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Bill Thayer

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 p551  Fullo

Unsigned article on pp551‑553 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FULLO (κναφεύς, γναφεύς), also NACCA (Festus, s.v.; Apul. Met. IX p206, Bipont.), a fuller, a washer or scourer of cloth and linen. The fullones not only received the cloth as it came from the loom in order to scour and smooth it, but also washed and cleansed garments which had been already worn. As the Romans generally wore woollen dresses, which were often of a light colour, they frequently needed, in the hot climate of Italy, a thorough purification. The way in which this was done has been described by Pliny and other writers, but is most clearly explained by some paintings which have been found on the walls of a fullonica at Pompeii.​a Two of these paintings are given by Gell (Pompeiana, vol. II pl. 51, 52), and the whole of them in the Museo Borbonico (vol. IV pl. 49, 50); from the  p552 latter of which works the following cuts have been taken.

The clothes were first washed, which was done in tubs or vats, where they were trodden upon and stamped by the feet of the fullones, whence Seneca (Ep. 15) speaks of saltus fullonicus. The following woodcut represents four persons thus employed, of whom three are boys, probably under the superintendence of the man. Their dress is tucked up, leaving the legs bare; the boys seem to have done their work, and to be wringing the articles on which they had been employed.

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Photo © Miko Flohr 2009, by kind permission.

The ancients were not acquainted with soap,​b but they used in its stead different kinds of alkali, by which the dirt was more easily separated from the clothes. Of these, by far the most common was the urine of men and animals, which was mixed with the water in which the clothes were washed (Plin. H. N. XXVIII 18. 26; Athen. XI p484).​c To procure a sufficient supply of it, the fullones were accustomed to place at the corners of the streets vessels, which they carried away after they had been filled by the passengers (Martial, VI.93; Macrob. Saturn. II.12).º We are told by Suetonius (Vesp. 23) that Vespasian imposed a urinae vectigal, which is supposed by Casaubon and others to have been a tax paid by the fullones. Nitrum, of which Pliny (H. N. XXXI.46) gives an account, was also mixed with water by the scourers. Fullers' earth (creta fullonia, Plin. H. N. XVII.4),º of which there were many kinds, was employed for the same purpose. We do not know the exact nature of this earth, but it appears to have acted in the same way as our fullers' earth, namely, partly in scouring and partly in absorbing the greasy dirt. Pliny (H. N. XXXV.57) says that the clothes should be washed with the Sardinian earth.

After the clothes had been washed, they were hung out to dry, and were allowed to be placed in the street before the doors of the fullonica (Dig. 43 tit. 10 s.1 §4). When dry, the wool was brushed and carded to raise the nap, sometimes with the skin of a hedgehog, and sometimes with some plants of the thistle kind. The clothes were then hung on a vessel of basket-work (viminea cavea), under which sulphur was placed in order to whiten the cloth; for the ancient fullers appear to have known that many colours were destroyed by the volatile steam of sulphur (Apul. Met. IX. p208, Bipont; Plin. H. N. XXXV.50, 57; Pollux, VII.41). A fine white earth, called Cimolian by Pliny, was often rubbed into the cloth to increase its whiteness (Theophr. Char. 10; Plaut. Aulul. IV.9.6; Plin. H. N. XXXV.57). The preceding account is well illustrated by the following woodcut.

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Photo © Miko Flohr 2009, by kind permission.

On the left we see a fullo brushing or carding a white tunic, suspended over a rope, with a card or brush, which bears considerable resemblance to a modern horse-brush. On the right, another man carries a frame of wicker-work, which was without doubt intended for the purpose described above; he has also a pot in his hand, perhaps intended for holding the sulphur. On his head he wears a kind of garland, which is supposed to be an olive garland, and above him an owl is sitting. It is thought that the olive garland and the owl indicate that the establishment was under the patronage of Minerva, the tutelary goddess of the loom. Sir W. Gell imagines that the owl is probably the picture of a bird which really existed in the family. On the left, a well-dressed female is sitting, examining a piece of work which a younger girl brings to her. A reticulum [see p329A] upon her head, a necklace, and bracelets denote a person of higher rank than one of the ordinary work-people of the establishment.

