What exactly is a fullonica? We often translate it as ‘laundry’ or ‘cleaners’ but this is somewhat simplistic. In fact, Roman fullonicae (that’s the plural) provided a variety of services. Ancient fullonicae treated newly-made garments in addition to dirty clothes. They specialized in the treatment of wool. The first operation was cleaning. This was done in the so-called stalls, which were large basins where the garments were immersed in a mixture of urine and “fullers clay” which we use today as cat litter. Old urine mixed with this clay dissolved grease and removed dirt. In our imagination we see workers spending days trampling cloth knee-deep in urine, but this is a false idea. In fact the mixture used was rather thick and the garments were hardly soaked.
After this treatment it was necessary to rinse the fabric. This was done in basins adjacent to the stalls. Workers stood in the water of these basins and rinsed and wrung out the garments on the benches alongside the basins. With the rinsing complete, the drying operation commenced. Since most of the garments were of wool it was necessary to aerate them properly. If this wasn’t done, wool would develop an unpleasant barnyard smell. Once dried, the fabric would be finished or polished by removing the rough surface, known as the nap. First, the nap of the wool was raised up by brushing the cloth with a hard brush or comb.This made the irregularities in the wool apparent. In the next phase these irregularities were removed by shearing the surface. At the end the cloth was polished a last time and put in a press to flatten any remaining irregularities. The end product was a white woollen cloth that shimmered like silk.
In special circumstances additional treatments could be procured, such as sulphuring and chalking. Sulphuring involved spreading the textiles over a specially formed installation of twigs. Sulphur dioxide was burnt under the installation, infusing the fabric. This served to make the fabric even more lustrous, and may have also helped with whitening. Where sulphuring was insufficient, chalking was another option. Here the cloth was rubbed with cretacimolia, a type of fullers’ earth. The goal in all of these operations was to achieve a dazzling, shining appearance. Of course, not everyone had their garments treated at fullonicae and the elaborate whitening and cleaning operations were clearly designed for the elite. Garments treated this way could serve as a sign of wealth or political power such as that wielded by senators and magistrates. For this reason, we find many fullonicae in urban centres and practically none in rural contexts.
Ostia vs Pompeii
With all this in mind it’s interesting to compare the number of stalls of the fullonicae at Pompeii to those of Ostia. The excavated area of both cities is almost equal: 86 ha (Pompeii) against 85 ha (Ostia). But at Ostia it becomes immediately apparent that a great part of the town is occupied by warehouses, bath buildings, markets and guild-houses.When we compare the two cities it is immediately obvious that there are more private housing facilities in Pompeii, while Ostia boasted large apartment complexes with multiple floors. The population of both cities might have been almost equal. Yet it seems a given that there was a higher number of workmen in Ostia than in Pompeii. These working people had no need of the formal clothing that was cleaned and prepared in the fullonica. It seems fair to assume that in Roman times people of the upper classes in both cities had the same needs to clean and adjust their clothes, and that this number was simply higher in Pompeii than in Ostia.
The installations are in the far back of the house while the street front was clearly the shop. The intermediary part is a luxurious dwelling with a tablinum and triclinium with highly decorated walls. Another fullonica is installed in a typical courtyard house (VI,8,20-21). This is one of the wealthier houses of Regio VI with a colonnaded impluvium and a garden. Only at the far end of the garden, one side of the peristylium is separated for the installation of a fullonica. This fullonica is strictly separated from the rest of the house, so it is clear that both facilities existed together. The rather small number of stalls in Pompeii is remarkable since in Roman times Pompeii was known as a centre of wool and cloth industry.The situation of Ostia is completely different. There are only 6 fullonicae but with a total number of 134 stalls—three times the number of stalls of Pompeii. In fact, 3 fullonicae contained 122 of these stalls, and were of an industrial scale. The buildings were free-standing and closed. Passers-by couldn’t look inside and there was no shop linked to these installations. The work was very well organised in these facilities. The trampling stalls were installed along the walls, while the rinsing basins were in the central space. Textile could be transferred immediately from the stalls to these basins. The 3 remaining fullonicae were considerably smaller, with only 12 stalls between them. With open street fronts and free access to the public, they were clearly intended for local use. But they cannot be compared to the Pompeian fullonicae. It are separate installations with no connexion to a house.
It isn’t clear where the drying took place in the industrial fullonicae. Only one of them (II,XI,2) has an open space linked to the workshop. In the other two (III,II,2 and V,VII,3) there is no place left for operations other than soaping and rinsing. Despite these striking differences in scale, Meiggs (Roman Ostia, p. 312) remarked that the guild of the Ostian fullers had only a minor importance, because in 232 A.D. this guild boasted fewer than 50 members. This raises some questions. First of all, the decline of Ostia started in the third century. What did these guilds represent in this context? Secondly, who were the members of the guilds? Was it only the patrons of the workshops and their associates, or could workmen also be members of the guild?
Ostia’s undocumented import?
What conclusion can we draw from these observations? We know Ostia principally as the port of entry for grain. To date, there is no record of textile trading. Nevertheless there was a massive fulling activity that was only eclipsed by the fullonica of Casal Bertoni at Rome, which had 97 stalls in only one installation. Who did the Ostians work for? It is hardly conceivable that garments were transported from Rome to Ostia to be cleaned. Rome certainly had his own facilities. They may have finished cloth for the elite of the surrounding hinterland? Or perhaps we might surmise that Ostia did import textile sthat had to be prepared for the local market. Perhaps Ostia, as the port of entry for exotic cloth, was responsible for cleaning and preparing that cloth directly at the harbour before transporting it to Rome and the surrounding area. Sometimes archaeology can tell a story where no document survives.
Pietrogrande, Le fulloniche, Scavi di Ostia VIII, 1976.
Miko Flohr, The World of the Fullo. Work, Economy, and Society in Roman Italy, Oxford, University Press, 2013.
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