Dirty Jobs: Classical Edition

"...and he was transfigured before them. 3And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them." (Mark 9:2-3, KJV) File this under “random gross Bible trivia.” A while back, during one of our dinners at LIFEgroup, someone made the mistake of wondering out loud how ancient people cleaned their clothes. Then I made the mistake of telling them…at the dinner table. While I don’t know how the ancient Israelites cleaned their clothes, I do know how the Romans went about it. There’s a particularly interesting description of the process in a book I got for Christmas called Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World by Vicki León. One of the “prized professions” that León describes is that of fuller—the classical equivalent to our dry cleaners. Fullers cleaned garments by soaking them in a giant vat of cleaning solution and then transferring them to another container to stomp them clean. They would then ring out the clothes—a job that might take two people, depending on the size of the garment. Perhaps you’re wondering why this should make for less than germane dinner conversation. I haven’t told you about the cleaning solution. The Romans hadn’t yet adopted the use of soap. Ironically, the German “barbarians” of the day were using it, but not the Romans. Instead, the Romans used a mixture of potash and urine. Yes, urine. Since it is rich in ammonia, it actually has cleaning properties. According to León, the fuller would place chamber pots at various street corners. (Although I guess it’s not really a “chamber” pot if it’s not in a chamber--more of an extremely portable potty.) Throughout the day, various citizens would provide the vital ingredient, and the fuller would then retrieve the pots. The stomping process was called the saltus fullonicus, or “fuller’s dance.” It’s believed that managers even kept their fullers moving with live music. Yup. Just another reason to be glad that we live in 21st Century America. I trust you’ll breath a sigh of relief the next time you load up a dishwasher and add a cap full of something that’s not urine. I wonder if Mike Rowe would take this job.