News from the Tennessee Valley Living Today

Those old days and stinking ways

It's hard to imagine living in a time before toothpaste, isn't it? Even if we go back in time just 144 years to the "War of Northern Aggression", we find soldiers wearing woolen uniforms (year-round) without the cosmetics, colognes, deodorants etc., that we take so much for granted these days. What a new meaning that gives to the '70s disco hit "Funky Town."

So, how did they stand it? Did they really stink? What did they use to hide body odors? Let's see.

Native American Indians, I have been told, believed that God has given us every plant for a specific purpose. I tend to agree. And from plants, even since ancient times, has come our help to escape from "funky town." Plants like the biblical "anise" (Pimpinella anisum). This licorice-scented herb, used to pay taxes in ancient Rome (and as a bait for mousetraps), was used as a breath freshener (so says Pliny the Elder, a scientist and a prolific writer who died in A.D. 79). I bet they needed it, too. And speaking of anise, most researchers now say the tithed herb "anise" in Matthew 23 really should've been translated as "dill" instead.

Lavender should come to mind. Its very name comes from a Latin verb which means "to wash." It had the reputation of not only being used in bathing, but also in calming worries, besides scenting rooms and clothing. Lavender also was said to be an aphrodisiac. Amazing what a little perfume or washing can do, huh?

Other breath fresheners used in biblical times include parsley. And you thought it was only for plate decoration, didn't you? Parsley had the reputation in Roman times of concealing the smell of alcohol on the breath. Does it work? You tell me. I can just see the blue lights flashing now as the cars are parked on the side of the road and the inebriated driver tells his tale. "Honest 'occifer', I've only been eatin' a salad!"

Actually, man has been concerned about "whiter teeth and fresher breath" since the 14th century (or before) when mint was recorded as such an agent for obtaining that close-up freshness. We still use its distilled oil in our toothpastes today as well as in our chewing gums. Orris root, obtained mostly from the Iris root (Iris florentina, chiefly), was also chewed in biblical times to neutralize smells of the breath, although the Hebrews were said to have not been ones to camouflage odors (mask them) to conceal personal filth as was common in Europe during the Middle Ages.

That said, the Jews of biblical days definitely did use their fair share of incense. Scripture is full of references for use of anointed and perfumed oils, burning of incense, etc. and temples were commonly treated with fragrant plants as well as burned incense to help to purify them from diseases and odors from animals. Thank goodness for Lysol.

Back to the toothbrush. Of course people had used chewed ends of certain tree twigs since about 3500 B.C., but these "chewingsticks" were surpassed only in about 1600 A.D. when the first bristled toothbrush originated in China. The "funky" thing is that historians tell us that many Americans still didn't brush their teeth until soldiers brought back the enforced habit after World War II. Gives a whole new outlook on the good ol' days. Ewww!

Jerry A. Chenault is Urban Regional Extension Agent, New & Nontraditional Programs, in Lawrence County.

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