From the Archives: The Past Reeked, Probably

Originally published December 5, 2020

Editor’s Note: I’m going to the Texas Renaissance Festival this weekend and it only seemed appropriate to revisit this treatise on how bad the past smelled. Frankly there are a few people who go to those Renaissance festivals who abide by Renaissance hygienic standards so my present probably reeks a little bit, too. Happy weekend!

Think about this: The first commercially available deodorant, Mum, hit the shelves in 1888. That means that from the beginning of time until 1888, there was little people could do to make themselves smell better other than a full-on bath in dirty water. Oh, sure, there were perfumes and what not, but that’s treating the symptoms without treating the disease itself. If someone has been laboring away in the 100° weather all day, perfume will not make them smell that much better. Everyone my age has a story about some kid who never showered but instead used Axe body spray, and that kid stunk. With that in mind, here’s some stuff to think about:

HISTORICAL EVENTS SMELLED BAD

And not just the obvious ones like famous battles, or stories of Roman emperors going to the public toilets. Anything. Signing of the Magna Carta? Oof. Public plays? Forget about it. Mozart concert? Gross. Signing of the Declaration of Independence? Stank.

Think of the signing of the Declaration, specifically. Hot summer in Philadelphia, a bunch of non-deodorant-wearing men in a room with neither air conditioning nor indoor plumbing? You have to open the windows to let the breeze in, but with the breeze comes the smell of waste, human and animal, that has been left in the street because those were the times? Your bath water comes from the local river, which incidentally is where that human and animal waste ends up after rains? Count me out, man. I love deodorant and showers.

HISTORICAL PEOPLE SMELLED BAD

Again, not the obvious ones like Diogenes, who famously celebrated being unclean, but everyone. Leonardo da Vinci, Genghis Kahn, King Tut, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette…they all smelled bad. Maybe they had brief periods of smelling good. You know? Maybe right after a bath in harvested rainwater with some perfumed oils. But on the whole? I don’t think so. Pick literally any day of Napoleon’s life, travel back to Napoleon’s side at that exact moment, and there’s like a 98.5% chance Napoleon reeks. On the plus side, he did live in France, so I suppose he wasn’t the worst smelling person in any given room.

Seriously, even limiting our scope to the everyday life sweat would get old quick. Any adult, no matter how inactive, will start to get a little ripe after a few days, and showers were fewer and farther between. You likely have better odds if you’re around royalty or something, I suppose, but still.

HISTORICAL PLACES SMELLED BAD

Picture this: You’re in London, standing on London Bridge, gazing out on the Thames in the grey afternoon. It smells like rainwater, food, and the normal smells one might associate with a modern city. But amend that image to be in the late 1500s. London Bridge had houses and stores, as well as toilets, the entire length of the bridge. Imagine that. Human funk combined with rotting food, unwashed clothes, burnt cooking, dead animal, living animal, all sorts of nasty waste, and the disgusting Thames water, itself filled with much of the same grossness.

Even very modern cities would have smelled pretty bad not that long ago. For instance, New York City in the late-19th century would have been awful. Human waste, garbage, horses, and of course the general staleness of large groups of people in not-very-well-ventilated places. Ick.

CONCLUSION: EW

When this fairly obvious conclusion first entered my head it ruined me. Since then, I haven’t been able to watch TV or movies that take place before about 1920 without getting distracted wondering how bad the real version of the movie’s setting smelled. When I saw 1917, which was phenomenal, by the way, I kept wondering how awful those trenches smelled. But I don’t want to ruin old movies or pictures or paintings or anything for you by reminding you that Vincent Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, and Emily Brontë very likely smelled like complete butt. But I just think it’s important to remember that every once in a while. Smell you later.

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