From smearing on arsenic to bathing in viper juice, history shows there’s nothing we won’t try to rid ourselves of lice.
Lice and nits (lice eggs) were our constant lousy companions until about the 19th century.
Just look at the English language for our hatred of these near-invisible insects that crawl around in our hair, laying eggs, sucking blood and generally give us the screaming heebie-jeebies.
We have louse (“obnoxious person”), nitpicking (“fussy or pedantic fault-finding”), to louse up (“ruin, botch”) and nitwit (“a silly or foolish person”).
Ancient Lice treatments
The Egyptians documented the first lice treatment in the Ebers Papyrus around 1550 B.C.
To drive away fleas and lice, it recommends sloshing around date meal and water in your mouth and then spitting it on yourself.
China was trying mercury and arsenic compounds around 1200 B.C.
Egyptian priests, according to Herodotus in the 5th century, were required to shave their body hair every day “to keep off lice or anything else unpleasant”.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) suggested batching in viper broth, while Montezuma the Aztec Emperor paid people to pick nits off his subjects.
He then had the nits dried and saved in his treasury!
His subjects, when they couldn’t afford gold, would present Montezuma with bags of lice to pay their respects.
(This one may be a case of the victor writing the history. It’s possible that the lice were actually “cochineal insects” unknown to the Spanish conquerors.)
Of two Peruvian mummies dating to about 1025 CE, one specimen had 407 ancient critters on its head, while the other had 545.
Medieval Lice treatments
In Medieval times, etiquette lessons were given to the young members of the nobility as to how and when to dispose of lice.
It was frowned upon to scratch or attempt to remove lice in public.
For some, though, lice were “pearls of poverty” and a mark of saintliness.
Saint Ignatius delighted in dirty shoes, uncombed hair, and long and unscraped fingernails, while another saint gloried in having three hundred patches on his breeches.
After Archbishop Thomas A Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, his body lay in the cathedral all night.
“the vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron and the onlookers burst into alternate fits of weeping and laughter.”
St. Macaire was apparently so shocked at killing a louse that he endured seven years penitence.
Saint Catherine of Genoa took a different approach – she sucked pus from the wounds of the sick and ate their lice and scabies.
The 18th-century evangelist John Wesley put an end to this attitude with his famous words: “Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness”.
Words which the English took to heart.
The 1600s Lice treatments
Ann, Countess of Dorset in England, wrote in her diary in 1603 that after a visit to see the king, they were “all lousy by sitting in Sir Thomas Erskine’s chambers”.
For parents in the 1600s, there were a quite a few remedies suggested for their itchy darlings.
Here are some of my favorites:
A 1600 compilation of medical remedies recommends a drink consisting of cheese whey and a little vinegar.
Imbibed on “certain days,” it will cause all the lice to die, and “there will breed no more about you” (Folger MS V.a.140, fol. 4r).
or to kill lyce
Take the whaye that remayneth of cheese making
and put to it a little vinaigre, and Drinke of it
certayne Dayes : and all the lyce will Dye, and ther
will breede no more a boute yow.
The ca. 1675 compiler of Folger MS V.a.21 has a totally different remedy.
This recipe calls for a pennyworth of sneezing powder and a pennyworth of ginger beaten together and mixed into a little melted sweet butter.
“Anoint” your child’s head with this mixture and it will “destroy” those lice.
to destroy Lice
Take a pennieworth of Sneezing powder & as much
ginger & beate them both to small powder then
take a little sweet Butter & melt it & put in
& put in the affore said powders & put in the foresaid powders
& anoint the head therewith & it will destroy the
The 1700s Lice Treatments
Powdered wigs, or ‘perukes’, were highly fashionable among gentlemen of the 1700s.
This was a fashion trend inspired by disease and lice.
Lice stopped infesting people’s hair—which had to be shaved for the peruke to fit—and camped out on wigs instead.
Instead of painful and time-consuming nitpicking, a wigmaker could boil the wig and remove the nits.
Women, however, often kept their elaborate hairdos in place for months, using hair pomade made from beef fat and powder, usually derived from wheat or rice flour.
One hair-styling recipe combined a pound of sheep suet (fat), a pound of pig suet, sixteen rosewater-boiled apples and rosewood oil, bay leaves, bergamot orange, or Macassar oil.
Lice and other pests were attracted to these edifices of fat and flour.
Long-handled silver claws were designed to reach in and scratch the itches caused by the live-in lice.
Often, these scratchers were laid out with the silverware for guests to use at fancy dinner parties.
In 1795, the British government levied a tax on hair powder of one guinea per year.
This tax effectively killed the fashion for wigs and powder.
The 1800s Lice Treatments
Beau Brummell (1778 – 1840) had started a fad of bathing daily as early as 1810, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the practice grew in popularity.
The Victorian poor probably removed hair to cut down on smell between infrequent baths, to keep body and pubic lice under control, and to ease inspecting for fleas and ticks.
Mothers, sisters, or friends, would help each other and look after removing the eggs of head lice (nit-picking) at the same time.
Head lice were rampant throughout Victorian Britain. A report in 1870 estimated 90% of children carried the parasite at any given time.
The Woman’s Book, published in 1894, recommended washing hair once a month. For treating head lice, it suggests a concoction of vinegar and lard.
One of George Washington’s 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” involved lice :
“Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.”
Body lice were so common in the American Civil War that soldiers gave them nicknames: bluebellies, rebels, tigers, Bragg’s body-guard, zouaves, graybacks, and vermin.
It would have been unusual for a soldier NOT to harbor vermin.
They fought the lice on many fronts.
Killing lice was called “fighting under the black flag,” throwing away infested clothing was “giving the vermin a parole,” and wearing clothing inside-out was “executing a flank movement”.
How far have we advanced? Not very.
The NIH recommends, as one non-pharmaceutical approach, buying a fine-toothed metal comb from an Internet pet store, dipping it in beeswax, and combing thoroughly, for 7-10 days.
We still use combs and chemicals (though not arsenic or mercury) as our main lice treatments.
Cleopatra had nit combs fancy enough to be buried with, so we’re in good company!
Got any nit lore you’re itching to tell?
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.