Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting. When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly. Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross. Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.” The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.
Ear wax, also as known as cerumen, is a wax produced by the outermost bit of the ear canal, in conjunction with the thousands of oil (sebaceous) and sweat glands. It is a mixture of natural secretions and dead skin cells. Preferably, this cerumen makes it way out of the ear canal through talking, chewing or the otherwise moving of the jaw, where it then dries up and flakes away.
There have been many imaginative explanations for why humans produce ear wax. According to a 17th century The Resolver; or Curiosities of Nature Written in French, the accumulation of wax was to protect the ears from fleas, flies and other pesky insects that would like to curl up in your warm ear. This idea of creepy crawlies working their way into the ear is a long standing folklore that can be found in many European legends.
However, the actual reason we create this waxy substance is that it protects from dust, water and microorganisms entering the ear canal and causing problems. However, wax build-up can cause some its own annoying difficulties like reduced hearing as well as trapping bacteria that lead to itchy or painful infections.
Over the centuries, humans developed many creative ways to extract and utilize this sticky substance. From ear scoops to the modern swab, people have long gone against doctors’ recommendations, shoving things in to their ears to extract the golden wax.
Ear spoons, also known as ear scoops or ear picks, are a type of curette used to clean the ear canal of wax. They are made from a wide range of material including bamboo, precious metals, stainless steel and plastic. Ear spoons were commonly used throughout Eastern and Western history and many have been found at various archeological digs and are included in many museum collections. One of the more famous ear spoons was a golden pendant with a scoop it is believed, according to family tradition, that Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn during their courtship.
As seen by this ear spoon from our archeological study collection (meaning it wasn’t excavated at Ferry Farm), many spoons were far simpler than Anne Boleyn’s gold one. A more utilitarian, bodkin-style ear spoon in our own study collection dates from the 19th century and is made from steel and also functions as a set of tweezers.
A bodkin is a small sharp pointed tool for making holes in cloth or leather or a thicker needle used for hand-sewing. Some bodkins used by seamstresses were up to 7 inches in length and actually had an ear scoop on one end. The scoop was used to gather wax that was then applied to sewing thread to keep the cut ends from unraveling. People of means could afford to apply beeswax to their thread ends but the thriftier lady could just use the ready supply of wax from her ear.
Additionally, monks and scribes used ear wax along with urine in the production of pigments for their elaborate illustrated manuscripts.
Finally, ear wax has many common medical uses. Many health manuals such as Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History recommended using the “filth from the ears” on scorpion stings or serpent bites. The Theatre of the World from 1663 stated every part the body is somewhat useful including ear wax, which “applied to the nostrils provoketh [sic] to drousinesse [sic] and sleep.” Further, medicinal recipes from history state that adding “as much ear-wax as can be got” to oil of walnuts was a speedy way of curing wounds and keeping away putrefaction.
Even as late as 1832, in The American Frugal Housewife still promoted ear wax as a way to protect wounds, stating “nothing was better than earwax to prevent the painful effects resulting from a wound by a nail [or] skewer.” Additionally, it was recommend as a remedy for cracked and dried lips.
This historical medical uses of ear wax are not as bizarre as they sound. Recent studies show that ear wax has a bactericidal effect that can kill 99% of some bacteria strains. The wax contains around ten peptides that prevent bacteria and fungi from growing.
So, this winter when you have chapped lips and don’t have any lip balm handy, you can reach for some of that lovely golden wax in your ear to help solve your problems …or maybe not.
 Mary C. Beaudry, “Bodkin Biographies” in The Materiality of Individuality: Archaeological Studies of Individual Lives, ed. Carolyn L. White, New York: Springer-Verlag, 2009, 97.
 L.M. Child, The American Frugal Housewife, New York: Samuel S. & William Wood, 1841, 116, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_American_Frugal_Housewife.html?id=D3AEAAAAYAAJ