Saturday 27 October 2012

Getting your whites whiter than white

We've all been there. That schmuck comes on the TV telling us how much whiter our whites could be and just how bland that white we're wearing is. Naturally the solution is some suitably expensive glorified bleach with a lemon fragrance and some newly discovered super enzyme to turn bland to bling. Well, next time you reach for your favourite laundry liquid have a think about how Roman laundries went about getting those whites white. Step one was to go around the neighbourhood collecting chamber pots. If you were a good operator you could even get the chamber pots to come to you. Yep, for a couple of bits of small change, the urbane Roman could relieve himself of his...err, relief. That's right, we're talking the urine business here. Where money changed hands for the contents of your chamber pot...and then you paid to have your clothes washed in it. The process is pretty simple. Empty those chamber pots into a big vat, bring it to the boil and then add all those white togas and tunics that need a little brightening. This might seem pretty off-putting, but it's just basic chemistry. Boiling urine increases the concentration of ammonia - a normal component of our output, and, well, ammonia is the same thing we use in our modern day bleaches. Sure, that big vat wasn't lemon scented, but by the time the clothes came out of the vat the smell of ammonia would have replaced the less respectable smells the pot may have been making early on. So your clean toga would smell just like it would today if you'd soaked it in bleach. And it was just as white. Now, that's what I call something to think about....hmmmm, I wonder if there's still some money to be made in this business? 

Find out just how much Calvus thought his chamber pot was worth

1 comment:

  1. Here was I thinking that this was a one of those myths that get around about the Romans. Goes without saying it wouldn't have been the most pleasant of places to work in!