How to Do Laundry Like an Ancient Roman

We should worship our home appliances. I mean, they make our lives so much easier and more convenient. We have appliances that store and preserve food, metal boxes that cook and heat our food for us, and machines that take care of cleaning our clothes, plates, and floors, with just a push of a button. Imagine washing clothes by hand—without soap. Because that’s what Romans did. Though it would be more accurate to say that the Romans washed their clothes by foot.

Romans were possibly the first to introduce a process called “fulling” to Britain. Fulling involves cleaning clothes through a process of pressure, moisture, and heat. Romans brought their clothes to what we could call the ancient equivalent of a laundromat or dry cleaner. 

Clothes were first “washed” by a fullo, a fuller. A Roman’s clothes were submerged in a vat, filled with a fascinating assortment of components. One would typically find water, fuller’s earth(a clay material that decolorizes oil or liquids), some alkali elements, and urine. I did not mistype. Urine and water were the main ingredients of Rome’s detergent. Urine was collected from public restrooms, as well as jars, which were put out in the streets in hopes that a kind passerby would gift the fulling house with some cleaning liquid. A fuller would then wash your clothes with two limbs: he (a fuller’s job was for men) would proceed to step on the clothes with his two bare feet, until the clothes were scrubbed clean of grease and dirt. 

Next, garments were squeezed by hand or through a corkscrew press to remove the “magical cleaning compound” from the clothes. To loosen dirt still on them, the clothes were beaten with sticks, before being rinsed off by fresh running water. Unlike the previous steps, to our modern brains blessed with soap and washing machines, this seems hygienic to us. If clothes were still dirty or stained after this process, they’d be washed again. Back to the urine pool!

Clothes were squeezed of water and spread on racks to dry in an open area. The clothes, usually wool, were brushed with a porcupine’s skin, or a similarly thistly plant. Next they clothes were transferred into a special basket, the viminea cavea. Underneath the basket, sulfur was placed so that the fumes would whiten the cloth. If you were special, aka rich, a high end fuller would rub cimolian onto your clothes, a fine white earth that was supposed to further whiten your clothes. The value of a piece of woolen clothing was said to go down after each wash as well. Some fullonicae were able to dye clothes in vats with the same fulling process.

A fuller was paid enough to do well for themselves. However, fullers were responsible by law to replace clothes that were lost or damaged. The job of a fuller was also looked down upon for, you guessed it, working with urine. Romans however, still gave their clothes to fullers to be washed since there was no other choice. Now after retrieving theirr clothes, the Roman would go about his day in his glorious, urine washed, foot trodden, sulfur smelling clothes. Who needs to buy perfume when you can pay for your clothes to be washed and come with that nice, rotten egg smell?

I now worship my washing machine.

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