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The facts about the 1500's

Most people got married in June, but took their yearly bath in May. Starting to smell malodorous by then, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour. That custom continues today.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, followed by sons and other men, the women, the children and babies last. By then, the water was so dirty that someone could actually be lost in it. Hence the saying, ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’. Houses had thick thatcched roofs, which were often the only place for domestic animals to get warm - so dogs, cats and other fauna lived in the roof. When it rained, they would sometimes slide off and fall through the slippery roof. Hence the saying, "it’s raining cats and dogs".

This unprotected roof situation posed a real problem in the bedroom - but a bed, with big posts and a sheet hung over the top, afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into being.

Mud or dirt floors were the norm, and only the wealthy could afford something better. Hence the saying "dirt poor". Wealthy folk had slate floors that were kept dry and slip-proof in winter with strewn thresh (straw). As the winter wore on, and more thresh was added, a piece of wood would be replaced in the entranceway to hold it inside. Hence the saying a ‘threshold’. Pork was a rare and special treat. It was a sign of wealth that a man ‘could bring home the bacon’ and, when shared with guests, all would sit around and ‘chew the fat’.

Those with money had pewter plates. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead content to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happended most often with tomatoes, so for the next 100 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or ‘upper crust’.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock imbibers out for a couple of days. Being taken for dead, the ‘corpse’ would be prepared for burial, laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, and the family would gather to eat, drink and wait to see if he/she would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a ‘wake’.

England is old and small and burial grounds were limited. So, old coffins would be dug up, the bones taken to a ‘bone-house’ and graves reused. When reopening these coffins, some were found to have scratch marks on the inside and it was realised that people had been buried alive. The solution was to attach string to a wrist of the body, lead it up through the ground and tie it to a bell. The person allocated to sit listening for the bell all night was given the ‘graveyard shift’, and thus, someone could be ‘saved by the bell’, or be considered a ‘dead ringer’.

Published by the Directorate: Food Control
Department of Health
Private Bag X828
0001 Pretoria


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Last modified: 10/07/03 Hit Counter