locust powder was kneaded into orange-sized balls that could remove dirt and stains. In England, many layers of clothing were worn but rarely washed. It was advised etiquette to blow your nose on your hands and wipe them on your clothes! Clothing was kept smelling nice(r) using dried flowers or by adding fragrant plants to the wash water.

A brief history of detergents, or soap – including laundry uses.

Developments in laundry

Mangles and wringers consisted of rollers to squeeze water out of laundry, and to ‘iron’ the fabric smooth.

The scrub board was invented, possibly in Scandinavia.

1851: The first motorised washing machine was built in the USA. 1920s. The first electric washing machines 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 was a front-loader that automatically washed, drained, rinsed, and spun. This development was soon followed by automatic clothes dryers.

A US patent for a rotary washing line was filed for 1854. Australian models were made in 1912 by Gilbert Toyne and 1946 by Lance Hill.

How would you feel about…

  • Urine being used to wash laundry? As well as its use in Ancient Rome, ‘chamber lye’ was another name in 1600s England for urine that was collected in chamber pots and used for stain removal and pre-wash soaking.
  • The laundry process taking several days to complete? In England the ‘Great Wash’ was a domestic event 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 greasier. This was common practice in the USA in the early 1900s.

(Sources: See Laundry[xv])


Personal care – bathing, skin care & deodorant

Early bathing

Jump in a handy river, lake, waterfall or ocean, or wait for rain! 1700 BC. The first plumbed baths? Palace ruins at Knossos, Crete, revealed various bathrooms with water supplied through terracotta pipes. 1500 BC. Wealthy Egyptians took ‘showers’ – a servant tipped water over them. 500 BC. Gentlemanly etiquette in China required hand washing five times a day, hair washing every third day and a hot bath every fifth day. 312 BC. Public baths in Rome were supplied by aqueducts. Perfumed oils were used for bathing. Abrasives like pumice, sand and ash were rubbed over wet skin before oiling and then scraping the skin clean using a metal strigil.

Greek showers were a hole in the wall through which a servant would pour cold water onto the bather (warm-water bathing was unmanly).

6th C. Japanese Buddhism taught that bathing purified the body of sin and brought luck. 7th C. The hammam, also known as the ‘Turkish Bath’, became a major feature of Islamic culture. The Quran requires cleanliness as an important part of Muslim faith: face, hand, forearm and feet washing before prayer, and whole-body bathing after sex. 12th C. Self-inflicted torture? At extremely hot steam bathhouses in Russia, people would undress, rub tallow over their bodies, then violently lash themselves with young reeds before dousing themselves with cold water!

So many baths? Some sources say that bathing was a frequent practice for rich and poor alike in Middle Ages Europe, with use of public baths, at-home wooden tubs, or elaborate home installations with piped water. In addition, bathing was a social event often incorporated into banquets and weddings. Virtually no baths? Other sources say that bathing became such an over-indulged, hedonistic pleasure that the church spoke out against it, prompting infrequent bathing. For example, St Francis of Assisi promoted non-bathing as a way to be holier, monks bathed two or three times a year and most people took a bath only once or twice in their life.

In England, the rubbing action of linen underclothing replaced bathing. Underclothing was aired or laundered.

Puritans in the USA prioritised cleanliness, with Sunday washing linked to spiritual cleansing. Cleanliness became linked to respectability and moral virtue.

Developments in bathing

The first mechanical shower was patented in England. Water was released by pull-chain from a  vessel above the showerer’s head and was then pumped by hand back into the vessel to be used again. c1810. The English Regency Shower using this design became common.

As indoor plumbing became more common, more showers were connected to warm running water.

141 million people visited Japan’s 15,700 hot-spring inns in 12 months (the population of Japan was 125 million)!

Did you know… 

Germany merchant Lucas Rem’s diary (1511) recorded 127 baths in 21 days!

In contrast… 

Queen Elizabeth I of England bathed once a month, ‘whether I need to or not’.

(Sources: See Bathing[xvi])

Early skin care

In Ancient Egypt, creams and oils were used as skin moisturisers, providing protection from the hot, dry climate. Early sun protection methods used rice meal, jasmine and lupine. In Ancient China women used rice wash water to remove residue and brighten their skin. In Ancient Greece, athletes used olive oil and fine sand to help protect the skin from tanning.

