How A Bad Experiment And Dead Horses Led To Your Morning Shower

Illustration for article titled How A Bad Experiment And Dead Horses Led To Your Morning Shower

The 16th through 18th centuries, in addition to their regrettable stances on witch burning and geocentrism, were a stinky time to be alive. People did not bathe due to a popular misconception. What turned it around? Another popular misconception, a poorly-thought-out experiment, and dead horses.


The problem was that the resurgence of the plague, and the emergence of diseases like syphilis, made people think that communal bathing spread disease. They also began to think that bathing at all spread disease. The opening of the pores, doctors concluded, let in unhealthy vapors; a person should shmear their pores shut with their own bodily oils and never allows those protective oils to be washed away. This remained the prevailing wisdom for hundreds of years. Clean people didn't wash, they just changed their linen, and kept their pores locked down.

It took a lot of social re-engineering to make baths healthful again. Gradually health spas, cold baths to "harden" children, and soap became more common. At last, in the 1830s, scientists began to reexamine the "closed pores are healthy" doctrine that had held sway for 300 years, but they did this in the worst way possible. They began by shaving horses. They then covered the horses in pitch. The horses promptly died. When the scientists added glue to the pitch, the horses died even faster.

Carbon dioxide, the doctors said, was exhaled partially through the skin, which breathed just like any other organ. If pores were clogged up, the skin could not breath and an organism would die. The doctors concluded that clogged up pores were not good for people, and that more frequent bathing would probably make the population healthier.

They were perfectly correct about how unclogged pores and clean bodies were better than only bathing once a year. They had, however, come to exactly the wrong conclusions about what killed the horses. These conclusions furnished urban legends ever since, culminating in iconic James Bond scenes, but they had no basis in fact.

Humans don't breathe through our skin — not even a little bit. We do regulate heat through our skin, and covering it completely can get in the way of that. Covering a horse in warm pitch means surrounding the horse with a tremendous amount of heat while removing its ability to cool itself down. The pitch doesn't have to be too hot to kill the horse as long as there is a lot of it, and the horse can't sweat. We can also take in poisons through our skin, which means the glue probably poisoned the horses.

Fortunately, errors in carbon dioxide loss weren't the only things spread that day. People had, at last, a scientific reason to believe that bathing frequently was more healthy than bathing infrequently. Bath time wasn't an indulgence or a foolish and destructive habit but a way to maintain good health. From the 1800s on, bathing more frequently and more completely gained popularity. And that is why you probably started this morning with a shower, instead of stuffing your dirty body into fresh linen and passing out on the bus to work from the collective stench.


Top Image: Elma.

[Via The Dirt on Clean]




Esther, please chime in on this part as well. I've always heard another exacerbating factor was the early Christian church. Bathing was seen as a lascivious and pagan thing which was symptomatic of the moral decline that undermined the Roman Empire they simultaneously hated and admired. So yet another nail driven in the coffin of personal hygiene. Am I repeating unsubstantiated "everybody knows" misinformation, or is there a kernel of truth to this?