The Fullers of Rome
The Romans were all about appearances, which was obvious by the array of clothing that they wore. Their garments were billboards that advertised their status and wealth to all other Romans and anyone they came into contact with. As such, the clothing industry was a highly important part of Roman commerce. Not only was the sale of clothing a profitable business in Rome, but the care and maintenance of garments also became a highly important trade.
Though the typical Roman wife was traditionally expected to spin and weave fabric for handmade family clothing, it didn’t take long (around the beginning of the Empire) for the homespun wool tunics and togas to give way to more cheaply produced garments sold in stored and by street merchants. More garments for sale meant more garments bought that needed to be properly washed and maintained. And because many of the togas worn by Romans were white, they required frequent laundering due to stains and quickly absorbed odors. In Roman cities, facilities and shops existed specifically to produce, maintain, and clean Roman clothing.
Arguably the most important job in the Roman clothing industry was that of the cleaners, or the fullers (Latin fullones). The fullers’ shops serviced an entire town, where they dyed, washed, and dried garments of all types. The fullers’ shops (fullonicae), as seen at the ruins of Pompeii, were often larger than other types of businesses, in order to accommodate the large equipment needed, as well as to oblige the large number of daily customers. This also required a rather large workforce, and was probably one of the biggest employers in a city.
The typical fullonica needed tanks for washing, dyeing, and rinsing the garments, as well as space to dry and finish them. Garments were usually washed in human urine, which would have been collected from the public restrooms around the town, and also possibly imported from outlying areas.
To dye garments, the fullers used pigments that were made from different plants and some types of shellfish. After washing and dyeing, the garments were rinsed in large tubs of water, and then moved to the drying stage. Clothing was either hung on lines to dry, or placed on racks on the roof of the fullonica to dry in the sun. In more crowded Roman towns, the fullers has permission to dry some clothing on the street sides.
The fullers’ shops had large overhead, having to employ a large staff, take up a large space, and keep and maintain large equipment. However, many fullonicae seemed to have been very profitable, and were able to use their funds to fulfill civic duties. As laborers, they were respectable, and were often known to support high-ranking Romans in politics through financial donations and patronage. In Pompeii it was the fullers who supported Eumachia in her career, even dedicating a statue to her in honor of her support of them.