Greek physician Galen developed a cold cream by melting beeswax into rose oil and then adding water.

4th/5th C.: Indian women used a treatment of flour or wheat husk mixed with milk to exfoliate the skin. 1100s. An early recipe for facial moisturiser was to cook barley in water, strain through a cloth and bathe the face with this water. Other known moisturisers included animal fats (America), avocado (Latin America), and palm oil (Brazil, Africa).

Developments in skin care

US physician Dr Charles Fleet invented lip balm. He then sold his recipe for $5 and Chapstick production began from a domestic kitchen in 1912.

Manufactured body creams used ingredients such as petroleum jelly, mineral oil and lanolin. Early 1900s. Cosmetic companies began to launch skin care product ranges.

Today, there is an extensive range of skin care products including body washes, gels, lotions and exfoliants; facial cleansers, toners, treatments and moisturisers; and specialised products for the lips, hands and nails. There is also a broad range of sun protection products.

Spotlight on… sunscreen (click to view)

(Sources: See Skin care[xvii])

Early deodorant

In Ancient Egypt, scented oils and heavy-scented mixtures such as citrus and cinnamon were used to mask body odour. In some parts of Ancient Asia, rock salt was a popular underarm deodorant. It decreased body odour by killing underarm bacteria.

Developments in deodorant

1888: The first cosmetic deodorant was patented under the name ‘Mum’. It was a paste made from zinc chloride and wax. 1890s. Aluminium chloride was added to deodorants to decrease sweating.

1952. The first roll-on deodorant, based on the design of the ballpoint pen, was marketed in the USA. 1965. The first anti-perspirant aerosol was marketed.

Today, aerosol, roll-on, body spray, solid, pump spray and cream deodorants are all used in Australia.

(Sources: See Deodorant[xviii])


Hair extremes – hair care & hair removal

Early hair care

Women used oils as hair conditioners, providing protection from the hot, dry climate. Some Egyptian men and women shaved their heads – in which case they wore wigs.

1500 BC. Assyrian kings and other nobles had their hair curled with heated iron bars. 500 BC. Western Africans curled their hair with sticks and set it with clay. 1300s. A European hair gel recipe used lizard tallow blended with swallow droppings.

1300s. European women conditioned their hair with dead lizards boiled in olive oil. Chinese women used seeds from the Chinese cedar to make a finishing hair rinse. Filipino women made a hair conditioner from aloe soaked in water. 1600s. Americans used oil mixed with eggs.

India – the first shampoo? The pulp of soapberries was combined with herbs and hibiscus flowers. Asia – the first dry shampoo? Clay!

During the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I people set their hair with lard and slept with a cage or nightcap over their hair to protect it from rats!

How would you feel about…

  • CO-washing? ‘Conditioner-only’ washing is practiced by some people, especially those with curly or frizzy hair.

Developments in hair care

1898. The first commercial shampoo? German chemist Hans Schwarzkopf developed a water-soluble powder shampoo that became hugely popular. 1927. Liquid shampoo was developed, again by Schwarzkopf. 1930s. The first pH-balanced shampoo and shampoo with synthetic surfactant were developed. 1940. The first commercial dry shampoo – ‘Minipoo’ was developed. 1963. The first anti-dandruff shampoo was developed. 1980s. The first 2-in-1 shampoo was developed.

1900. The first ‘conditioner’? Parisian perfumer Edouard Pinaud presented ‘Brilliantine’, a formula to soften men’s hair. 1970. The first rinse-off conditioner was marketed.

Developments have provided many specialised shampoos and conditioners to meet specific hair needs.

How would you feel about…

  • This 1908 New York hair advice? ‘…specialists recommend the shampooing of the hair as often as every two weeks, but from a month to six weeks should be a better interval if the hair is in fairly good condition.’ Solid, white castile soap or tar soap were recommended as good shampoos, and the treatment recommended for split ends was singeing and clipping.

