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Digging The Dirt On Our Disgusting Cleaning Past


We all know that a clean home is essential if we want to live happy, hygienic lives. It may be boring taking the bins out and bleaching the bog, but luckily we’ve got tons of appliances and products to help us blast through those chores quickly and efficiently. 

Our ancestors didn’t have it so easy. In fact, they didn’t even realise the benefits of cleanliness – which helps to explain why the life expectancy of a Mediaeval peasant was just 31 years! It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century that domestic cleaning was transformed in a big way; as our timeline shows, the Victorians were responsible for many of the cleaning innovations we take for granted, such as the washing machine and dishwasher.

Prior to that, it’s fair to say our ancestors had some, erm, interesting ideas about cleaning and hygiene.

Let’s take a look back at cleaning through the ages…


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The Romans

  • From 500BC to 500AD, the Romans were responsible for domestic innovations including underfloor heating, public baths and public toilets – which after the fall of the Roman Empire, weren’t seen again in Britain until 1852.
  • Toilets were open and communal and bum-wiping was done with a sponge on a stick – that was used by everyone!
  • Ammonia extracted from urine was used to remove stains from clothes – an early form of dry-cleaning!


Photo credit: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock

Medieval times

  • The Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the 13th Century, but it did lead to people making a correlation between bad sanitation and the spread of disease. In 1388, the English Parliament imposed an eye-watering fine of £20 on anyone who ‘do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in ditches, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid.’
  • Floors were covered with straw and rushes to keep them clean, but Medieval housewives often just put more on top rather than replacing the whole lot – with revolting consequences. The great scholar Erasmus wrote in the Fifteenth Century: ‘(T)he bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned.’
  • Four poster beds were invented to stop bugs and droppings from birds nesting in the rafters falling on people while they slept. 


Photo credit: Macabre by Michael Wolgemut

The Tudors

  • In Tudor times, people stank – even Elizabeth I herself only had a bath once a month. It was common to carry a nosegay (bunch of herbs) or pomander (an orange studded with cloves) to block out the smell of other people – and your own stench!
  • The flushing toilet was invented by a nephew of Elizabeth I in 1596 but as there was no plumbing anywhere outside Hampton Court Palace, the invention remained useless for 300 years! 
  • In The English Housewife, by Gervase Markham, published in 1615, the English housewife is advised, upon rising, to ‘first sweep thy house, dress up thy dish-board and set all things in good order within thy house.’ 


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The Victorians

  • ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ was very much a Victorian ideal. Cleaning the average Victorian house – on several floors, with smoky fires and gas lights, and running water only in the basement – was a daunting task. ‘Washday’ would literally take up an entire day. An army of domestic servants helped Victorian middle- and upper-class homes run efficiently.
  • The Industrial Revolution resulted in the invention of some products we all use today, such as the electric iron (invented by Henry Smeeley in 1882) and dishwasher (Josephine Cochran in 1886). But their use didn’t become widespread until most British homes got electricity in the 1950s.

Victorian cleaning tips that still work today include:

  • Washing windows with white vinegar and water, then wiping with newspaper
  • Soaking crusty pots and pans in a mixture of lemon juice and crushed-up eggshells
  • Adding rhubarb to the bathtub to get stains out of the enamel
  • Using urine to get stale odours out of clothes (don’t try this one at home!)


Photo credit: 1913 

Twentieth Century

  • In 1914, there were 2.25 million people in domestic service, mainly women. However, during the Great War, many of these women had to take over the jobs normally done by men, and learned new and profitable skills. The majority of these did not return to service afterwards.
  • By the end of the 1950s, 88% of British homes had electricity – which revolutionised cleaning. Two-thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner.  
  • During the 1960s, washing machines and dishwashers became common items in British homes. The development of synthetic cleaners also made housework much easier.


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Twenty-First Century

  • Environmentally-friendly detergents and cleaning products have emerged as people worry more about their impact on the world.
  • Robot vacuum cleaners and robot window cleaners have taken mechanised house cleaning to a new level.
  • But what’s next – what will the next innovation be? Robot housekeepers? Self-cleaning homes? You’ll have to wait and see…






Victorian London's Middle-class Housewife: What She Did All Day, by Yaffa Draznin



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