Why The Past Smelled Absolutely Horrible
By Sophia Maddox | November 8, 2023
The Sponge On A Stick
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vomitoriums, Need We Say More?
Ah, the good ol' days, when the past smelled like a bouquet of roses thanks to those charming vomitoriums. Nothing quite like the aroma of partially digested feasts wafting through the air as ancient Romans indulged in their post-meal rituals. Who needs lavender fields or ocean breezes when you can bask in the delightful fragrance of regurgitated extravagance? It's a wonder they didn't bottle that essence and market it as a luxury perfume. So, yes, let's all take a moment to appreciate how far we've come in the olfactory department.
One undeniable contributor to the olfactory challenges of the past was the proximity of livestock to human settlements. Imagine the quaint, idyllic villages of yore, where the bucolic charm was tinged with a not-so-charming aroma. The stench of animal waste was an ever-present companion, as livestock were often kept in close quarters with humans. From the raucous clucking of poultry to the earthy musk of cattle, these farmyard neighbors certainly didn't hold back when it came to sharing their distinctive fragrances. While animal husbandry was essential for sustenance and livelihoods, it undeniably added its own unique scent to the tapestry of historical odors, reminding us that the past was not always a breath of fresh air.
Medieval Chamber Pots
The medieval chamber pot, a humble vessel with a rather undignified purpose. In the not-so-distant past, when the moon hung high and the streets below were cloaked in darkness, these trusty pots served as the midnight saviors of bladders everywhere. However, their disposal method leaves a lot to be desired for modern sensibilities. Instead of the convenience of indoor plumbing, our ancestors opted for the quaint practice of heaving these pots out of windows and into the streets below. It was a unique form of nighttime entertainment for passersby, as they dodged an unexpected shower of unsavory contents. The result? A streetscape that was not only dimly lit but also perfumed with the unmistakable fragrance of medieval relief, reminding us that even in the past, convenience came at a pungent price.
Cities of the past, bustling with activity and ambition, often found themselves teeming with more residents than they could comfortably accommodate. The consequence? Cramped living conditions that would make any contemporary studio apartment seem palatial. With people living cheek by jowl, the air was thick with the mingling fragrances of countless human bodies. Overpopulation didn't just test the limits of space but also the endurance of our noses, as the concentration of human odors became an unavoidable fact of life. In the midst of this olfactory onslaught, people of the past managed to find their way through the maze of history, leaving behind a pungent reminder that even the most crowded epochs had their own distinct scent.
Limited Access to Clean Clothing
Clean clothing, once considered a luxury, was about as rare as a unicorn sighting. In those days, people sported their outfits like badges of honor, braving the world with unapologetic panache, albeit often accompanied by some rather persistent body odors. Forget about the latest fashion trends; the scent of eau de unwashed linen was the true signature fragrance of the times. But let's be real, who needs clean clothes when you can proudly rock that authentic, lived-in aroma? It's a wonder they didn't bottle it up and market it as "vintage essence." So, let's raise a mildly musty toast to the past and its unique take on personal style – because sometimes, a little sass and a lot of body odor can be quite the historical statement.
Use of Animal Fats in Lamps
In the days of yore, our ancestors ingeniously turned to animal fats as the fuel of choice for their lamps, enlightening the world with both light and, well, quite the distinctive aroma. Picture it: a romantic evening by lamplight, where the scent of rendered animal fat mingled lovingly with the air. It was like a rustic candlelit dinner with Mother Nature herself, complete with a bouquet of farmyard nostalgia. Who needs fancy, unscented candles when you can bask in the warm embrace of rendered livestock? So, let's tip our hats to the past's quirky choice of lighting, for reminding us that even history had its own unique way of setting the mood – albeit with a hint of sass and a dash of "eau de farm."