(Sources: See Hair care[xix])

Early hair removal

Ancient Egypt: The first ‘waxing’? Ancient Egyptians developed ‘sugaring’, where a mixture of oil and honey was applied to the body, then vigorously stripped to remove the hair with it. 3000 BC: The first depilatory creams? Ancient Egyptian women are reported to have used depilatory pastes made from arsenic trisulfide, quicklime and starch. Ancient Turkey: The first threading? Still used today, predominantly in India and the middle East, threading uses a twisted cotton thread to pluck unwanted hair. Ancient Rome: Roman Emperor Julius Caesar plucked out his facial hair with tweezers – or rather his servants did. Depilatory creams at this time are reported to have included pitch, donkey fat, she-goat gall, bat’s blood and powdered viper! Ancient Greece: Women removed leg hair by singeing, using abrasives such as pumice stone, or by various wax and depilatory concoctions.

The Quran specifies that at least every 40 days the moustache and nails must be trimmed and the pubic and underarm hair removed.

Queen Elizabeth I of England plucked eyebrow and forehead hair to give her distinctive, high forehead look.

A European recipe for hair removal required powdering hard, dry cat dung and mixing it with strong vinegar.

How would you feel about…

  • This bridal ritual? The night before a wedding in Lebanese, Palestinian, Turkish and Egyptian cultures, the bridal party removed all of the bride’s body hair except her eyebrows and her head hair.

Developments in hair removal

1880. The first safety razor was patented in the USA as an alternative to the commonly used steel razor. 1903. Disposable razors were sold in the USA. 1927. The first electric shaver with oscillating blades was invented in the USA.

1844. The first commercial depilatory? Depilatory powder was marketed in the USA under the brand name Dr Felix Gourand. 1940. The first modern depilatory. A stocking shortage during World War II meant legs went bare, prompting the development of Nair. 1980. Commercial warm wax / hot wax, which was actually a sugar mixture, was developed in Australia.

1925. The first commercial shaving cream was marketed in the USA. Unlike previous shaving soaps it didn’t need a brush to apply. The first pressurised shaving cream was marketed in the USA. 1980. The first shaving gel was marketed. 1995: The first non-soapmoisturising shave gel was developed.

Today, shaving, waxing and chemical depilation are the most popular hair removal methods in Australia.

How would you feel about…

  • Using early depilatory ingredients such as she-goat gall, bat blood, powdered viper or cat dung?

(Sources: See Hair removal[xx])


Things that clean & sanitise

Early soap

2800 BC. Excavation of the site of ancient Babylon unearthed clay cylinders containing a soap-like material, and inscriptions saying that fats were boiled with ashes (a method of early soapmaking).

2200 BC. The first soap recipe was found inscribed on a Mesopotamian clay tablet.

1600 BC. More early soap? The Ebers Papyrus (a ‘medical compendium’) describes the ancient Egyptian practice of combining oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material for treating skin diseases and for washing.

600 BC. The Phoenicians prepared soap from goat’s tallow and wood ashes.

Greek physician Galen recommended soap for cleaning and medicinal purposes.

How would you feel about…

  • Washing with ‘bath beans’? This 4th/5th century Chinese body cleanser contained soybean, pig pancreas and herbs. The formulation was later improved with sugar and melted pig fat, and later still with sodium carbonate instead of soybean.

Developments in soap

Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Spain and France were early centres of soapmaking, using vegetable or animal oils combined with ashes and fragrance. Soaps made from olive oil were used for bathing whilst those made animal oils were suitable for laundry use.

1791. Raw material availability for soap took off when French chemist and surgeon Nicolas Leblanc patented the process for making soda ash, a major component of soap, from table salt. 1823. The chemical process behind soap making was revealed when French chemist Michel Chevruel showed how boiling fat with an alkali salt splits the fat molecule into the alkali salt of fatty acid (soap) and glycerol.

German chemist Justus von Liebig described soap as an accurate measure of a country’s wealth and civilization.

Since then, with advances in chemical understanding and manufacturing techniques, soap became cheaper, widely available, and enabled development of specialised products, including bar, gel, liquid and foam soaps, which come in a multitude of fragrances to leave the skin smelling pleasant. There are also anti-bacterial and moisturising soaps.

