How were clothes cleaned in historical times
History of laundry care
Washing clothes is an everyday occurrence that accompanies us as a matter of course in life. In spite of this, or perhaps precisely because of this, it is extremely exciting to look at the historical development of laundry washing. For the early period of human history there are no reliable sources as to whether and in what way people cleaned their clothes. Only for the time around 2500 BC Research can fall back on corresponding texts and images. The first well-dated source is a soap recipe from Mesopotamia. Soap is one of the oldest chemical products.
Laundry washing can therefore look back on over 4,500 years of well documented history. But of course it can be assumed that washing clothes was an indispensable necessity for early humans as well, as soon as they began to protect their bodies with clothing. In addition to purely hygienic reasons, ritual acts may have been in the foreground. However, one can only speculate about the method of cleaning: probably the first people washed their clothes in cold water until they found out that hot water cleans better; maybe you already knew one or the other plant that has taken on the function of a detergent.
Egyptian wall paintings show how slaves wash the items of laundry with water and beat them with clubs to clean them. Then the men wring out the washed fabric thoroughly. Inscriptions testify that the ancient Egyptians already used soda, which they found as a mineral in the desert, and potash as a washing additive. Although the Egyptians as early as 600 BC While they dominated the manufacture of soap, their washing effectiveness was discovered late. At first, soap was used more as a cosmetic aid than for cleaning.
Even in Roman times, soap did not play a role as a washing additive for a long time. Only Pliny the Elder (around 23-70 AD) reported the use of soaps when he described the customs of the Gauls and Teutons. These two peoples also used soap as a cosmetic product - mainly as a hair pomade. In this use, soap became a sought-after commodity and it was not until the 2nd century AD that the Romans used it for cleaning purposes. Of course, the Greeks and Romans did their laundry anyway. They used ash lye, a mixture of water and wood ash, which has a high proportion of alkali. The Romans knew another way of extracting alkali, which may seem a little unsavory today, but it is quite effective: the scrubbers collected human urine, which has the property of producing alkaline ammonia during the decomposition process. The great profits that the washers made from this practice led Emperor Vespasian to levy taxes on urine. In this context he coined the phrase "Pecunia non olet" (money doesn't stink).
For many centuries the practice of washing clothes did not change significantly. Even in the Middle Ages, the use of soap for washing was reserved only for the wealthy. It was very expensive to manufacture and poor people still used wood ash and tallow as cleaning agents. It was not until the 19th century - in the course of the industrial revolution - that the demand for soaps increased. The raw materials tallow and wood ash began to become scarce and so the development of new processes for soap production became necessary. In 1789, the doctor and chemist Nicolas Leblanc developed a process for chemical soda production that was later named after him, thus paving the way for industrial mass production of soap products. The soapmaker's trade, the center of which had been Marseille for a long time, has now turned into a gigantic branch of industry that still secures jobs for thousands of people to this day.
In spite of everything, the washing process itself was really hard work well into the 20th century. The mechanical processes of tamping, beating or rubbing the laundry on a washboard, through which the dirt was more easily detached from the textiles, required a great deal of effort, which was only made insignificantly easier by boiling the laundry. It was not until the invention of the washing machine and powerful, modern detergents that there was a turning point in laundry cleaning.
The first washing powder conquered the market around 1880. Until then, soap was only available as a block and the laundry was either rubbed directly with soap or fine shavings were scraped from the soap into the washing water. The development of the first heavy-duty detergent by Fritz Henkel in 1907 was revolutionary. Now laundry could be washed and bleached at the same time. The invention of the first electric washing machine in 1901 made washing clothes even easier. The device, which was initially very expensive and, for many, unaffordable, is now in almost every German household thanks to ongoing developments and moderate prices. Washing clothes - for a long time a very time-consuming and exhausting process - has become a duty for modern people that can easily be done on the side.
But even today laundry washing remains an exciting field of activity - especially for chemists. One of the most important tasks will be to create high-performance and environmentally friendly detergents that provide better and better washing performance. This is sure to make laundry even easier for us in the future.
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