Vintage Hygiene Habits That Wouldn't Fly Today
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Vintage Hygiene Habits That Wouldn't Fly Today

Johan Brown

Back in the day, the wild west was extremely dangerous. There were numerous things that had the potential to harm or even kill people, things that aren’t around today.

Bullets were not even at the top of this list. People had to be cautious when it came to bathing, going to the barber, or interacting with bugs. Back then, something as simple as a shave could be deadly.

Floral Scents

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Because flowers smell so great to us, we add their scents to perfumes and cleaning supplies. The affection we have for these flower scents is nothing new, despite the significant improvement in our ability to activate our olfactory glands with the touch of a spray or the lighting of a candle brought about by scientific understanding and industrial production skills.

For instance, ancient peoples would hold or bind a bunch of flowers near their bodies to cover up their foul body odor.

Rich People

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While today's wealthy and famous all have stunning tans that demonstrate their ability to laze around in the sun all day, in the past, pale skin was a symbol of prosperity because it implied you didn't work in the sun.

In addition to using lead-containing cosmetics to color their skin, people have reportedly tried eating chalk to become paler. At least chalk is less poisonous, even though it probably won't work until it makes you ill and pale!


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Although people didn't shower nearly as frequently as we do, that wasn't their only issue. People didn't wash their hands because they were unaware that doing so could prevent disease by getting rid of germs that were still on their fingers.

They frequently ate with their hands and didn't use silverware, which made issues worse. In contrast to today, when we wash everything from our hands to our dishes, there was no way of knowing whether touching food with dirty hands might make you sick.

Multiple Uses

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In fact, the only uses for urine now are for medical tests and the ineffective treatment of jellyfish stings, but before inorganic materials could be used to manufacture chemicals like ammonia, which is still used in cleaning products, humans had to extract them from an organic source: pee.

Aged and fermented urine (lant), also referred to as chamber lye, was used as washing detergent. The least nauseating application of it was probably in the tanning of leather; however, it was also used to flavor ales and glaze pastry.

Pearly Whites

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The primary ingredient in many toothpaste manufacturers' whitening products today is sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda, however, this chemical molecule has actually been utilized for this purpose since ancient times.

Sometimes this one component was the only thing that toothpaste from many eras and cultures had in common. The Romans, for instance, utilized it, although they liked to combine it with mouse brains for a slightly different flavor than ours.

Repurposing Water

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While washing practices vary by culture, location, and era, the end of the Middle Ages in Europe had to rank among the worst periods for body odor. People rarely washed because they believed it would spread the Black Plague.

When they did, though, it was such a pain to heat that much water and concentrate it into one tub that the entire family would take advantage of the chance to have a bath—but in the same water.

A World Without Toilet Paper

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While there is undoubtedly a case to be made for why a bidet is preferable to toilet paper, it is obvious that having a dry solution to the same problem resolves many more emergencies. There was a period when there was no toilet paper, which is something you shouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

The Japanese utilized special sticks, while the Greeks and Romans used sponges at the ends of sticks that had been soaked in water or vinegar. Different societies back then handled things differently.

The Sign Of Wealth

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In the past, some health problems were purposefully made worse because they were seen as a symbol of wealth. For example, because sugar, the main cause of tooth decay and gingivitis, was such a luxury good that it could only be purchased by the wealthy in Elizabethan England, having bad teeth was a sign of social rank.

A blackish-blue tint to your teeth—the envy of the lower classes—comes from a diet strong in sugar and irregular tooth brushing.

Freaky Facts

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The idea that some of the most heinous, ghastly things we can conceive now were handled as though they were the most commonplace things in the world is one of the weirdest things about the not-so-distant past.

People needed dentures because rotting teeth were such a huge problem, but what kind of material would they use? However, dentists frequently used genuine teeth instead of false ones, which were occasionally taken from the deceased.

Crocodile Birth Control

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Birth control methods have been around for millennia, but they’ve changed significantly. Surprisingly, an ancient Egyptian form of birth control was quite similar to the diaphragm.