Spotlight on… Soap (click to view)

(Sources: See Soap[xxi])

Early detergent

The first synthetic detergent was developed in Germany, driven by the war-related shortage of fats (required to make soap). It was used for dishwashing and fine fabric laundering.

Spotlight on… What is detergent? (click to view)

Developments in detergent

The first ‘built’ detergent (a combination of surfactant & builder ingredients) was able to deal with highly soiled laundry items. ‘Builders’ enhance the action of surfactants by softening hard water, and by helping prevent soils in solution from redepositing. Some builders also provide alkalinity.

Newer innovations have focussed on efficiency and ease of use, consumer and environmental safety, and specialised needs:

  • 1950s. Auto dishwash powder, liquid laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaning products, rinse-cycle fabric softeners, detergent with oxygen bleach.
  • 1960s. Prewash soil and stain removers, laundry powders with enzymes, enzyme pre-soaks.
  • 1970s. Liquid hand soaps, in-wash fabric softeners, combined wash/fabric softener.
  • 1980s. Detergents for cooler water washing, auto-dishwash liquids, concentrated laundry powders.
  • 1990s. Ultraconcentrated powder and liquid detergents, product refills.
  • 2000s. Low/no-phosphate detergents.
  • 2010s. Laundry detergent pods became available.

(Sources: See Detergent[xxii])

Early bleach

The sun has been used for centuries as a means of bleaching.

The Dutch used mixtures of lye – water run through the ashes of a wood fire – and sour milk to bleach fabrics. The process took up to eight weeks.

Chlorine gas was found to be a powerful bleaching agent. It was, however, impractical to use.

Developments in bleach

1787. Sodium hypochlorite (liquid chlorine bleach) was first produced by French scientist Claude Berthollet by passing chlorine gas through soda ash (sodium carbonate). 1799. Powdered bleach was first made by Scottish chemist Charles Tennant by reacting chlorine with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). 1950s. Peroxide bleach was introduced.

Today, in Australia, powder, liquid, direct application and in-wash laundry bleaches are all available, with products to suit both white and coloured wash items. There are also hard-surface bleaches for application in homes and a range of commercial, industrial and agricultural applications.

(Sources: See Bleach[xxiii])

Early wet wipes

Arthur Julius of the USA invented the Wet-Nap moist towelette, launched it in 1960 and in 1962 started selling to KFC restaurants.

Developments in wet wipes

1963: The first alcohol swabs for hospitals were developed. 1986. The first resealable wipes travel pack was developed. 1987. The first disinfecting wipe was developed. 1990s. Baby wipes became widely used.

Today there are many different types of wet wipes. Personal care wipes include baby, personal hygiene, hand sanitising, facial/makeup removal, body cleansing, feminine hygiene, medical (e.g. eye wipes and antiseptic swabs) and sunscreen wipes. Household wipes include wipes for general purpose home care –​ cleaning or disinfecting, floor cleaning, kitchen cleaning, bathroom cleaning, toilet cleaning, stainless steel cleaning, glass cleaning, marble cleaning, car cleaning, lens cleaning, furniture conditioning and shoe polishing. Commercial/industrial wipes include general purpose, speciality, food service and healthcare wipes.

(Sources: See Wet wipes[xxiv])


Oral hygiene – toothpaste & toothbrushes

Early toothpaste

Some sources report that Egyptians used tooth powder containing powdered ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered burnt eggshells and pumice. Ancient Egyptians also freshened their breath by chewing on fragrant mixtures with honey.

‘Compositiones Medicamentorum’, the work of Roman physician Scribonius Largus in AD 47, describes three different ‘toothpowder’ mixtures: vinegar, honey and salt; radish and finely ground glass; ground deer antler, a rare aromatic gum and rock salt. Other reported toothpowder ingredients include saponin, a naturally occurring soap-like substance (China); burnt snail shells, burnt gypsum, dried animal parts and herbs (Persia), and chalk (England). A teeth-strengthening recipe included green lead (Persia).

How would you feel about…

Alternative cures for toothache?

