People who romanticize the past annoy me.  Because, frankly, the past was smelly and dirty and kind of awful.  Yes, I hear some of you say.  Of course it was. But do you have any idea exactly how filthy things were?

(Disclaimer: when I say “women” in this post, I mean cisgender women; there’s not exactly scads of data on historical trans folk.  Sadly.)

For starters: women’s fashion, and going to the bathroom.  You know those full skirts? Yeah, you couldn’t hike those up.  Women in the West didn’t wear underwear until the last century.  Before that, they squatted, skirts still swishing around their ankles.  I read a medieval history that mentioned women squatting in corners of the market, urine pooling into cracks in the street. And yes, they sometimes got their waste on their skirt hems.  But don’t feel bad for them, as their hems were already dirty from all the horse poop, mud, and effluvia that filled the streets.  They did wear pant-like things under their dresses, if the current fashion dictated it, but the crotch was split.

It was considered scandalous when women adopted panties at the end of the 19th century.  But changes in fashion allowed for it, and I can’t imagine anyone wearing a dress would want to keep getting their underthings messy.  Men freaked out, though.  Said it was unfeminine and unsanitary.  They probably thought it would lead to hysteria.  Because everything women did led to hysteria back then, or so guys thought.

This made menstruation a rather unpleasant business.  A lot of women who had light to moderate periods would just bleed into their underthings.  It was easier than having to go to the bathroom and hike up skirts in order to get to one’s sanitary products — which were rags, or knitted things, or whatever could be stuffed in place.  Some women, those with generous thighs, just stuck the rag between their legs and let their plumpness keep the rag in place.  Other women tied rags in place, but seriously, can you imagine wearing a hoop skirt and trying to get your hands to your crotch to untie it before you used the toilet?

The past was gross.

They didn’t wash their dresses or jackets.  They washed the shifts and other things they wore underneath, but not the garments themselves.  Ever.  In medieval days, which the noblewomen in castles had garderobes to use instead of outhouses, they would hang their dresses in there.  A garderobe was a backside-shaped hole in the outer edge of the castle.  You sat, you did your thing, and them some poor servant had to clean up the mess at the base of the castle every so often.  Poor servant.  So the garderobes smelled like waste, and they were drafty because they were literally a hole in the wall.  The theory was that the fresh air and urine smell would kill the lice in the garments.  It didn’t, and then the clothes smelled like a toilet.  And those were the rich people.

Random fact I just remembered: humans who lived in cities were shorter and less healthy than people who lived in the country.  Because in the cities there were no fresh vegetables.  Living on farms sucked — for example, people frequently situated the barn near the well and/or outhouse, so animal and human waste would get into the drinking water — but at least they got some vitamins in them.

Another random fact: in England only poor people ate vegetables.  Rich people ate meat, because they were the ones who could afford it.  Which is why so many wealthy people got gout, a disease that comes from eating too much rich food.  (And that’s why it’s called “rich” food, because only the wealthy could afford meat and pastries and things.)

The other problem with vegetables: in many places (England, for example), produce was fertilized with “night soil” — also known as human poop.  And most people didn’t wash their produce before eating it.  So eating vegetables could give you dysentery or cholera or any number of nasty diseases that pass through the human digestive tract.  (Interestingly, the reason we can fertilize with the waste of other animals is because diseases rarely cross the species line.  If you eat something with a little bit of horse feces on it, you’re not going to catch equine diseases.)

Oh, and hey — the night soil didn’t magically appear in the fields.  People in cities were paid to collect it and take it to farmers.  They weren’t paid a lot, but at least they got some compensation for hauling people’s feces around.  Can you imagine what their wagons must have smelled like?

And now I’ve grossed myself out.  Probably you too, my poor readers.  I didn’t mean for my first post to be about poop, it just sort of happened.  Goes to show you what looking at my “already read” list turns up.  Speaking of which, here are some sources.  Links go to the GoodReads page for each book, because I’m a GoodReads addict.

The stuff on menstruation comes from Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill.  I highly recommend it; it’s presented as a tour of Victorian womanhood, setting up the reader as a poor naive Jane Austen fan who thinks the past was romantic.  It’s hilarious.  A few quotes, to give you a taste:

(On corsets)

They can function as legitimate support garments, holding up your bosoms, perhaps even putting off the inevitable day when they will lie exhausted and battle-worn against your belly, flapping like tired little beaver tails with every step you take.

(On a Victorian male author saying periods were not to be “trifled with”)

I’m not even sure how one would go about “trifling” with her period. It’s not an activity that lends itself to festive sidetracking. “Oh, gracious, I know I should use a good absorbent napkin and diligent cleansing for this—but the heck with it! This month we’ll see what just cinnamon sticks and doilies can do!”

(On health problems)

Among other maladies, the prolapsed uterus was very common in this era. The best way I can describe it to you is to have you imagine your reproductive tract as a tube sock. Now turn it inside out, and let it dangle there. Prolapse.

(And weird random facts, which I always adore)

One of the reasons you see so much white in lace, aprons, cuffs, and collars in old paintings is because, since they were nearly impossible to maintain in that condition, they were a subtle way to signal the wealth, immaculate personal habits, and piety of the subject.

I don’t have quotes handy for my other sources.  But I enjoyed them.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool was my source for night soil and rich food.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer gave me the disturbingly descriptive bit about urinating in marketplaces.

And The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible!  by Otto L. Bettmann provided me with the lovely tidbit about the wells on farms.

Have a subject you’d like me to write about?  Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best.  Thanks for reading!


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