Lack of Refrigeration
Ah, the past, where the culinary adventures often took an unexpected turn down the road of olfactory excitement. In those bygone days, refrigeration was but a distant dream, and the concept of "leftovers" was a risky proposition. Picture the noble pioneers of gastronomy, bravely experimenting with the art of food preservation. As the hours passed, that freshly cooked meal began to metamorphose into a symphony of aromatic surprises. It was like a suspenseful thriller, where every whiff told a tale of culinary daring and the passage of time. Who needs modern refrigeration when you can embark on a daily culinary adventure of your own, complete with a surprise ending? So, let's give a nod to the past for making every meal an aromatic journey, because sometimes, a bit of sass and a lot of scent can add a dash of piquant nostalgia to our culinary tales.
Tanneries and Butcheries
In the days of yore, urban life was like a perpetual game of "Guess That Smell," with tanneries and butcheries taking center stage as the unsung creators of olfactory intrigue. Picture the city streets, where the symphony of urban hustle and bustle was punctuated by the, let's say, "distinctive" notes of tanning vats and freshly cleaved meat. These industrious establishments weren't just places of work; they were aromatic symphonies of their own. Who needs a Spotify playlist when you can groove to the rhythmic cadence of butchers' cleavers and the sweet, sweet serenade of tanning solutions? So, let's give a round of applause to history for teaching us that even the most noxious odors can be the unsung heroes of urban ambiance, adding a touch of sass to the tapestry of city life.
Inadequate Medical Practices
Back in those good ol' days of less-than-optimal medical practices, it seems the art of healing had an aromatic agenda of its own. Picture a time when surgical instruments had a date with rust, and cleanliness was a mere suggestion rather than a rule. Medical procedures often resembled a symphony of unsanitary tools and procedures, with diseases and unpleasant odors playing prominent roles. Who needs a spa day when you can experience a medical treatment that doubles as a fragrant adventure? So, let's tip our hats to history for keeping us on our toes with its unconventional approach to medicine, reminding us that even in less-than-sanitary conditions, a dash of sass and a whiff of adventure could be found.
In the days of old, our ancestors were a fragrant bunch, thanks to their reliance on potent herbal remedies for all things health-related. Forget about the subtleties of modern medicine; these folks believed in leaving no room for ambiguity when it came to healing. Picture the apothecaries and herbalists concocting their pungent brews, with the scent of herbs so strong it could make your nose curl and your eyes water. Who needs a spa day when you can embark on an aromatic journey to wellness? So, let's raise our noses in salute to history for teaching us that sometimes, when it comes to remedies, a little sass and a lot of scent can be just what the doctor ordered.
Limited Access to Deodorants
In the days when deodorants were more myth than reality, our ancestors flaunted their natural scents like perfumed royalty. Forget about today's shelves lined with a cornucopia of scented options; these folks had but one choice: the au naturel approach. Picture a world where body odor wasn't just a fact of life; it was practically a fashion statement. Who needs chemical concoctions when you can embrace your personal scent profile with confidence? So, let's tip our hats to history for reminding us that sometimes, the past's lack of deodorant options was a bold statement of self-expression, adding a dash of sass to the timeless art of body odor management.
In those days of bygone personal hygiene standards, the availability of public bathhouses was like a game of social exclusivity. Picture a world where cleanliness was a privilege reserved for the chosen few, while the rest of the populace engaged in a slightly funkier version of community bonding. Public bathhouses, though they existed, were not exactly democratized, leaving many with an aromatic air of mystique. Who needs the convenience of daily showers when you can share in the communal experience of fragrant solidarity? So, let's give a nod to history for making us appreciate the power of personal hygiene and remember that even in a world of uneven access to cleanliness, a touch of sass and a pinch of patience can make the olfactory journey quite the adventure.
Lack of Ventilation
Back in the day, when indoor air quality was more of an afterthought than a priority, buildings often served as fragrance capsules, sealing in their distinctive aromas like time capsules of scent. Picture a world where proper ventilation was a luxury, and the odors of life had a tendency to linger. Whether it was the sumptuous feast from the night before or just the everyday hustle and bustle, those scents had nowhere to go but to linger in the atmosphere. Who needs a fancy air purifier when you can savor the bouquet of history's trapped odors? So, let's offer a round of applause to history for teaching us the importance of fresh air and reminding us that even in the most stifled of atmospheres, a hint of sass and a breath of patience can make every inhalation an adventure.
