Showering, teeth brushing and donning underwear: the strange history of our daily routine

From the moment we wake in the morning, we all take part in rituals that are millennia old. But when did we start cleaning our teeth and wearing underpants? And who invented the bed and the alarm clock? Greg Jenner of Horrible Histories fame investigates…

c1935: family enjoys breakfast. (Camerique Archive/Getty Images)

At the end of our life, when we look back on our achievements, it’ll be the Kodak moments that shine like beacons in our autobiography – our nervous first kiss, our first passionate love affair, the excitement of passing the driving test, perhaps buying a house, or getting married? Maybe the birth of a child? But, while these are standout highlights, the majority of our lives are spent trotting through an utterly forgettable loop of mundane routines. Ever since we evolved 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens have had to contend with many banal necessities – washing our bodies, caring for our teeth, urinating, defecating, eating, drinking, sleeping, socialising with others, and communicating.

These things are universal to humanity across time and geography, and as a social historian they are of utmost fascination to me, not least because the history of such ordinariness is actually astonishingly extraordinary. In my book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life, From Stone Age to Phone Age, I have attempted to chart the evolution of these daily routines from their earliest origins until now.

 

Getting out of bed

How does your day begin? I’m guessing it starts with your alarm clock rudely interrupting your gentle slumber. Awakened by the shrill klaxon, do you leap immediately out of bed? Or, like me, do you spend a few minutes ensconced under the cosy covers, trying to remember what day it is? The latter is easily defensible; sleep is a physiological necessity, but so is comfort and warmth.

It’s for this reason that your mattress – though expensively sprung and quilted in memory foam – is not entirely a recent invention. Archaeologists in South Africa have found mattresses woven from leaves and rushes dating back 77,000 years to the Middle Stone Age. Prehistoric cave dwellers presumably rolled off their mat on the floor, but if we jump forward in time to Neolithic Orkney (5,000 years ago), the inhabitants of Skara Brae slept on elevated beds carved from stone – though they probably ensured a good night’s kip by lining the hard slab with animal furs and blankets.

In Bronze Age Egypt, a thousand years later, the wealthy also slept in raised wooden beds, but the frames sloped downwards or bowed in the middle. Oddly, while the poor slept in piles of cushions, the wealthy rested their heads on curved pillows carved from wood, ivory or alabaster. This was perhaps to protect their elaborate hairstyles from the embarrassment of morning bedhead, but it presumably caused the occasional bout of neck-ache too.

 

Going to the loo

Once out of bed, perhaps you tend to scurry to the lavatory to perform your morning necessities? The cold toilet seat that greets your bed-warmed buttocks is surprisingly similar to a stone version used by the ancient Egyptians, although the flushing toilet didn’t arrive until Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harrington, designed one in the 1590s. He, however, was too busy scribbling scandalous poetry to market his invention, and so the first to widely install flushing commodes were the generously-bewigged aristocracy of 18th-century France.

As for the rest of us, it wasn’t until the coming of Josiah George Jennings’s washout toilets, first demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851, that most middle-class people could abandon the potty in favour of plumbing.  

     
Roman toilet, Ostia, Italy. Found at the Archaeology Museum and Roman Ruins, Ostia, Italy. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

Reaching for the loo roll

With bowels and bladder evacuated, hygiene dictates you’d then reach for the toilet paper. The Stone Age equivalent was likely moss and leaves, and the Vikings followed suit. Somewhat more unnervingly for those of a British sensibility, Roman public latrines had no private cubicles and, perhaps even worse, the communal wiping material was a sponge on a stick (xylospongion) that was passed around between the various lavatory visitors.

In medieval Japan, no sponge was required – they preferred bamboo chugi sticks to scratch away the dirt – whereas early medieval Muslims scraped their backsides with an odd number of pebbles.

The Chinese were wiping with hygienic paper in the ninth century, but the west was a millennium off the pace. It wasn’t until 1857 that Joseph Gayetty mass-produced modern toilet roll, but the paper quality was poor and users were still liable to encounter splinters until the 1930s!  

 

Having a shower

After flushing the loo, maybe then you’d grab a shower? Though the ancient Greeks had drizzling nozzles in public baths, the modern shower was invented by William Feetham, in 1767. Curiously, some versions were mounted on wheels, meaning the user had to be careful not to roll away on what was effectively a moistened skateboard. The following century also witnessed the bizarre arrival of the Velo-douche – a shower that only sprinkled water if you pedalled on an exercise bike. Sadly, it did not catch on.

But hygienic washing almost certainly extends back to the Stone Age, and it was the Bronze Age inhabitants of ancient Pakistan – the Harappans – whose public sanitation infrastructure was arguably unrivalled until the 19th century. Though the Romans and Greeks built huge public bathhouses, heated by elaborate hypocaust systems, the Harappans delivered running water to the majority of their homes 2,500 years before classical Athens’ heyday.

