The strange histories of the stuff we put in—and on—our bodies
National Geographic Staff/ National Geographic:
Why did people try pumice as toothpaste? Who was the 11-year-old who accidentally created the first Popsicle? We know loofah can do wonders for the skin, but was it really also used on battleships? Our lives have been changed over time by the things we put on or inside our bodies.
Here are some examples:
Quinine: From a shrub to a G&T
Quinine is fluorescent, which means that if you place a bottle of tonic water under a black light, it will glow from within. From the rain forest of South America comes the cinchona shrub, which changed the face of medicine and altered our drinking habits. The Quechua people of Peru didn’t know about the alkaloid quinine in the cinchona’s bark, but they certainly understood that the bark could calm the raging fevers and chills of an often-fatal disease—a scourge we know to be mosquito-borne malaria. Legend has it that a fever-mad Indigenous man who got lost in the jungle stumbled on a pool of stagnant water surrounded by cinchona trees. He drank the bitter liquid and thought he was poisoned, but soon after, his fever disappeared. The people learned to peel the bark, grind it, and mix it with sweet water to temper its bitterness. It was, in fact, a lifesaving tonic.
When bartenders grab the mixer gun for tonic water today, they find it labeled “Q” for quinine. Accounts differ as to how the remedy became known in Europe, but its introduction dates to the early 17th century. It was already renowned when French chemists Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou isolated and named the alkaloid in 1820. Quinine was often mixed with wine and given to soldiers and sailors, making it the first successful use of a chemical compound to treat disease; it’s said that success or defeat in battle often rested on whether the troops were drinking their quinine. British colonials in India, so the story goes, mixed gin with their tonic water to make it more palatable—and a classic cocktail was born. Pumice: From a volcano to concrete The word comes from the Latin pumex, meaning “foam.” Pumice is so light it can float on the water’s surface. The ancients found pumice stone endlessly useful. Glass-like pumice forms when superheated molten rock spews from a volcano and quickly cools. Even when pulverized, pumice doesn’t lose its sharp edges. It was such a popular commodity that it traveled as far as volcano-less Egypt, where archaeologists have uncovered it on ancient worktables. The Egyptians found its abrasiveness useful as a polisher and exfoliant. They mixed pumice with vinegar and used it as toothpaste, despite the fact that it eventually wore away tooth enamel. Greeks and Romans used pumice to remove unwanted body hair. Its popularity continued into the 12th century, when it was featured in the Trotula, a widely read collection of texts on women’s health. Pumice is low density, making it a key ingredient in concrete. Mix pumice with lime and you get pozzolana, the smooth plaster that ancient Romans used to construct the dome of the Pantheon. Today, the addition of sandpapery pumice to industrial washing machines gives jeans that coveted stonewashed look. Ground pumice is an ingredient in low-density paint, is incorporated in rubber and plastics for its antiskid properties, and is beauticians’ choice to scrub off dead skin during a pedicure. After several millennia that humans have used pumice, its possibilities remain seemingly endless.
Salsa verde: Aztec roots?
In 1997, May was declared National Salsa Month in the United States to recognize the condiment’s heritage. Salsa verde, or green sauce, is associated with both traditional Mexican cuisine and cuisine of the American Southwest. The basic ingredient is the tomatillo, a small, green, fruit native to Mexico and Central America. Records from 16th-century Spanish invaders show that the Aztec were enjoying salsa by the time the Spanish arrived. Bernardino de Sahagún, a missionary in what is now Mexico, documented many aspects of Aztec culture. His writings mention the foods available at Aztec markets, including salsas made with tomatillos. In the 20th century, Americans outside the Hispanic community were introduced to salsa during the 1940s, when the first commercial salsas made their appearance in Texas. The taste for salsa spread to all compass points as the culture from south of the border fanned out. By the early 2000s salsa was a fixture in kitchens and restaurants across the country.
In Latin America, salsas vary from nation to nation. Argentine salsa verde, for example, is called chimichurri; it’s a parsley-based sauce with garlic, olive oil, and spices. Loofah: Engine filter and skin softener? There is a common misconception that loofah comes from the sea, but it is actually a gourd that has grown wild for thousands of years. The loofah, also known as luffa and rag gourd, has an easy-to-remove outer shell protecting a dense thicket of vascular bundles that, when cleaned and dried, form an absorbent mesh ideal for a sponge. Loofah has been cultivated for so long that it’s hard to know where it originated, but we know it flourishes in tropical climates. The loofah and its juice have been used in Asian countries for everything from respiratory ailments to softening the skin.
Settlers brought loofah to North America, where it became one of the first domesticated crops in the colonies. Until the late 19th century, baths were still taken infrequently in the United States, and loofah was used mostly to scrub teapots. But once doctors reported that “friction baths” drew poisons out of the skin and made it glow, American women started looking for the most effective scrubbing implement. In 1893, journalist Nell Cusack wrote that ladies’ enthusiasm for it left their faces “red as lobsters.” The U.S. Navy later employed loofah to filter oil in ship engines during World War II. But the use of the humble loofah as a sponge still prevails today. Deodorant: From a queen to crystals Here’s an interesting tidbit on the origin of deodorant: With few other options available, Queen Elizabeth I banished evil smells by wearing a pomander filled with aromatics. The first patents for deodorant were filed in the 1860s, but body odor has always been an issue. Since the beginning of human history, we have been looking for ways to banish bad smells and usher in pleasant ones. The classic remedies were washing—often infrequent—and strong perfumes. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all bathed with sweet-smelling oils and scraped hair off the sweat-prone parts of their bodies. In Asia, people found that applying mineral salt crystals to their underarms helped keep bad smells at bay.
As daily washing became more common in the modern era, the rise of chemical deodorants soon followed. Aerosol versions, led by Gillette’s Right Guard, became popular in the 1960s but eventually fell from favor because of health and environmental issues. Many people have since turned back to natural deodorant crystals. Both potassium alum and ammonium alum crystals are highly soluble in water. Applied under your arms, they quickly dissolve as you sweat, leaving behind a layer of salt that provides protection from odor-causing bacteria. Popsicles: Invented by mistake? Popsicles are enjoyed by most anyone who appreciates the taste of fruit-flavored ice, particularly on a sweltering day.
But it took a thirsty—and apparently distracted kid—to come up with what would become a popular treat for years to come. In 1905, so the story goes, 11-year-old Frank Epperson was using a powdered mix and water to make a sweet drink. He left the cup containing the drink, along with the wooden stick he was using to stir it, outside on a chilly northern California night. In the morning he found the mixture frozen in the cup around the stick—the first frozen treat on a stick. Epperson went into real estate as an adult but made his “ice lollipops” on the side.