RSS Feed

Personal grooming and hygiene: glimpses of the past

In skimming the pages of any cultural history, one is bound to find some similarities among various peoples—for instance, the desire to be clean and sweet-smelling, coupled with the yen to be handsome or beautiful.

Come along as we catch some glimpses of beauty treatments and personal hygiene—ancient Near East style.

Start with the basics

Picture yourself in a home in some ancient village, looking into a lovely hand-woven basket. It contains an odd assortment to your eye. What do you suppose its contents are used for?

  • Ashes of soda-yielding plants
  • Fat
  • Rosemary
  • Marjoram
  • Pumice stone
  • Sponges
  • Oils
  • Fragrances

If you answer that people from the ancient Near East use these in the act of personal bathing, you are correct. Cleanliness is a basic priority for many cultures, and particularly, among both Old and New Testament Israelites. It is especially imperative for them to be clean in preparation for the Sabbath.[1]

Ashes of soda-yielding plants mixed with some kind of fat are used for washing one’s body. If a laborer (like a tanner) is especially dirty, he can use a pumice-stone as an abrasive, or natron (from the same root word which means “to froth”), the sodium carbonate imported from Egypt or Syria, to remove the grime. He might finish off by rubbing himself with the strongly scented herbs of rosemary and marjoram.

(However, if you happen to be, say a second-century Roman, bathing at a public bath house, you clean yourself by first covering your body with oil. Then you, or perhaps a servant, scrape off the oil with a special scraper called a strigil. It’s made from bone or metal—ouch!)

After women (and perhaps some men) bathe themselves, they apply creams to protect their skin against the harsh sun, and to counteract body odors. These emollients consist of oils from olives, almonds, gourds, various trees and plants, and animals or fish. Adding fragrances produced by expert craftsmen from “seeds, plant leaves, fruits, and flowers, especially roses, jasmines, mints, balsams, and cinnamon”[2] makes this beauty treatment especially luxurious.

The nose test

Peering at the contents more closely, you spy a small jar of what appears to be a finely ground spice. Is it pepper?  With a quick sniff you recognize it immediately—it’s licorice or anise. Do you wonder why this is included?

Toothbrushes or toothpaste have yet to be invented. The ancient Egyptians’ formula for dental hygiene consisted of powdered ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells, and pumice. Over time, the peppery anise powder comes to be used as a breath freshener.

The Romans will soon step in with more refinements, adding abrasives such as crushed bones and oyster shells, to aid in cleaning debris from teeth. They also add powdered charcoal, powdered bark and more flavoring agents to improve the breath.

The “toothbrush” remains the same—one’s finger. (It is believed that the Chinese invented the toothbrush in 1498, using bristles from pig’s necks).

Guess again

An ornate box sits near the basket. You lift its lid to find some combs, a mirror, and the following:

  • Soap
  • Perfumes
  • Essential oils
  • Gold dust
  • Henna

Puzzling? This is a do-it-yourself, or perhaps a commercial hair care kit (my term). The first three items are used in combination as precursors to our modern shampoo. The results, should you try the mixture, will rate a quick “thumbs down.” You will find it irritating to the eyes, difficult to wash out, leaving your hair dull and a little gummy. (In fact it has been only recently that science has developed sophisticated products to deal effectively with hair soil.[3])

To apply it on the hair; Henna powder is mixed...

To apply it on the hair; Henna powder is mixed with water and then applied on the hair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside the box: historians on “hair”

Henri Daniel-Rops shares Josephus’ eye-witness commentary concerning some hair treatments of the day: “Depraved young men would sprinkle it [their hair] with gold dust to make it more brilliant,” and, “old bucks like Herod dyed it.” [4] In Jezebel’s time it was usual for women to cover their grey using Antioch-red or Alexandrian henna (p. 304). That custom found its way to the first century as well. “Both men and women dyed their hair. Men sometimes dyed it black, sometimes blonde. Women dyed their hair black, but especially auburn, and were at pains to cover grey hair.”[5] Wigs were also worn by both sexes, although this style existed in the main within the ranks of the wealthy non-Jewish upper-class.

Taming their locks

Hair styles have been of significant importance to women (and men) throughout history. They not only enhance beauty but they say much about a woman’s social standing within her community.

Cultural historians note that first century hair styles included plaiting: “The women of Israel were very cleaver at plaiting their hair, adorning it and even curling it” (Daniel-Rops, page 304). Young women sometimes tied their hair back in a plain knot, and then ran a plait over the top of the head in the front. Roman women of the upper class often piled their hair high in elaborate styles. Bouquet writes, “Towards the end of the first century most wonderful structures came to be erected on the top of women’s heads” (p. 68).

Bust of a Roman woman, ca. 80 CE. Raised hairs...

Bust of a Roman woman, ca. 80 CE. Raised hairstyles, made by mixing stranger and own hair, were very common during the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian: 69–96 CE) at the court and outside. The pointed nose and double chin indicate a realistic design of the portrait, which points out the republican time and comes in contradiction with the idealization of the early empire art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These extravagant adornments were likely the genesis of calls for moderation and modesty found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “…. in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works;” and 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel —rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”

An interesting bit of trivia concerns the first hairbrush: “Around 2500 B.C, ancient Egyptians used paintbrushes for grooming hair. Later, ancient Greeks and Romans used hairbrushes for removing lice and dirt. The first U.S. hairbrush patent was granted to Hugh Rock in 1854.”

Now is good!

While some things never seem change—i.e., the desire for beauty and cleanliness—regarding certain others, there is no comparison between then and now. I, for one, am quite happy with bars of soap manufactured to meet my skin’s particular needs, minty toothpaste applied on soft-bristled brushes, shampoos that clean, rinse out easily, and leave hair with a healthy shine, and, private baths.

I don’t mind glimpsing the past, but I surely wouldn’t want to stay there.


[1] Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, Henri Daniel-Rops (1961), p. 302.

[2] Holman Bible Dictionary “Cosmetics,” http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T1424

[4] Daniel-Rops, p. 303.

[5] Everyday Life in New Testament Times, A.C. Bouquet (1953), p. 67.

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

12 responses »

  1. Hey there! I could have sweorn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading
    through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
    Nonetheless, I’m definitely delighted I found it annd I’ll be book-marking and checking
    back frequently!

    Reply
  2. Spot on with this write-up, I really think this site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the information!

    Reply
  3. Hi, I do believe this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it😉 I will revisit yet again since i have book marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.

    Reply
  4. Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe that this site needs far more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks for the advice!

    Reply
  5. After going over a number of the blog articles on your blog, I honestly appreciate your way of writing a blog. I book-marked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back in the near future. Please visit my web site too and tell me how you feel.

    Reply
  6. Your mode of describing the whole thing in this post is truly nice, all be able to simply be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

    Reply
  7. With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my agreement. Do you know any techniques to help prevent content from being ripped off? I’d truly appreciate it.

    Reply
  8. My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different web address and
    thought I might check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.
    Look forward to finding out about your web page yet again.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: