Historically Speaking: The Long Road to Cleanliness

The ancient Babylonians and Egyptians knew about soap, but daily washing didn’t become popular until the 19th century.

As the mother of five teenagers, I have a keen appreciation of soap—especially when it’s actually used. Those little colored bars—or more frequently nowadays, dollops of gel—represent one of the triumphs of civilization.

Adolescents aside, human beings like to be clean, and any product made of fats or oils, alkaline salts and water will help them to stay that way. The Babylonians knew how to make soap as early as 2800 B.C., although it was probably too caustic for washing anything except hair and textiles. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical document from 1550 B.C., suggests that the Egyptians used soap only for treating skin ailments.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The Greeks and Romans also avoided washing with harsh soaps, until Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 58 B.C. introduced them to a softer Celtic formula. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a 1st century A.D. Greek physician, wrote that “those alkaline substances made into balls” are a “very excellent thing to cleanse the body in the bath.”

Following Rome’s collapse in the 5th century, the centers of soap-making moved to India, Africa and the Middle East. In Europe, soap suffered from being associated with ancient paganism. In the 14th century, Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought back with them a taste for washing with soap and water, but not in sufficient numbers to slow the spread of plague.

Soap began to achieve wider acceptance in Europe during the Renaissance, though geography still played a role: Southern countries had the advantage of making soap out of natural oils and perfumes, while the colder north had to make do with animal fats and whale blubber. Soap’s growing popularity also attracted the attention of revenue-hungry governments. In 1632, in one of the earliest documented cases of crony capitalism, King Charles I of England granted a group of London soapmakers a 14-year monopoly in exchange for annual payments of 4 pounds per ton sold.

Soap remained a luxury item, however, until scientific advances during the age of the Enlightenment made large-scale production possible: In 1790, the French chemist Nicholas Leblanc discovered how to make alkali from common salt. The saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”—credited to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism—was a great piece of free advertising, but it was soap’s role in modern warfare that had a bigger impact on society. During the Crimean War in Europe and the Civil War in the U.S., high death tolls from unsanitary conditions led to new requirements that soldiers use soap every day.

In the late 19th century, soap manufacturers helped to jump-start the advertising industry with their use of catchy poems and famous artworks as marketing tools. British and American soapmakers were ahead of their time in other ways, too: Lever (now Unilever) built housing for its workers, while Procter and Gamble pioneered the practice of profit-sharing.

And it was Procter and Gamble that made soap the basis for one of the most influential cultural institutions of the last century. Having read reports that women would like to be entertained while doing housework, the company decided it would sponsor the production of daytime radio domestic dramas. Thus began the first soap opera, “Ma Perkins,” a 15-minute tear-laden serial that ran from 1933 until 1960—and created a new form of storytelling.

Historically Speaking: When Royal Love Affairs Go Wrong

From Cleopatra to Edward VIII, monarchs have followed their hearts—with disastrous results.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2018

“Ay me!” laments Lysander in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth.” What audience would disagree? Thwarted lovers are indeed the stuff of history and art—especially when the lovers are kings and queens.

But there were good reasons why the monarchs of old were not allowed to follow their hearts. Realpolitik and royal passion do not mix, as Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.), the anniversary of whose death falls on Aug. 12, found to her cost. Her theatrical seduction of and subsequent affair with Julius Caesar insulated Egypt from Roman imperial designs. But in 41 B.C., she let her heart rule her head and fell in love with Mark Antony, who was fighting Caesar’s adopted son Octavian for control of Rome.

Cleopatra’s demand that Antony divorce his wife Octavia—sister of Octavian—and marry her instead was a catastrophic misstep. It made Egypt the target of Octavian’s fury, and forced Cleopatra into fighting Rome on Antony’s behalf. The couple’s defeat at the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. didn’t only end in personal tragedy: the 300-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty was destroyed, and Egypt was reduced to a Roman province.

In Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra,” Antony laments, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.” It is a reminder that, as Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra was the living embodiment of her country; their fates were intertwined. That is why royal marriages have usually been inseparable from international diplomacy.

In 1339, when Prince Pedro of Portugal fell in love with his wife’s Castilian lady-in-waiting, Inés de Castro, the problem wasn’t the affair per se but the opportunity it gave to neighboring Castile to meddle in Portuguese politics. In 1355, Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV, took the surest way of separating the couple—who by now had four children together—by having Inés murdered. Pedro responded by launching a bloody civil war against his father that left northern Portugal in ruins. The dozens of romantic operas and plays inspired by the tragic love story neglect to mention its political repercussions; for decades afterward, the Portuguese throne was weak and the country divided.

Perhaps no monarchy in history bears more scars from Cupid’s arrow than the British. From Edward II (1284-1327), whose poor choice of male lovers unleashed murder and mayhem on the country—he himself was allegedly killed with a red hot poker—to Henry VIII (1491-1547), who bullied and butchered his way through six wives and destroyed England’s Catholic way of life in the process, British rulers have been remarkable for their willingness to place personal happiness above public responsibility.