Picture a time when clothing and bedding were more than just fabrics; they were aromatic storytelling devices, thanks to their animal-derived materials. In a world where synthetics were but a twinkle in the textile industry's eye, people cozied up to the natural world's scent palette. Whether it was the musk of wool or the earthy notes of leather, these materials brought a piece of the great outdoors into every home. Who needs scented candles when you can snuggle up with a hint of barnyard charm? So, let's give a nod to history for showing us that even in our scentless modernity, the past had its own aromatic appeal, and sometimes, a dash of sass and a sprinkle of animal essence can be the key to unlocking the fragrance of nostalgia.
Lack of Paved Roads
Once upon a time, in a world where paved roads were about as rare as unicorns, cities embraced the rustic charms of dirt pathways. Now, in dry weather, these dirt roads may have exuded a certain dusty romance, but when the heavens opened up, it was an entirely different story. Those quaint streets turned into mud pits that could make even a seasoned adventurer think twice before venturing out. And as the mud mingled with various urban delights, a distinct fragrance emerged, reminiscent of a soggy farmyard in the midst of a downpour. Who needs the sleek, rainproof streets of today when you can relish the aroma of a city's muddied past? So, let's tip our umbrellas to history for reminding us that even in the muck and mire, there's room for a touch of sass and a splash of nostalgia in the fragrance of days gone by.
Use of Human Waste in Agriculture
Back when agricultural practices were a bit more resourceful, human waste had a starring role as a fertilizer, adding a unique bouquet to the rural landscape. The fields weren't just nourished by sunlight and rain; they had the privilege of basking in the aromatic glory of organic recycling. As the saying goes, waste not, want not, and our ancestors certainly took that to heart. Who needs synthetic fertilizers when you can embrace the circle of life with a hint of sass and a whiff of agricultural nostalgia? So, let's give a nod to history for reminding us that even in the world of farming, a touch of human essence can be the secret ingredient to a fragrant harvest of memories.
The Scent of Adventure
In the grand odyssey of history, travelers of old embarked on journeys that were nothing short of aromatic adventures. Picture it: a horse-drawn carriage, filled with spirited adventurers and their trusty equine companions, forging their way through the landscapes of yesteryear. It was a blend of perspiration and equestrian essence, a symphony of scents that told tales of determination and exploration. Who needs modern air-conditioned transportation when you can savor the "essence" of the journey? So, let's tip our hats to the past for reminding us that even on the road less traveled, a touch of sass and a dash of eau de horse could be the perfect fragrant companion to history's wanderlust.
The lack of refrigeration in the deep, dark past led to creative methods for preserving seafood, often resulting in odorous concoctions that could clear a room.
Medieval Air Conditioning
Ah, Medieval Air Conditioning - a term that could make even the most luxurious modern HVAC systems feel a tad envious. In those days of yore, folks had the genius idea of opening windows for a dose of "natural" climate control. The result? A refreshing breeze that not only brought fresh air but also some of the great outdoors' most intriguing scents right into your humble abode. Who needs a temperature-controlled oasis when you can embrace the full spectrum of Mother Nature's fragrance palette? So, let's raise a metaphorical window to the past, where indoor air quality was more like a mixed bag of aromatic surprises, adding a dash of sass and a pinch of rustic charm to everyday life.
Vintage perfumes, oh, they were the olfactory pioneers of their time, weren't they? Back then, the fragrance game had a bit of a wild streak, with perfumers exploring some truly unconventional ingredients, including those of the animal kingdom. You see, smelling like a bouquet of flowers was simply too mainstream; our ancestors wanted to flaunt their "scent-sational" individuality. So, they bottled up a dash of the exotic, adding a hint of the "wild" to their daily routine. Who needs a run-of-the-mill fragrance when you can wear a scent that's as bold as you are? Vintage perfumes were like a daring expedition into the fragrant unknown, reminding us that sometimes, a touch of sass and a pinch of audacity can turn an everyday spritz into a fragrant adventure worth embarking on.