Waking up with Plato: the history of our morning routine

Greg Jenner explores the history of our morning routine, from a Greek philosopher's alarm clock to bizarre Tudor toothbrushes...

Bathhouse

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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1

Sleep like a log on a stone

Since time immemorial, the morning routine has begun in bed. Sleep has always been a physiological necessity and the oldest evidence for a bed comes from the Middle Stone Age. Dating to 77,000 years ago, the remains of a hand-stitched mattress, woven out of leaves and rushes, have been found by archaeologists in South Africa. These cave dwellers presumably rolled out their mat on the floor, but if we jump to Neolithic Orkney (5,000 years ago), the inhabitants of Skara Brae slept on elevated beds carved from stone.

At the same time, in ancient Egypt, the nobility preferred beds that sloped downwards, or bowed in the middle. Oddly, while the poor slept on piles of cushions, the wealthy rested their heads on curved pillows carved from wood, ivory or alabaster. This was to protect their elaborate hair styles from morning bedhead.

2

Whistle as you wake

We are certainly not the first to be startled from our slumber by a timekeeping gadget. Allegedly, the first alarm clock was invented by Greek philosopher Plato, who lived about 2,400 years ago. We don’t know what this device looked like, but it may have been a water clock that used a draining mechanism to force air through a small gap, thereby producing a whistling sound to rouse Plato’s snoozing students.

Mechanical clockwork was miniaturised in the 17th century, thanks to the discovery of the pendulum, allowing Charles II’s subjects to own pocket watches. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that alarm clocks began loitering on bedside tables. Indeed, factory workers in Victorian Britain were awoken by a knocker-upper who tapped on their windows with a long pole.

3

Spend a penny on a potty

Our plastic toilet seat is not too dissimilar to the stone models used by the ancient Egyptians, though the flushing loo didn’t arrive until Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harrington, designed one in the 1590s. Yet he was too busy scribbling scandalous poetry to market his invention. So it wasn’t until the arrival of Josiah George Jennings’s washout toilets, unveiled at the Great Exhibition of 1851, before the middle class could abandon the potty in favour of plumbing.

We wouldn’t dream of using the loo today without wiping our bums, and it was no different for our Stone Age ancestors, who probably used moss and leaves on their backsides. Somewhat more unnervingly, Roman public toilets were equipped with a sponge, fixed on the end of a stick, which was used by successive lavatory visitors.

The Chinese were wiping with hygienic paper in the ninth century, but the west was a millennium off the pace. It took until 1857 for Joseph Gayetty to mass-produce modern loo roll impregnated with aloe plant extract for hygienic lubrication.

4

Exercise your right to take a shower

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 velodouche – a shower that only sprinkled water if you pedalled on an exercise bike.

But hygienic washing almost certainly extends back to the Stone Age. And, by the Bronze Age, the people of ancient Pakistan, the Harappans, were perfecting a public sanitation infrastructure that 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 most of their homes 2,500 years before ancient Athens was at its peak.

5

Put your pants on (if you’re wearing any)

When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, among the glorious golden treasures were also 145 pairs of underpants. The linen loincloth (shenti) was standard underwear of the time, regardless of class or wealth, but its origins seem even older. The mummified corpse of Ötzi the Iceman, who was murdered in the Tyrolean Alps 5,300 years ago, revealed he sported a goatskin loincloth.

Most European men and women went pantless until the mid-19th century, with ladies wearing long smocks under their dresses and men merely tucking their long shirts between their legs. However, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was surprisingly found to have been wearing boxer shorts when his preserved corpse was examined by modern conservators.

6

Dress to impress the fashion police

Body lice thrive in the folds of clothing, and are thought to have branched off from their near relatives, head lice, thousands of years ago – as a result of people adopting fabric clothing. We often depict Stone Age people in animal furs, but they also wove flax on primitive looms and used needle and thread to make clothes fit more snugly. In the Ice Age, well-insulated clothes were key to survival.

Today, fashion is more about looking good, but the ‘fashion police’ have been in operation for longer than you might think. In the Middle Ages there were laws proscribing certain colours and designs, and Edward IV demanded that purple, gold and silver fabrics be limited to royalty. You had to be of knightly class to get away with velvet.

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

7

Spice on your cornflakes?

Strangely, our humble bowl of cornflakes first arrived in the 1890s as a treatment for patients with mental illness who masturbated too much. Dr John Harvey Kellogg believed the lack of sugar and spice would reduce a person’s sex drive. It was his brother, Will, who sprinkled the sugar back on top and made a fortune out of the Kellogg’s brand.

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.

8

Ask your slave to brush your teeth

People have been treating toothache for millennia, with evidence of dental drilling in Pakistan dating back 9,000 years. But avoiding surgery has always been preferable, so tooth brushing with a frayed twig was part of the morning routine for everyone from the medieval residents of India to the Elizabethans.

Roman aristocrats had slaves to brush their teeth for them, applying powdered antler horn to brighten the enamel. Oddly, the best available mouthwash at the time was human urine imported from Portugal.

The Chinese invented the modern toothbrush but it never reached Europe, so the reinvention is credited to William Addis who, in 1780, inserted horsehair into a pig bone. But even Addis didn’t recommend brushing twice a day – that advice came from US army hygiene experiments in World War Two.

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Greg Jenner is a historian who spent many years as the historical consultant to CBBC’s multi-award-winning Horrible Histories.