Edward VIII (1894 -1972) was a chip off the block, in the worst way. The moral climate of the 1930s couldn’t accept the King of England marrying a twice-divorced American. Declaring he would have Wallis Simpson or no one, Edward plunged the country into crisis by abdicating in 1936. With European monarchies falling on every side, Britain’s suddenly looked extremely vulnerable. The current Queen’s father, King George VI, quite literally saved it from collapse.

According to a popular saying, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That goes double when the lovers wear royal crowns.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Remembering the Pueblo: Hostages as Propaganda Tools

The Pueblo incident, involving the North Korean takeover of a spy ship, turns 50

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean forces captured the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo in international waters. North Korea took 82 crew members hostage (one was killed in the attack) and subjected them to 11 months of sporadic torture and starvation, humiliating appearances and forced confessions before an international radio and TV audience. Communications technology had given the ancient practice of hostage-taking a whole new purpose as a tool of propaganda.

Hostages have always been a part of warfare. By the second millennium B.C., Egyptians would take the young princes of conquered states and hold them as surety for good behavior, treating the young nobles well with the aim of turning them into future allies.

The Romans admired this tactic and imitated it. But others were simply interested in money. As a young man, Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) was held for ransom by pirates. A biographer of the time writes that while hostage, Caesar amused himself by reading his poems and speeches to his captors. The pirates assumed he was mad, especially when he promised to come back and hang them all. Once the ransom had been paid, the future general fulfilled his vow, hunting down the pirates and executing all of them.

During the Middle Ages, a hostage was better than money in the bank. Negotiating parties used hostages to enforce peace treaties, trade deals and even safe passage. In 1412, for instance, a French political faction sealed an alliance with the English King Henry IV. As part of the guarantee, the 12 year-old John of Orléans, Count of Angoulême, was sent to England, where he remained a political hostage for the next 32 years.

If a deal fell apart, however, retribution could be devastating. During the Third Crusade (1189–1192), King Richard I of England, known as the Lionheart, ordered the massacre of nearly 3,000 Muslim hostages after the Sultan Saladin reneged on his promise to pay a ransom and return his Christian prisoners along with relics of the True Cross.

Brutality toward hostages has been a lamentably common feature of modern warfare. The Germans showed little compunction during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when they used civilians as human shields on military trains. During World War II, amid a range of other atrocities, the Nazis killed thousands of civilian hostages across Europe, often in reprisal for earlier attacks. During one massacre in German-occupied Serbia in 1941, 100 hostages were to be shot for each dead German soldier.

The idea of hostage-taking as an end in itself is largely a 20th-century development—a way to exploit the powerful reach of mass media. The North Koreans were hardly alone. Domestic extremists also saw the propaganda value of hostages, as in the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Just five years later, students supporting Iran’s Islamic revolution stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 American hostages. The students had various demands, among them the extradition of the deposed shah. But their real motivation seemed to be inflicting pain on the captive Americans—who were beaten, threatened with death and paraded in blindfolds before a mob—and on the U.S. itself. There were some early releases, but 52 hostages were held under appalling conditions for 444 days.

Today, memories of the Pueblo incident and the Iran hostage crisis have faded, but both hostage-takings have had a lasting influence on American attitudes. In certain ways, they still define U.S. relations with the regimes of North Korea and Iran.

WSJ Historically Speaking: For Feb. 29, Tales of the Calendar Wars

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

Every four years on Feb. 29, we are reminded of one of life’s most puzzling conundrums: Time is both arbitrary and immutable. The “leap” making its appearance this Monday shows that the Western calendar on which we place so much reliance is a conceit—a piece of fiction introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582.

Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. Our Mesolithic ancestors were the first people to harness the movements of the cosmos to provide a fixed notion of the past, the present and the future. The oldest known calendar in the world was discovered in a Scottish field in 2013, notched into the earth some 10,000 years ago. Our forebears had created it by shaping 12 specially dug pits around a 164-foot arc to mimic the phases of the moon and track the months. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Comets Chill and Cheer Throughout History

Halley’s Comet in 1997. In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone created a controversy when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable PHOTO: F. CARTER SMITH/SYGMA/CORBIS

Halley’s Comet in 1997. In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone created a controversy when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable PHOTO: F. CARTER SMITH/SYGMA/CORBIS

“O star of wonder. Star of night. Star with royal beauty bright.” But what star, exactly, were the Magi, the three wise men, following as they traveled east in search of baby Jesus? The question has intrigued astronomers, theologians and philosophers for two millennia.

In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) started a minirevolution when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable. It is thought that the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1301 inspired Giotto to make the connection. It seems to have been the first time that anyone—in art at least—had dared to associate the Nativity with a comet. Rather than being a cause for rejoicing, comets had long been considered an omen of death, disaster and disease. Continue reading…