Saturday, November 3, 2012

The ancient Romans used urine as toothpaste

From: Janice W.
Sent: November 3, 2012
To: undisclosed recipients
Subject: Fw: The ancient Romans used urine as toothpaste

I don't know why I sent this but heard you say on your podcast that you were getting a lot of political email, so I thought this topic would change things up a bit. Share if you dare :-) Janice.
From what archaeologists and historians can tell, the Romans had a rather close relationship with urine. They used it to wash their clothes, tan their leather, and brush their teeth. Urine is full of ammonia, a natural whitener, and although some of us may balk at the idea of swishing it around in our mouths, it may even prevent cavities. (Fluoride skeptics, are you catching this?)
To gather enough urine to clean the people's togas and tunics, laundrymen would set wide-mouthed jars along the streets in front of their shops. Passers-by could then use these jars when the need arose, and the laundrymen (or their slaves) would bring in the urine when the jar was full. This business became so lucrative that the emperors Nero and Vespasian both imposed urine taxes.

Laundromat at Pompeii (credit to Pepo Segura, Obra Social FundaciĆ³n "laCaixa")
This whole practice raises plenty of questions: Did women use these ancient Port-a-Potties? Were the pots placed in plain view or in discreet corners? How long did the pee sit around? Did Romans think this stank, or were they used to the smell because it was constantly on their clothes (and in their mouths)?

And then, back to the toothpaste for a second: Did everyone use this, or just the wealthy? There's some evidence that Portuguese urine was considered to have the best whitening properties, and this foreign urine must have been relatively expensive. Did Romans mix the pee with anything? Some scholars say they may have mixed it with pumice, for abrasive qualities, but that's not entirely clear. Ammonia and pumice still feature in the toothpastes of today.

Speaking of today: Modern-day bathrooms at ancient Roman sites are few and far between. At Pompeii, most are around the edges of the ancient town. This means that if you're poking around the corners of the buildings, looking for evidence of ancient toilets, you find a lot of evidence that people continue to have restroom needs, even if there's no organized place to meet them. Maybe someone could set out a few jars. (Source)

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