Friday, 29 November 2013

Detergent: Life Changing, World Changing

Do you wear an apron or sleeve protectors?   I ask because I saw another round of those 'Top 10 Inventions' lists on the Internet.  They were looking at the best stuff in the 21st century - I did think it was a little premature or maybe their foresight suggests it's all downhill from here.  Anyway, it reminded me of a conversation with my Mom in 1999, when a century and a millennium were coming to a close and those lists were everywhere.  Best invention of the 20th century lists, best invention of the millennium lists, world-changing-est idea of the last hundred year lists appeared on every website, in newspapers and on the TV until I wished websites, newspapers and TVs hadn't been invented.

In those lists cars, TVs, computers, aeroplanes, the Internet (basically computers again), telephones (static and cell) were often at the top.  It made me wonder if they really were the important things.  I've found when everyone is looking one way, it's best to look in another, so  I asked my Mom what she thought the most important invention was.  She was 71 at the time and had experienced a large chunk of the 20th century by living through it and her life had been changed by all these life-changing ideas so unlike the compilers of lists she knew exactly what life-changing means.

Her answer, without hesitation, was: detergent.

If seemed a trivial answer: washing powder vs the A-bomb or washing-up liquid compared to supersonic flight, so I pressed her on her logic.  Cars and planes just sped up what was already possible:  getting from A to B.  Humanity had filled the whole world with nothing better than their feet and canoes.  Telephones, the same: humans are the master communicators, we have always conversed using everything from scrolls to carrier pigeons to telegraph, including the tattooed heads of slaves (no, I didn't make that up, see below).  Computers and the Internet are communication, data access and calculation again, back to speeding up what our human brains, if we encourage them, can do already.

Detergent actually changed her life.  She remembers the very day she washed my Dad's clothes in detergent for the first time and the whites came out white.  Not the faintly grey colour their whites used to be.  This was before my parents could afford a washing machine, and it was singularly disappointing to work for hours agitating clothes in a tub, put them through a mangle and then hang the non-too bright looking articles on a washing line.  She remembers the stunning white laundry.  She was happy to give up driving and the phone is a way for telemarketers to invade her home, computers and the Internet cannot match a good book and a trawl through an encyclopaedia where she might find something unlooked for.  (Note:  with tailored searches and websites learning what you like, discovering the positively different will be a thing of the past.  You will get fed what you know and what you like.  That's a side issue, back to how washing has changed and changed the world, even what you wear.)  She would never give up using detergent.

With the coming of detergent, washing started becoming easy, the dirt was being lifted out rather than battered into submission.  How we treat our clothes has changed dramatically since its invention too and our attitudes.  Add in the domestic washing machine and tumble drier and suddenly washing is no longer the all week long activity it once was.  There are no longer fields set aside in cities for drying clothes (OK, that was in medieval times) or wringing posts in the street (common in the UK even in the early 20th century).   It frees up time and the attitude to clothing altered, particularly how it is treated.  The grunge and distressed clothing look is not making a statement if everyone's clothes look like that anyway.  Making clothes clean when it was hard made the statement.

Why my question about aprons and sleeve protectors?  Well until detergents no one would be stupid enough to do dirty work and risk hard-to-wash clothes unprotected.  They would wear a sacrificial covering, something heavy-duty and easy to wash.  Aprons were common, farmers often wore smocks and every care was taken to keep clothes clean.  Think about the last time you wore an apron, have you ever worn sleeve protectors.  In the UK even doctors are beginning to wear white coats less.  I've even noticed people not bothering with napkins in restaurants.

I write science and historical fiction, I suppose because its really the same thing, sort of.  One looks at how technology changes the world, the other how the world was before the technology.

Washing methods changed our world.  Clothes were held together with tapes, cords and pins because, unlike buttons and zips (when they were invented), they were less likely to break when the brutal methods of washing were used.  Imagine what happens to buttons when bashing your clothes on a washing stone in the river.  Chemicals like lye soap dried and cracked the hands meaning soft delicate hands were only for those who never did work for themselves.

Eating in the past was with a surprising amount of care.  Often in movies you'll see a medieval banquet (should be called a feast, banquet was the sweet course only) where wine will get slopped about, meat discarded carelessly and food flung in all directions.  When clothes were expensive, something they were, right up to mass production in the early 20th century and cleaning was difficult, the last thing you'd do is be a messy eater.

Washing of clothes changes everything, when researching historical details or considering how the future will change the world, consider the small, unnoticed stuff, sometimes it will be more significant than you think.

Other uses of detergent


  • Breaking up oil slicks and cleaning oil-soaked wildlife.
  • Breaks down surface tension allowing things like glue to wick through porous surface.
  • I have even used it as a retarder to slow the setting of cement when I ran out of the proper stuff and it worked.

The Tattooed head thing

In the 5th century BC, Histiaeus of Miletus, a prisoner of King Darius of Susa, sent a secret message tattooed on the head of a slave to Aristagoras, his son-in-law, in short the message said: start the rebellion.  Sometimes it pays to use your head, or someone else's.

Useful Books

The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim
Food and Feast in Tudor England by Alison Sim