In the following woodcut we see a young man in a green tunic giving a piece of cloth, which appears to be finished, to a woman, who wears a green under-tunic, and over it a yellow tunic with red stripes. On the right is another female in a white tunic, who appears to be engaged in cleaning one of the cards or brushes. Among these paintings there was a press, worked by two upright screws, in which the cloth was placed to be smoothened. A drawing of this press is given on p300.

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Photo © Miko Flohr 2009, by kind permission.

The establishment or workshop of the fullers was called Fullonica (Dig. 39 tit. 3 s3), Fullonicum  p553  (Dig. 7 tit. 1 s13 § 8), or Fullonium (Amm. Marc. XIV.11, p44, Bipont.). Of such establishments there were great numbers in Rome, for the Romans do not appear to have washed at home even their linen clothes (Martial, XIV.51). The trade of the fullers was considered so important that the censors, C. Flaminius and L. Aemilius, B.C. 220, prescribed the mode in which the dresses were to be washed (Plin. H. N. XXXV.57). Like the other principal trades in Rome, the Fullones formed a collegium (Fabretti, Inscr. p278). To large farms a fullonica was sometimes attached, in which the work was performed by the slaves who belonged to the familia rustica (Varro, R. R. I.16).

The fullo was answerable for the property while it was in his possession; and if he returned by mistake a different garment from the one he had received, he was liable to an action ex locato; to which action he was also subject if the garment was injured (Dig. 19 tit. 2 s13 § 6; s60, § 2; 12 tit. 7 s2). Woollen garments, which had been once washed, were considered to be less valuable than they were previously (Petron. 30; Lamprid. Heliogab. 26); hence Martial (X.1) speaks of a toga lota terque quaterque as a poor present.

The Greeks were also accustomed to send their garments to fullers to be washed and scoured, who appear to have adopted a similar method to that which has been described above (Theophr. Char. 10; Athen. XI p582D; Pollux, VII.39, 40, 41). The word πλύνειν denoted the washing of linen, and κναφεύειν or γναφεύειν the washing of woollen, clothes (Eustath. ad Od. XXIV.148 p1956, 41).

(Schöttgen Antiquitates Triturae et Fulloniae, Traj. ad Rhen. 127; Beckmann, Hist. of Inventions and Discoveries, vol. III p266, &c., transl.: Becker, Gallus, vol. II p100, &c., Charikles, vol. II p408).

Thayer's Notes:

a More precisely, the woodcuts are reproductions of frescoes in the fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus. By 21c standards, the reproductions are inferior; thru the kind courtesy of Dr. Miko Flohr, an authority on Roman fulleries (The World of the Fullo. Work, Economy and Society in Roman Italy, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: OUP 2013), each of them is now joined by a photograph.

b This is not altogether true. The Roman encyclopedist Pliny writes of soap quite clearly (H. N. 28.191), summarizing how it is made, and attributing it to the inhabitants of Gaul. He uses a word for it that appears to be taken from Celtic: sapo, a cognate of the English word. Later Latin writers to use the word or derivatives include Serenus Sammonicus (de Medicina, 11) and Priscian; and from the Latin, the modern Romance languages take their own words for it: sapone, savon, jabón, etc.

In other articles by different contributing authors, by the way, Smith's Dictionary contradicts itself: in the article Unguenta, on perfumes and ointments, soaps are routinely included in the arsenal of personal care products used by the Romans; and in the article Balneae, on the Roman bath, it is mentioned in passing that another authority would have had the Romans using soap to wash themselves.

What is puzzling is why, knowing soap, the Romans did not in fact appear to have produced it and used it. It is one of the great inventions, yet is easy and cheap to make; the manufacturing process is a simple one, and involves just two common raw materials, animal fat and wood ash, at least one of which is otherwise a waste product.

c Also Isidore, Orig. XI.1.138.

The careful student can learn a lot about how fullers worked by spending some time on the Fulleries section of Internet Group Ostia's site, in which detailed layouts of seven fulleries of Ostia are given, preceded by an introduction and reconstruction drawings of what they might have been like.

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Page updated: 15 Mar 14