Loran Smith Contributing columnist
September 4, 2013
Cleaning out old files sometimes can be serendipitous. You find something you once thought important to keep but forgot where you filed it. Looking back, it would have made sense if I had simply started a file called, “Useless Information.” That would be easy to remember.
Someone, some time back, sent me a typed sheet about what life was like in the past, dating back a few centuries. The bathing tradition for example. People took baths only once a year. The reason June became the month for weddings is that there was a time when most people took their annual bath in May. Still, brides carried bouquets of flowers to hide the body odor.
Taking an annual bath followed this tradition. A big tub was filled with hot water, and the man of the house took his bath first. Then all the boys and men folk were next. Then the ladies took their turn, followed by the children and lastly the babies. By that time the water was pretty dark. A baby could get lost in all that dirty water which led to the old saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
We are talking about five centuries ago. We’ve come a long way, I’m sure you will agree. Do you know how canopy beds came about? Had nothing to do with fashion. Most roofs were made of thatch. That is where mice, birds and other varmints hung out. A lot droppings and debris and waste of all sorts would fall down on you as you slept. The four poster canopy was created to solve the problem. The thatched roofs were where the animals also slept. Dogs, cats and rats among other nightime undesirables. When it rained and conditions became slippery, the aforementioned would fall into the bedroom below. That brought about the term, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
If you were well off in the old days, you would hang bacon in your kitchen. If you could “bring home the bacon,” you were viewed as enjoying elite status. When your guests came over, the host would cut off a piece of bacon to share with you. Then everybody sat around and “chewed the fat.”
Tomatoes were considered poisonous for over 400 years, but it only affected the well-to-do. Poor people ate off wooden plates, but those who were more affluent used pewter plates. Because the acidity of the tomato caused lead from the pewter plates to leach onto the food, it caused lead poisoning and death.
Most of the floors during this time were dirt which meant that you were “dirt poor.” Cooking was done in the kitchen with a big kettle which hung over the fire. A fire was lit daily and things were added to the pot, mostly vegetables. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving the leftovers in the pot overnight. The fire was started up again the next day. The stew contained food which was several days old, hence the old rhyme with which you are likely familiar: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.
During the plague in England, they ran out of places to bury people. They would open up the old coffins, collect and remove the bones and reuse the coffin. One in every 25 cases, there were scratch marks in the coffin which brought about the reality they had been burying people alive.
The solution for that problem was remedied by tying a string around the wrist of the corpse. Run the string through the coffin and up through the ground where it was tied to a bell. Someone was stationed in the cemetery (graveyard shift) and listened out for the bell. If the bell rang, this meant that the person buried alive had been “saved by the bell.” If the bell didn’t ring, the entombed was considered a “dead ringer.”
Even with all our problems in today’s world and the frequent preaching of doom, I’m thankful I can enjoy a daily bath and a tomato sandwich. Further, I am fairly confident that if I don’t take a trip to San Francisco when the Big One hits, that I won’t be buried alive.
Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.