  • Extracting the tooth using pliars, but no anaesthetic (pre-1950s)
  • Using an iron nail to cut your gums until they bleed (17th C, England)
  • Kissing a donkey’s teeth! (Middle Ages, Germany)

Patented dental treatments containing alcohol and morphine? (1860s-1900s)

Developments in toothpaste

1824. A soap-containing toothpaste was introduced by dentist Dr Peabody.

1880s. Toothpaste was mass produced in jars (USA), based on US dental surgeon Dr Washington Sheffield’s ‘Crème Dentifrice’ invention of 1850.

1890s. Toothpaste was sold in collapsible tubes.

1914. Fluoride was added to toothpaste to prevent decay, but not approved by the American Dental Association until the 1950s.

1945. Soap was replaced by other ingredients following the invention of synthetic detergents, making toothpastes smoother.

Today, many innovations have produced toothpastes to combat tartar, gum disease and plaque, for teeth whitening, for fresh breath and for sensitive teeth. There are also toothpastes designed specifically for different age groups of children and infants.

(Sources: See Toothpaste[xxvi])

Early toothbrushes

An early form of toothbrush was found in ancient Egyptian pyramids. It was a stick with one end flayed to soften the wood fibres.

The first precursor of the modern toothbrush was thought to come from China or Egypt in the 1400s. It had a bamboo or bone handle and bristles from wild boar hair, or from horsehair. This design spread to Europe.

Developments in tooth brushes

1844. The first 3-row brush was designed.

1938. Nylon bristles replaced hair and were refined over time to become softer.

1939. The first electric toothbrush was designed.

1963-1998: Approximately 3000 toothbrush patents were filed worldwide! Innovations that have been retained in many present-day toothbrushes include angled bristles, angled handles and tongue-scrapers.

(Sources: See Toothbrushes[xxvii])

Early dental floss

‘Floss’ and toothpick grooves have been found in the teeth of prehistoric humans.

Developments in dental floss

1815. US dentist Dr Levi Parmly promoted teeth flossing with a piece of silk thread.

1882. Production of unwaxed silk floss began in the USA, and in 1896 the production of waxed silk floss commenced.

1898. The first dental floss patent was awarded in the USA.

1940s. US physician Dr Charles Bass developed a more shred-resistant nylon floss and promoted teeth flossing as an important part of oral hygiene. Waxed nylon floss was also made.

1980s. Interdental brushes were invented as an alternative to flossing. These consist of a narrow brush available in different widths to clean in the spaces between teeth.

(Sources: See Dental Floss[xxviii])


Toilets & toilet paper

Early toilets

The world is your toilet!

Remains of sit-down toilets linked with drains have been found in Lothal, India.

Urinal-style toilets were common features at public baths, making use of aqueduct technology to carry waste into sewers which emptied into the River Tiber.

China claims to be the home of the first flush toilet. An ancient Western Han Dynasty toilet was discovered in a tomb in the Henan province. This toilet had running water, a stone seat and an armrest.

How would you feel about…

  • Going to the toilet in your wardrobe? Medieval English castles often had toilet rooms built into the castle wall so that waste fell through a chute overhanging the ground, the moat, or a waste pit. These rooms were called ‘garderobes’ because they were also used to store clothes, as the smell kept moths away!
  • Some other ancient toileting practices?
    • Going wherever you want! The street, the field, the river…
    • Using a hole in the floor – into running water or onto the ground below.
    • Using a chamber pot, which was often concealed in pieces of furniture such as the sideboard and then emptied outside in the street.

Developments in toilets

The water closet was invented by Englishman Sir John Harington, who installed one for himself and another in the Royal Palace for his Godmother, Queen Elizabeth I.

A flurry of innovations saw development of the ‘S-trap’, plunger, and hinged valve, all of which were improvements but failed to completely seal off smelly sewer gases from below.

The first flush toilet patent was awarded to Scottish inventor Alexander Cummings.

Toilets and sewer systems became increasingly common in England and the USA.

Toilet designs changed to resemble the modern toilet with its low cistern and bowl.

The robotic toilet was designed to help bed-ridden patients. It comes on call, uses a bidet to maintain personal hygiene, maintains privacy, then cleans itself!