This barrier technique is effective by blocking off the uterus so semen can’t enter, and while latex and spermicide are used nowadays, the ancient Egyptians used crocodile dung. Besides the physical barrier that the dung provides, some have hypothesized that the crocodile poo also had spermicidal properties that helped it succeed as a contraceptive.

Powdered Wigs

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Powdered wigs were all the rage for a long time, and British barristers still wear them as a vestige of a bygone age. For our health, though, it’s a good thing that these things fell out of favor because they were really unclean.

For one, they were often covered in lice, but that’s not half of the danger. Animal fat such as lard would be used to style the wig, which would get all gross, and people didn’t use shampoo back then, so it would get on and stay on their real hair. Ew.

Moss Pads

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There’s no doubt that revolutionary feminine hygiene products popularized over the past century and a half have had some of the most far-reaching consequences for modern societies, but there was a time when these products just didn’t exist.

Dealing with menstruation was no walk in the park, and women had some creative ideas on how to deal with their periods. Moss has been used as a pad since ancient times — surely you can find people today who also opt for this all-natural feminine hygiene product.

Deathly Shoe Polish

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Shining shoes were often the dapper finishing touch on an outfit, but a common ingredient in shoe shine from a century ago, nitrobenzene, is toxic. It was great for shining shoes, yet it could cause someone to faint if they inhaled it.

Passing out is the least of your concerns if you come in contact with this substance, as it affects the lungs, liver, and central nervous system. Indeed, it could even be fatal, particularly if someone had a stiff drink before.

Dubious Medicinal Practices

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The medical profession has in the past held on to many scientifically dubious beliefs in the past, and it seems like people would believe anything in the hopes of curing what was incurable back then.

As disturbing as it sounds to us today, Europeans in the Middle Ages consumed human remains for medicinal purposes. Human remains were ground into powders that were supposed to heal many ailments. King Charles II had a special formula called King’s Drop, which was a tincture of human skulls.

Lysol Lady Remedy

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Lysol has been used to disinfect for over a century, but one thing many are unaware of is that it was once used as a feminine hygiene product to prevent unpleasant odors, as post-coital birth control, and as a disinfectant ahead of labor.

Lysol also used to contain cresols, a type of organic chemical that induces abortions, but very dangerously. Besides being toxic and causing kidney failure, it can also cause sepsis — an infection of the blood that is often fatal.

Rooster RoGaine

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Today we have a bunch of different methods to prevent hair loss, from topical creams to restorative surgical hair implants. Although male pattern baldness is what you most often see, women can also experience hair loss as they get older.

It’s not dangerous, but the psychological effects can be pretty harsh. Back in the day, it was treated by a mix of stuff, including chicken droppings, so be glad you can just go to your local pharmacist and get something over the counter.

Dirty Surgery Tools

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Microbes cause many diseases and ailments, but we actually didn’t know about this until fairly recently. Cleaning medical instruments didn’t really start until the mid-19th century, even though we first saw microbes in the 17th century because the disease-causing connection wasn’t widely known yet.

Because the medical profession didn’t know the importance of sterilizing before checkups and surgery, doctors and surgeons didn’t always clean their tools as regularly as they should. That only began to be widespread in the 19th century.

Beaver Fertility Beverage

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In what may have been one of the least effective birth control methods, indigenous women living in modern-day New Brunswick, Canada, back in the 16th century, believed that tea made from beaver testes would help prevent them from getting pregnant.

We don’t know if this worked, but it is possible that the androgens (male hormones) found in beaver testes had a role in creating a hormonal imbalance in the woman that would stop her from getting pregnant. Or maybe it didn’t work at all.

Sulfuric Freckle Remover

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Freckles are a natural, usually harmless pigmentation that occurs on parts of the skin that are exposed to sunlight. Despite their harmless nature, people have been trying to get rid of them for centuries, using pretty much anything on hand, judging by the variety of cures.

While things like morning dew probably don’t work too well at preventing freckles, sulfur might have been more successful in the day, as it’s an exfoliating agent that is used in acne medication today.

Radiation Hair Removal


Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays, and the applications of radiology in medicine were clear from the beginning. Already by the start of the 20th century, shortly after his discovery in 1895, women would go to specialists to get zapped by the dangerous rays for cosmetic hair removal.

