In the ancient world, the Romans were on top of their laundry game.
Innovative and industrious, they were able to clean their linens and fund government infrastructure. These two initiatives were accomplished through a very special ingredient that everyone on the planet is familiar with today:
That’s right, the ancient Romans used pee to purify their garments, valuing its ammonia content for its ability to rid cloth of grease and dirt. In some cases, it was even used to whiten teeth. And while modern audiences certainly balk at the idea of implementing their wee to cleanse their favorite outfit, they can also rest assured knowing that some Romans of antiquity felt the same.
In fact, they could find a kindred spirit in an equally disgusted young man by the name of Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian in the 1st century AD.
Amongst many other things, Vespasian is known for his taxation on urine. While the idea was initially implemented by Nero during his reign, Vespasian reinstated the decree, of which he consistently regulated. He therefore put more wealth in the empire’s piggy-bank.
Svetonius, a historian from Rome’s early Imperial era, wrote of Titus’s conflict of opinion with his father:
“When [Vespasian’s] son Titus blamed him for even laying a tax upon urine, he applied to his nose a piece of the money he received in the first installment, and asked him if it stunk. And he replying no, ‘And yet,’ said he, ‘it is derived from urine,'” –The Lives of the Caesars circa A.D. 120.
While many of us were embarrassed by our parents, Titus deserves special mention for having a father who forced people to pay for their piddle. However, even though Vespasian’s taxing trends may seem ruthless, if not unorthodox, the money he earned funded valuable government infrastructure. Possibly the most important urban monument is something that people from countless times and places have enjoyed throughout history: the Colosseum.
What the outer structure of the Colosseum may have looked like
Furthermore, a laundry legacy from the ancient world still exists nowadays. Ancient Romans wouldn’t wash their clothes at home, but would take them to the historical equivalent of a laundromat: the fullonica. A team of male youths would stomp on the delivered items until the combination of pressure from their feet and the ammonia would result in clean clothing.
Youths at work in the fullonica
Before wrinkling you nose too much, remember that Rome has always experienced temperate weather, and that its summers were as hot in the past as they are today. Thus, thoroughly disinfecting material was of equal importance back then as it is in modern times to ensure quality hygiene. Thankfully, the ammonia was diluted with water.
Fullonicas are of course aspects of the past, but the degree of planning and time that went into washing clothes finds similarities in contemporary Rome.
While washing machines are common features in many apartments, dryers are for the most part unknown commodities. That means that extra time must be calculated for drying that cool shirt you’re planning on wearing for the weekend. Ever wonder why there are so many Roman postcards with the entire contents of someone’s wardrobe billowing from a quaint window? Because that person doesn’t have a dryer. What you’re posting to your friends and family is an example of excellent organisation and pre-planning.
Laundry organisation at its finest
Time as an issue is also compounded by the fact that many washing machines don’t have a quick cycle-the shortest one can be up to an hour long. The plus side of having longer cycles is making each one count; putting in fuller loads of different colors on cooler settings wastes less water, and also uses less energy in the long run.
However, if time is money and you have extra cash to burn, then more and more laundromats, or lavanderie, are popping up around the city. Customers pay per load for both washing and drying, and can choose from small, medium, and large machines. Each laundromat will have its own prices, but washing and drying larger quantities of clothing (up to 16kgs), can cost around €14, usually less. You can either take care of your items yourself, or leave it for the laundromat to take care of.
Keep in mind that pricing may change in the latter instance, as you’ll also have to pay around €1 for any washing detergent and softener. However, the staff will also fold your clothes and have them ready for you after your return just a few hours later.
Some names to look out for are Punto Blu in Monti, Onda Verde near Termini, Il Mastello in Trastevere, and Cinderella Wash in Prati. There are of course more options that a more specified Google search will render.
Anyone staying in a hotel will benefit from utilizing laundromats. The services provided by hotels are provided by independent laundry companies, and as such the rates are expensive. Although prices vary, some hotels will charge up to €2 euro per item of clothing, including independent socks.
If you’re literally not afraid to get your hands dirty, then hand-washing is an option. This practice is fairly common throughout Italy, and supermarkets sell detergents, soaps, and softeners that are made for this specific purpose. Anyone traveling with children would do well by having detergent on stand-by for the high turnover of cute yet gelato-covered garments that have to be dealt with at short notice.
Although its toilet-taxing days are over, ancient Rome provided the world with efficient and lucrative ways of funding urban developments, and keeping its citizens’ clothes clean. Today, we can enjoy the fruits of their labour in structures such as the Colosseum, and recognizing the importance of hygiene in our cleaning practices. While the ancient Romans took their laundry to fullonicas, the modern equivalents are laundromats with far better prices than hotel laundry fees. Of course, apartments are equipped with washing machines, just be sure to put aside an entire day (sometimes two in cold weather) for clothes that have been hung out to dry.
Ready to air your own dirty laundry while in Rome? Then stay tuned for Joy of Rome’s debut of its laundry-centered webinar coming out this December! See what makes Rome unique from the rest of the world.
Adventurers, delve into the ancient Roman world to discover other ways it influenced your life today. Sign up for either Ancient Rome, Highlights of Rome, or the Secrets of the Colosseum to see what you share with antiquity.