The Bizarre Way Ancient Romans Washed Their Clothes

The ancient Romans were no stranger to vanity. They cared greatly about maintaining appearances, and hygienic practices such bathing, wearing nice perfume, and even regular dentistry were all a necessary part of communicating their wealth and social standing. Clothing was also an important status symbol, so the care and maintenance of garments was a lucrative business in ancient Rome.

Garment washing was handled by fullones, laundry workers who ran fullonicas, workshops akin to a modern day laundromat. They handled every aspect of the garment care process, from washing the clothing to dying, rinsing, and drying. The clothing, however, was not washed with the equivalent of the fresh-smelling detergents we use in laundromats today, but with urine that was collected from public restrooms, or even imported from surrounding towns, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Each Roman city had its own fullonica, where townspeople could bring their garments to be laundered. Most Romans wore white togas that were made of wool, which easily collected sweat, absorbed bad smells, and stained frequently. Ancient Romans realized the ammonia in urine could break up the dirt, keeping whites looking white and eliminating those pesky toga stains, according to A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. The full process of "fulling," or washing the garments, involved three steps. But before the fullones could even get started with the washing, they had to go around town with buckets and collect the necessary urine.

Fullones treated garments with urine and sulfur

Sometimes, a fullo would even stand on the street corners and wait for someone to relieve themselves directly into the waiting vessel. Once they had gathered the necessary liquid, the fullones returned to their shops, where the urine was mixed with water and sometimes other alkaline chemicals. The clothing was then placed in a tub or vat with the liquid, where the fullones stomped and trampled on them, thereby releasing the chemical agents and breaking up the grease and dirt.

Once the clothing was sufficiently treated, it was brought to a separate large basin, where the remaining dirt and chemicals were rinsed out with clean water. Finally, the clothes were hung out to dry, either on lines or on the roof of the shop. Sometimes, they would receive additional treatments, such as hanging the clothing over a basket of steaming sulfur, which further helped with whitening. The garments were also brushed with thistle to ensure they looked pristine before they were returned to their owners.

It wasn't necessarily an easy process, but the fullonica was a profitable enterprise. Because of their important role keeping everyone looking neat and stylish, fullones were essential and respected members of Roman society, even if part of their job did involve emptying the town's urinals.