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The Smelly Past

These are the stories of the royal armpits and other reasons we should be thankful they don't make history books scratch 'n' sniff.

Tycho Brahe was arguably one of the luckiest men in history. The 16th-century astronomer famously lost his nose in a duel during an argument over a math equation. Which, admittedly, can’t have been comfortable. On the other hand, Tycho wore a brass nose for the rest of his life, which meant he would have had more difficulty smelling. And that must have been a blessing, because the past was a putrid place. 

The problem reached all the way to the top: There’s a long history of foul-smelling royals. Queen Elizabeth I proudly declared that she took a bath “once a month, whether she needed to or not.” Her father, King Henry VIII, was even smellier. Later in life, the overweight monarch had a festering wound on his leg that you could smell from three rooms away. The lesion—which some say he got from wearing a too-tight garter—was made worse by the royal doctors. They believed the sore needed to run in order to heal, so they tied it open with string and sprinkled in gold pellets to keep it infected (and putrescent).

Over in France, Louis XIV was famous for his halitosis. (His mistress Madame de Montespan doused herself in heavy plumes of perfume to thwart the smell.) Meanwhile, his predecessor, Louis XIII, proclaimed, “I take after my father. I smell of armpits.”

The problem, as Katherine Ashenburg explains in her book The Dirt on Clean, was that people believed water opened the pores and allowed dangerous diseases into the body. So baths—popular just centuries before—were avoided like the plague (which they did not, in fact, cause).

But the royal palaces were an olfactory paradise compared to what you could expect on history’s roads. Here’s how Catherine McNeur describes a typical 19th-century New York street in her book, Taming Manhattan: “Rotten food such as corn cobs, watermelon rinds, oyster shells, and fish heads joined with dead cats, dogs, rats, and pigs, as well as enormous piles of manure.”

Lots of manure. A world of manure. Consider this: In 1900, New York had about 200,000 horses, which translated into at least five million pounds of poop each day. The mess was swept to the sides of the street like post-blizzard snow.

And let’s not forget two-legged animals: Our forefathers sometimes tossed their business right out the window. Thousands of so-called “night soil men” had the job of carting waste to dumps on the edges of cities (one near London was given the delightfully ironic name “Mount Pleasant”). More efficiently, they'd sometimes just throw the mess in the river.

In the sweltering summer of 1858 in London, so much human excrement clogged the Thames that people started calling it “the Great Stink.” At Parliament, the curtains were doused with chloride of lime to cover up the stench. It didn’t work. Government offices shut down. Part of the problem came from the recently invented flush toilet, which created so much raw sewage it overflowed the river.

Then there was the smell of death. Butchers commonly killed and disemboweled animals in the streets. As King Edward III said in the 14th century, “By reason of killing great beasts, from whose putrefied blood running down the streets, and the bowels cast into the Thames, the air in the city is very much corrupted and infected.” He tried to ban butchering in the center of London, but his law was often ignored. Human corpses also contributed: One British church stashed an appalling 12,000 of them in its cellar, according to Catharine Arnold’s book Necropolis. (The minister “sold” burials but didn’t actually bury anyone appropriately.) The fumes frequently made worshippers pass out.

But perhaps the most insidious stink was that of everyday life. Homes stank; the whale-oil lamps exuded a nasty fishy odor. Churches stank; St. Thomas Aquinas approved of incense because the flock’s BO “can provoke disgust.” Theaters stank; at Shakespeare’s Globe, those who bought the cheap tickets were not-so-affectionately referred to as “penny stinkers.”

So what was a person with a sensitive nose to do? One solution was the vinaigrette. Not the salad dressing, but a little Victorian perforated box filled with herbs and a vinegar-soaked sponge meant to be sniffed in times of olfactory distress. Alternately, you could cut off your nose.


The above article by A.J. Jacobs is reprinted with permission from the May 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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Let's not forget the reason why women's skirts were so voluminous. Femenine hygiene products were not available back then so they wore layers of slips under their dresses. When the one closest to their body was soiled and putrid they would remove it and start the process all over again with the next slip.
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