×

Why The Past Smelled Absolutely Horrible

Weird History | March 19, 2020

It's time to face facts: People are disgusting. It's not that you're a lazy or unhygienic person, it's just that the human body is a cesspool and there's nothing to be done about it. As gross as our bodies are now, they were even worse throughout history, which means the past stank to high heavens. If you went back in time, you wouldn't bro down with George Washington or party with Marie Antoinette at Versailles. You'd be gagging from the smell (and probably killing everyone with all of your modern bacteria). Take, for instance ...

(Wikimedia)

The Sponge On A Stick

If you had to pick the smelliest place in time, it's got to be ancient Rome. That place was absolutely filthy, and matters weren't helped by the xylospongium, a sponge on a stick that was used for cleaning one's unmentionable areas until toilet paper was invented. As if that wasn't disturbing enough, everyone in town shared the same stick, and it wasn’t cleaned so much as it was left to rest in a bowl of (quickly filthy) water. If you're looking for an easy way to spread disease, this is it.

(Pinterest)

People Didn't Bathe In The 16th Century

Prior to the Black Death, a plague that did away with 60% of Europe's population in the 14th century, many people visited public baths or a bath house to wash up. However, once friends and loved ones started breaking out in syphilis and tuberculosis and whatnot, the people of the Middle Ages stopped sharing water with one another. Since a medieval person would have regarded a private plumbing system as a form of witchcraft, that effectively meant the end of bathing. Some monks only bathed four times a year. There were also dead bodies just everywhere. This era is definitely a contender for the smelliest in history. 

(Pinterest)

Royal Palaces Stunk

In most period films, royal palaces look like the only places in that world that aren't wavy with stink lines, but it wasn't so in real life. The combination of impudent wealth and a lack of indoor plumbing meant that royalty had to leave their gorgeous homes for long periods of time just so they could be cleaned, as palaces like Versailles and Henry VIII's Hampton Court were filled with human waste and rotting food. King Henry alone had 60 homes that he bounced between in order to live a somewhat hygienic existence, but it hardly mattered. The number of people coming and going from these royal homes, wearing their weight in brocade with no AC, meant a lot of stinky armpits at any given time. In the winters, the palaces smelled like smoke from the fires keeping them warm. It's a smell that you get used to, but it's not something you want to bask in after stepping out of a time-traveling phone booth.

(Pinterest)

Indoor Plumbing Was A Game-Changer

Following medieval times, bathing was somewhat of a touchy subject. People relaxed enough to wash their hands and faces, but everything else got pretty musty. It wasn't until well into the Victorian era that indoor plumbing became a thing, but even then, only the wealthiest people could afford this luxury. The working class had to choose between the risk of getting sick by taking a bath or just going without, and most of them chose to forgo it.

(History Happens)

Smoke Was Everywhere In 18th-Century Europe

Are you the kind of person who can't stand the smell of cigar or cigarette smoke? Then 18th-century Europe is not for you. Tobacco became a big deal in England in the 17th century, and within 100 years, you couldn't go into a pub or any local hot spot without being knocked out by the smell of smoke. It's not like people loved the smell of smoke. The debate about personal space and smoking actually dates back to the 18th century, with the media calling the habit "vile" and many people switching to snuff for olfactory reasons. Even so, it would be hundreds of years before the smell of tobacco smoke faded from the streets.

(Museum of Public Relations)

The Horse Manure Crisis Of 1894

Environmentalists like to think of the past as a pollution-free paradise, but that's just because they didn't have to deal with horses, an animal that is definitely not a zero-emissions creature. By 1894, the number of Hansom Cabs and horse-drawn carriages bustling up and down the streets of London and New York were creating a problem. The Big Apple was home to 100,000 horses expelling 2.5 million pounds of manure a day, leading to what's now known as the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894. The manure brought flies, and above all else, a hellacious smell that must have burned Victorian nose hairs clean off. Horses were finally phased out with the introduction of cars, but no one knows who had to clean up all that manure or what it was used for. Probably F. Scott Fitzgerald stories.

(Eastern Arizona Courier)

Advertisers Had To Convince People That They Smelled Bad

In 1912, Edna Murphey attempted to market an antiperspirant that her father, a surgeon, used to keep his hands dry during operations as a product to keep regular folks' bodies dry and odorless during the day. She was way ahead of her time. In the early 1900s, people weren't ready to talk about something as base as human odor, so they just ignored the fact that they were walking sweat machines. The antiperspirant took off once the summer set in and people were baking in their clothes, but sales didn't really skyrocket until New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Company started making ads about how bad everyone smelled. One ad read:

A woman's arm! Poets have sung of it, great artists have painted its beauty. It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it isn't always.

People were shocked and outraged that an ad would dare mention someone's smell, which means that everyone was kind of mad that they were being called out. By 1920, sales of the antiperspirant more than doubled.

Tags: advertisements | cigarettes | diseases | hygiene | inventions | medieval europe | royal family

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.