Thursday, February 28, 2013

Everyday Medieval Devices

We take so much for granted with our everyday modern items and appliances. What did people in the Middle Ages use instead of toothpaste, nail clippers or wristwatches? I’ve compiled a basic list of items we use today followed by the medieval equivalent.

Comic from -
Soap – Soap was usually made from ash lye and animal fat

Plates and utensils – They had plates and utensils made from metal, wood and bone. Even dried bread rounds were used for plates. These were called trenchers.

Telephone and texting – parchment missives and letters written with quill and ink, or people who relayed verbal messages.

Electric lights – candles, oil lamps, torches, sunlight (things we still use today when the electricity goes out)

Nail clippers – crude scissors, biting, files from anything rough such as stone, wood and some metals

Clocks and wristwatches – an hourglass (~1338 A.D.), mechanical clocks (wind up, weight driven clocks mostly used in clock towers, ~1200-1300 A.D.), sundials, looking at the position of the sun, knowing the seasons

Lipstick – beeswax or other wax tinted with color from fruits, plants or even insect innards (ewww)

Hair lightener – washing their hair in lemon juice or brushing it into the hair before allowing the sun to bleach it - must have reeked havoc on the roots and tips, though.

Laundry bleach – hanging clothes in the sunshine

Laundry washer – using a washboard (or large rocks in the river) together with lye-soap and water

Laundry dryer – an indoor or outdoor clothesline or wood frame for hanging the clothes on, or laying clothes and sheets on the grassy ground, bushes or over low walls

Body deodorant – washing the body in non-scented or scented water, using perfumes and scented oils from essences of flower petals, herbs and spices. Clothes were often stored with lavender and other herbs, not only to keep moths away, but to keep them smelling good.

Air deodorizer – smoke, flowers, or anything that would be a body deodorant

TV and entertainment – books for those who could read (often only in Latin), live entertainment with jesters, jugglers, animal handlers, musical bards, story tellers, dancers, puppeteers, tournaments, sports, etc.

Carpet – Medieval castles did not have carpet until about the 14th century because it was common to cover floors with dried grasses, flowers and herbs. The plants provided fragrance and could regularly be swept away and replaced, keeping the floor relatively clean. Though textiles were costly, castles hung tapestries from the walls for insulation. This practice later evolved into carpeting floors. The poorer folks with wood or hard-packed dirt floors either kept them bare or also covered them with rushes, straw/hay, flowers and herbs.

Ground flour and other grains –Vertical windmills (~1180 A.D.) made grinding grain or draining water more efficient.

Buttons, snaps, elastic and zippers – Ties were the most common way to keep your clothing on until the functional button arose in England about ~1200 A.D. – zippers and elastic were not introduced until modern times.

Fabric – Fabrics and material were produced by hand on vertical and horizontal looms.
Horizontal looms (appearing about the11th century) were operated by foot-treadles, making production faster and more efficient. The spinning wheel was introduced into England around the 13th century.

Drinking fountain - Artesian wells (~1126 A.D.) - A thin rod with a hard iron cutting edge is placed in the bore hole and repeatedly struck with a hammer, underground water pressure forces the water up the hole without pumping. Artesian wells are named after the town of Artois in France, where the first one was drilled by Carthusian monks in 1126.

Central heating – a fire pit in the center of the room, or later fireplaces with a chimney (~1100 A.D.). In some buildings, furnace-heated air was conducted through empty spaces under the floors and out pipes in the walls, this method was seen more in wealthy abodes. Tapestries on the walls and coving windows also added to insulation.

Air conditioning – Aside from opening a window there were servant-powered fans. Romans ran aqueduct water through their walls, and the Chinese used rotary fan devises up through the end of the 1200s A.D.

Facial tissue – handkerchiefs or any available material such as a sleeve (I'm sure the "farmer's blow" was utilized QUITE often - as it is even today *laugh*)

Toilet paper – Any cloth rag that could be washed, a sponge on a stick (like in Ancient Rome), plants called common mullein for its absorbent and soft texture, the left hand (gross but true), defecating into rivers, scrapping with wood shavings, leaves, grass, hay, stone, sand, moss, snow, maize, ferns, husks, fruit skins, seashells, corncobs - Let me just say that I LOVE my toilet paper *GRIN*

Dryer sheets - Boiling clothing in scented water, and then hanging them out to dry

Hair brush – Wooden brushes handles with horse or other animal hair strung through it. Oils for the hair also made the hair smooth and shiny - or not washing the hair for a week and letting the natural oils take their course :).

Toothbrush – If you could make it or afford it, a small wooden stick with coarse hair from horse or other animal strung through it. Simply rinsing with water helped clean the teeth to an extent. A common practice was to use sticks that were frayed at the end or whitening teeth with powder. Picking the teeth with a knife or toothpick made of wood, bone, feather quills, porcupine quills or using the fingernail was probably the most common along with using a piece of cloth, or a chew stick/twig made from a tree with antimicrobial properties such as Salvadora persica, Sassafras, Dakhaar, Gun tree, Tea tree, Neem, Gouania lupuloides, Cinnamon, Dogwood, olive, walnut, and other trees with bitter roots.

Floss – I didn’t find any record of people actually using floss to clean between their teeth, but if anyone was intuitive enough to think of doing it, they could have used horse or other strong animal hair I suppose. Otherwise, they cleaned their teeth with the items and techniques mentioned above under "toothbrush".

Toothpaste – though sodium bicarbonate (what we call baking soda) did exist, but it was mainly used for tenderizing meat – I don’t know if it was used for teeth.

Mouthwash and breath fresheners – chewing on mint leaves, bay leaves, cinnamon bark or other herbs. Rinsing with water, wine or vinegar. 

Hope you enjoyed reading this historical list! I don't know about you, but after compiling it, I was sure glad to live in modern times! Yeah, I know, we're pretty darn spoiled . . . and loving it :-)


  1. I'm personally a huge fan of toilet paper! Awesome list.

  2. One of my hygiene favorites was the ancient Egyptian practice of wearing a lump of scented wax on the top of your head to a dinner party. As the party heated up, the wax melted, wafting its alluring scent through the room. (Shudder!)

    1. *laugh* Oh that's too funny. Though I'm sure they picked some wonderful scents, I can imagine the trouble of getting the wax out of their hair (or off the head wrap) afterwards.