Strangely enough, it’s not true that people became cleaner as time rolled onwards. While the Romans were obsessive bathers, 17th-century medical theory dictated that washing was dangerous because it removed the grime that blocked up the pores and prevented plague entering the blood. In response, royals and aristocracy almost never bathed, except under doctor’s careful observation, and instead they frequently changed their linen undershirts.   

c1250, a medieval bathhouse. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Putting on underwear

With a damp towel wrapped around you, next you’d probably shuffle from the shower to the bedroom and, having dried off, would don your underwear. A Bronze Age pharaoh was no different. When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, among the glorious golden treasures were also 145 pairs of spare underpants for use in the afterlife. These linen loincloths (shenti) were standard underwear for the time, worn by peasant and pharaoh alike, but they are not the oldest ever found. The frozen corpse of Otzi the Iceman, a Neolithic murder victim found in the Tyrolean Alps, revealed he sported a goatskin loincloth, 5,300 years ago. 

It seems that most Europeans went pant-less until the 19th century, with ladies wearing long smocks under their dresses and men merely tucking their long shirts between their legs. However, a medieval bra unearthed in an Austrian castle in 2012 has also confounded fashion historians – until a couple of years ago, they were confident such a garment was a 20th-century invention.

 

Choosing an outfit

Safely sporting your underpants, next you’d rummage through your wardrobe in search of an outfit. We know that our ancestors wore clothes at least 70,000 years ago, as this was when head lice evolved into a new species adapted to fabric. Popular culture usually depicts cave people draped in animal furs, but they also wove natural flax on primitive looms and deployed sewing needle and thread to make their clothes fit more snugly against the skin. In the freezing Ice Age, well-insulating togs were essential to survival.

Modern fashion is more about looking good. We jokily refer to the “fashion police”, but there were once actual sumptuary laws restricting certain colours, designs and fabrics. King Edward III demanded that purple, gold, and silver fabrics be limited to royalty only, and only knights could get away with velvet.

Similarly, in 17th-century Japan, a rule preventing middle-class merchants from wearing ornate robes led some to have the designs tattooed on their skin instead. This art of irezumi is still so highly regarded in Japan that people have been paid to bequeath their skin to museums upon their death.

 

Having breakfast

Fully clothed, you’d then pop downstairs for a nutritious breakfast. And if you plump for a humble bowl of cornflakes, then you’d be munching on a former medical cure for masturbation. In the late Victorian period, the American health evangelist Dr John Harvey Kellogg believed a sugary or spicy diet led to sexual urges and self-abuse; this, he thought, caused disease, so he invented a healthy breakfast cereal called granola.

His brother, the resident accountant at Dr Kellogg’s sanitarium, realised there was money to be made if sugar was added for the wider American market. Will Keith Kellogg went on to make a fortune with his breakfast empire, but it was a betrayal of Dr John’s principles – their fraternal relationship was forever tarnished.

Of course, every bowl of cereal needs a splash of milk, but this was only possible after the Neolithic farming revolution saw humans domesticate animals. Indeed, the mutated gene that allows most of us to drink cow’s milk without suffering painful flatulence is only 6,000 years old, and the majority of the world’s population don’t have it.    
As for the spoon in your hand, the Romans used them extensively, but archaeologists think that bone spatulas might have been used as utensils as far back as 25,000 years ago.

Advert for Kellogg's Rice Krispies, 1939. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

Brushing our teeth

With breakfast eaten, you’d hopefully head back upstairs to brush your teeth. This might feel very modern to us – we fully expect to see diseased teeth in historical movies – but people have been dealing with oral hygiene for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, the earliest dental surgery dates back to Neolithic Pakistan, 9,000 years ago. But avoiding surgical agony has always been preferable, so teeth brushing with a frayed twig, or rags, was widely practised in such places as ancient Rome, medieval India, and Tudor Britain.

Roman aristocrats had slaves to brush their teeth for them, applying powdered antler horn to brighten the enamel, and it was also well advised to gargle mouthwash. Alarmingly, the best available was human urine – what I like to dub Pissterine – imported from Portugal. The Tudors preferred acidic vinegar or wine, and it wasn’t until the 1920s before Listerine – previously sold as floor cleaner – was rebranded as an oral hygiene product to counter the newly-christened scourge of halitosis.

The modern toothbrush was first made by the Chinese, but it never reached Europe, so the recent reinvention is credited to William Addis who, in 1780, while languishing in jail, inserted bristles from a nearby broom into a pig bone left over from his dinner. But even Addis didn’t brush twice a day – that recommendation was the product of the US Army’s hygiene experiments in Second World War which, allied up with softer plastic bristles and the later addition of fluoride to the water supply, saw a swift rise in oral health.

Greg Jenner is the historical consultant to BBC’s Horrible Histories and the author of A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life, from Stone Age to Phone Age (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015).

To hear free clips from the audiobook, click here.

Greg Jenner will be at our History Weekend in Malmesbury in October giving a lecture titled 'An Extraordinary History of Ordinary Daily Life'. He'll take us on a whistle-stop tour of those basic rituals and routines­ - washing, using the toilet, eating, drinking, communicating, socialising, walking the dog - that we’ve practised since the Stone Age.

This article was published online as part of our Weird History Week - a celebration of all things weird and wonderful! We'll be exploring unusual foods, pets and medical practices through history; historical superstitions; the politics of hair, plus much more!

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