Fullonica of Stephanus

A primarily important activity in Pompeii was the fullonica: the laundry. Throughout the city there were at least 13 workshops working raw wool, 7 for spinning and weaving, 9 for dyeing, and 18 for washing.

Fullonicae (laundries) were used both for finishing fabric by scrubbing the dirt collected during spinning and weaving processes, and for clothes washing and stain removal (important since Romans took extreme care in the cleanliness of their white tunics).

The Fullonica of Stephanus (it is unclear if the name -called out in the election slogans on the façade - belongs to the owner or to the manager) was created by the refurbishment of a preexisting house: the first floor was used as a work area, while the upper floor housed living quarters and a drying area.

The entrance is wide, to permit easy access to customers dropping off their clothes. Such users had to pass by the ironing press room at the left of the entrance. A staircase leads to the terrace above the atrium, which is the only example of an atrium with an intact roof level in the whole Pompeii.

It is the place where drying and bleaching took place, out in the open air, the fabrics exposed to the sun and wind. The impluvium (collecting water in the central courtyard) had low walls built up to convert it into a tank, perhaps for delicate cloth washing.

The basins at the deep end of the building were used for washing and pounding cloth; they were equipped with elevated walkways and staircases for workers. In the pounding area, the cloth was stomped underfoot in water and soda (soap did not exist yet) or some other alkaline substances such as human or animal urine: camel urine, considered very effective and hence valuable, was imported.

From the age of Vespasian onwards, human urine for industrial use was considered a public utility like water and was subject to taxation; it was collected in halved amphorae or in public urinals which came to be nicknamed “Vespasiani” to rib the emperor about the tax burden he had instituted.

When Titus complained with his father Vespasian about dyer taxation on urine collection in the latrines, the emperor just answered: "Pecunia non olet" (“Money doesn’t smell”). The long standing habit of inviting pedestrians to urinate in amphorae placed on purpose in side streets or close to the entrance was kept for a long time.

The urine-hardened fabric was then treated with clay (the best quality material had to be imported from the Aegean islands) or with soil coming from Umbria region, then it was beaten to tighten and soften its weave and finally re-washed to make it shrink. The fabric was then carded with porcupine spines. White and dyed fabrics underwent a “sulphurization” process twice to make them brighter; then, they were re-coated with clay, soil, or pumice stone if white. Finally they were brushed, sheared, and ironed under a press.

At the moment of the eruption, the front door of the fullonica (made of vertical wood boards) was locked from inside with a large chain. Only a hinged door was found open. A skeleton was recovered in the office with gold, silver, and bronze coins valuing 1089.5 sesterces: the equivalent of over 10,000 Euros lying next to it.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 09 Jul 2023

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