Although there’s been no definitive study on the long-term effects this had, a 1970 study limited to New York estimated that X-ray hair removal was responsible for over 30% of cancer diagnoses at the time.

The Truth About Moats

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Stories about knights, kings, and queens are enough to make you dream about living in the Middle Ages, but the truth is one look at the sanitation standards of the day would turn you off. Moats, for example, were supposed to be small bodies of water surrounding a castle to protect the people from enemies without.

The problem was moats were a cesspool for disease-causing germs, which are humanity’s worst enemy from within. They were pretty much public sewers that people would toss human waste and food scraps into.


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Barbers have been around forever, but their job description was just a little bit different back in the day. Up until the 18th century, when the demands of medicine at the time split the profession in two, barbers doubled as surgeons, as cutting hair demands precise cutting skills and a range of tools that translated well to surgery.

This included dental surgeries and blood-letting, an outdated medical practice based on a shoddy understanding of anatomy revolving around the four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm.

Strawbed Bathrooms

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Floors are something that we take for granted in modern houses, as the ground used to serve as the floor. Even then, people wanted some sort of barrier between them and the dirty, though, so they would use sawdust or straw in lieu of expensive and scarce wooden floorboards or marble.

They would even use this in their bathrooms, which is pretty gross considering they wouldn’t switch it out: if the straw on top got too old, they’d just toss some more on there.

Strength Of An Eagle

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Animal excrement has appeared on this list several times, and the list of supposed benefits is really surprising. Eagle dung, for instance, was used to induce labor and ease the pain: a mixture of oil, vinegar, and eagle excrement would be given to a woman going into labor for these supposed benefits.

Even among those nostalgic for the natural way things were done, including those opting for a natural birth instead of easing labor pains with an epidural, should be thankful no doula in their right mind would use eagle poop.

So Fresh, So Clean

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Do you remember when we told you that the Romans used to mix baking soda with mouse brains to make toothpaste? Well, believe it or not, but that’s actually not the weirdest concoction that people made in order to brush their teeth back in the day.

Ancient Greeks thought that mixing baking soda with oyster shells, crushed bones, bark, and charcoal constituted as good hygiene, whereas the ancient Egyptians brushed their teeth with eggshells and the ash from ox hooves.

When Nature Calls

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There’s nothing worse than getting the urge to go to the bathroom just as you’re starting to fall asleep. Centuries ago, though, people had their own solution for this — people kept miniature toilets underneath their bed.

Commonly called chamber pots, people would use them whenever nature would call in the middle of the night, and their unlucky maids would dispose of its contents in the morning. Now that we’re thinking about it, maybe that midnight trek down the hall doesn’t seem so bad.

Pain Is Beauty


Belladonna, Italian for “beautiful lady,” was the type of plant that women ate throughout the 16th and 17th centuries in hopes that it would enhance their beauty. Also known as the “deadly nightshade,” the Belladonna plant is highly poisonous.

One side effect of this is dilated pupils, which was a highly desirable trait back in those days. That’s why women would risk congestive heart failure, hallucinations, stomach ulcers, heart issues, and gastrointestinal tract infections (among other awful symptoms), all for beauty. Then again, you know what they say — “beauty is pain.”

Imitating The Fashion Icon Of The Time

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At this point in the list, we think it’s safe to say that urine was used quite often in the earlier days. It’s no secret that Queen Elizabeth I was considered stylish during her reign. Aside from her wide-set eyes and pale skin, the Queen’s red hair was something that many women sought to imitate.

During that time period, you’d have to subject yourself to highly toxic chemicals mixed with urine if you wanted to lighten or dye your hair. It sounds like the methods of dying, and bleaching hair has undoubtedly come a long way since Elizabeth’s era.

Brushing Your Hair Was Highly Dangerous

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It turns out that brushing your hair before the 1930s was actually pretty dangerous. That’s because combs and brushes, along with other innocuous items, were made with celluloid — transparent flammable plastic that’s highly combustible when hot, so much so that it doesn’t even have to be touched by a flame to actually catch fire.

A few people even lost their lives while combing their beards or hair. Despite the hazard, celluloid was used in these types of products for many years until it was finally replaced with safer plastic materials.