How would you feel about…

  • Working as a human toilet brush?
    In the time of King Henry VIII, toilets from Hampton Court palace consisted of brick drains that emptied waste into the River Thames. Small boys were employed to crawl along the drains to clean them out!

(Sources: See Toilets[xxix])

Early toilet paper

The first use of paper in the toilet context was in China in the 6th century. 1300s The first purpose-made toilet paper was produced in China for the Emperor’s use. Each sheet was approximately 60 x 90 cm – huuuuge!

How would you feel about… Other toilet paper substitutes:

  • The left hand (many Muslim, Hindu and South East Asian cultures)
  • Stones or clods of earth (Islamic tradition)
  • Tundra moss in summer and handfuls of snow the rest of the year (Northern cultures)
  • Shells (coastal dwellers) including coconut shells (tropical dwellers)
  • Corn cobs or newspaper (USA)
  • Sponge attached to the end of a stick immersed in salt water; or, for the wealthy, wool rather than sponge and rosewater rather than salt water (Ancient Rome)
  • Scraper (Europe Medieval and Middle Ages)
  • Old clothes (England)
  • Pages from a book (England)
  • Discarded wool (Viking Age, England)
  • Frayed end of an old anchor cable (sailing crews from Spain & Portugal)
  • Lace or hemp (French royalty)
  • Or, whatever was to hand, such as leaves and sticks, linen, hay and grass water!

Developments in toilet paper

1857. The first factory-made toilet paper! ‘Gayetty’s Medicated Paper’ was loose, flat, sheets of paper pre-moistened and treated with aloe. The inventor’s name was printed on every sheet.

1877. Roll toilet paper was marketed.

1935. ‘Splinter-free’ toilet paper was marketed in the USA. (What was it before??)

1942. 2-ply toilet paper was introduced in England.

Today, in Australia, toilet paper comes in different thicknesses, with or without fragrance, and containing different quantities of recycled paper. Moistened wipes are also available.

(Sources: See Toilet paper[xxx])

[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2006, Mortality over the twentieth century in Australia: Trends and patterns in major causes of death. Mortality Surveillance Series no. 4. AIHW cat. no. PHE73.

[ii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Deaths in Australia – Life expectancy, Web report. (Accessed 4 October 2019)

[iii] Petrie Jansen van Vuuren,14 August 2017, FACTSHEET: Africa’s leading causes of death in 2016, Africacheck.org.

[iv] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018, GRIM0100 All certain infectious and parasitic diseases 1907–2016.

[v] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3105.0.65.001 Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2014, and 3105.0.65.001 – Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2008.

[vi] World Health Organization, 2018, World health statistics 2018: monitoring health for the SDGs, sustainable development goals.

[vii] Various sources – Epidemics

[viii] Based on Australian Institute of Health and Welfare material (Table 6.1 at https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/life-expectancy-death/deaths-in-australia/contents/life-expectancy).

[ix] Influenza Pandemic Planning Committee of theCommunicable Diseases Network Australia New Zealand, 1999, A Framework for and Australian Influenza Pandemic Plan. Version 1.

[x] Susan Keam, 2011, ‘Human Swine influenza: the Australian perspectiveThe Quarterly, Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators.

[xi] Various sources – Public sanitation

[xii] Various sources – Hospitals and Health Care

[xiii] Various sources – Food hygiene

[xiv] Various sources – Home hygiene

[xv] Various sources – Laundry

[xvi] Various sources – Bathing

[xvii] Various sources – Skin care

[xviii] Various sources: Deodorants

[xix] Various sources – Hair care

[xx] Various sources – Hair removal

[xxi] Various sources – Soap

[xxii] Various sources – Detergents

 [xxiii] Various sources – Bleach

  • Household Commercial Products Association, Bleaches, aboutcleaningproducts.com.
  • Carol Brennan, Bleach, madehow.com.

[xxiv] Various sources – Wet wipes

 [xxvi] Various sources – Toothpaste

[xxvii] Various sources – Toothbrushes

[xxviii] Various sources – Dental floss

[xxix] Various sources – Toilets

[xxx] Various sources – Toilet paper