Human sweat and oils don’t inherently smell bad, but when they sit around long enough to attract bacteria, we can get pretty rank. For all of civilization, people have looked for ways to make ourselves smell better, usually by piling pleasant smells on top of our body odor. The things we’ve used for those scents have been recorded through history, beginning with the ancient Egyptians. But the variety of scents expanded significantly when global trade arose. Jonathan Reinarz, author of Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell, tells us about the history of scent.
In the 13th century, chemists mastered the art of distilling, whereby a natural specimen is boiled along with water and the evaporating substance—a combination of water and essential oils—is captured and separated during the cooling process. Inventors combined these essential oils with alcohol to create the stable, quick-drying perfume that we know today. The first major alcohol-based fragrance was a late 14th-century rosemary perfume known as Hungary Water, since it was designed for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary.
By this time, most of Europe’s public bathhouses had been closed due to the bubonic plague, which killed more than a third of the population. Without a scientific understanding of germs, people believed that diseases like the plague were contagious through the air. “Before germ theory, there was the widely held belief in miasma or malaria,” which Reinarz says described unhealthy or disease-causing odors. “Today, of course, we associate malaria with a specific disease, but if you take the literal Latin translation ‘mal-aria,’ it’s bad air, which was thought to impact dramatically on people’s health and even create epidemics.”
Thus the stinking smell of sickness was fought with the sweet scent of other aromatics. “Specific diseases, like plague, believed to be conveyed by impure or corrupt air were frequently countered by building bonfires in public spaces and, in private, by burning incense or inhaling perfumes such as rose and musk,” Reinarz says. Doctors tending patients with the plague adopted a gas-mask style facial covering with a curved beak over the nose and mouth containing sweet-smelling substances to ward off the disease. Small bouquets of herbs and flowers called posies, nosegays, or tussie-mussies became popular accessories carried to overcome the stench of death.
There’s a lot more about the various ways we’ve tried to make ourselves smell better over the centuries, at Collectors Weekly.