Tuesday, October 4, 2016

People Are Dirty by Katherine Pym




Bathing (unlikely 17th century London)

I grew up in an engineering family and worked many years at Boeing. There, great flying machines are built to stay in the air for literally hours and hours and jet halfway around the world without refueling. This is well engineered stuff.

With that in mind, I’ve always considered the human body a high maintenance machine. It is fragile and can’t take much without breaking down. It must regenerate (sleep) for a huge amount of its shelf-life. It requires hours of upkeep, always needs wiping down or, over the years, completely submersed in water with gallons of soap. The human body must be constantly refueled which produces prodigious amounts of venting waste. This turns out to be an expensive, never ending maintenance slog.

Who would have thunk this a good design? Not me. I’d really like a conversation with the designer and tell him my thoughts on how the human body could be improved. But with that conversation unlikely, I’ll have to stew over poor engineering.

Let’s take one of the above items for discussion. Bathing. Keeping clean. It’s a constant thing, but until fairly recently, not much was done about it. You see historical portraits of men and women who don’t smile. They are dressed in their finest ‘Let-us-go-to-sabbath-meeting-outfits.’ They look clean, but in reality, were they?

I’d call myself a historian, mainly London during the 1660’s, but through research, I’ve ventured beyond and prior to those years. During my reading, I only once came across the process of bathing. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of his wife’s thoughts on the subject, who considered it might be a good thing.

Once born, no one was ever truly naked, again. When you see paintings of naked men and women, it is fantasy. Men and women were considered naked when they wore only a thin muslin dressing gown or shift. Men’s shirts were long and covered their sensitive parts. Drawers were coming into favor but mostly women did not wear any type of undies. Their sleeping, going about the day shift was a multi-task garment. 

Bathing back in the day
 If one immersed in water, he or she wore the shift. No soap touched that part of the body. When one began a new day, he or she might splash water on their faces and again at night, but little else. Bowls of water were on the table for greasy hands. When they went to the bathroom, there was no toilet paper. People used their hands, clumps of moss, damp rags, etc. Household refuse and old water were cast out the window or door to molder in the street.

Soap was available but in potash liquid form. Common bar soap wasn’t invented until somewhere in the 19th century. Clothes that resided against the skin, i.e., shirts, chemises, shifts, stockings, bed linens were washed and hung to dry on rails or on hedgerows. One text I read said women would dump up to a pound of soap in a caldron to wash clothes. Even after rinsing, surely the fabric would be stiff with soap residue.

Silks, brocades, or woolen clothing would be brushed and worn until they were stiff with dirt. If they were still usable, they’d be handed down to servants, sold to a seconds clothing merchant or given to the rag boy.

Not the water works but bathing in a river
There were waterworks on the north side of London Bridge that pumped water into a few of the wealthier houses (obnoxiously loud and bulky, especially during the tidal flows). There were two conduits for water (On great occasions they ran with wine.), one small and the other much larger, along Cheapside Street where you could dip your buckets, but most of the time water-boys dragged water up the London hills to homes from the Thames River, a waterway fouled with human waste and rubbish, sometimes a dead body that floated for days or other animals.

So, even if you tried to remain clean, it was pretty much an impossibility next to what we expect in today’s hygiene. It would be like smearing a wet dirty cloth over a smudged and sweaty arm.

Large Periwig. Nits anyone?
Men and women wore their hair long. During the 1660’s King Charles II (whose hair was thinning and started to go grey) emulated his rival, Louis XIV and began to wear periwigs. Everyone who was anyone followed suit. Since there was no shampoo, hair and periwigs rarely got washed, and if any sort of soap was used, it made hair sticky. Instead, hair and periwigs filled with nits that turned into lice. Body wrinkles, folds, filled with dirt and body lice. Sores developed amongst this dirt and became infected. If they went septic, the person died.

People stank. They covered this stink not with soap and water but perfumes. They shook pomanders filled with spices (expensive). They chewed mint for bad breath. They walked down streets riddled with piles of stinking rubbish. Contents from chamber pots would be cast into the streets crowded with pedestrians.

I say, if an extraterrestrial species drifted close in their spaceship, they would smell earth before ever seeing our planet. That’s probably why they only monitor our radio frequencies and don’t make actual contact.

And that is why I consider our bodies a poorly constructed machine where we should get our money back from the manufacturer.

The End.

~*~*~*~

Many thanks to Wikicommons Public Domain, and my memory from multi-sources. 


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