Today, if you smell like human excrement, people would tell you that you stink. But if you are in 18th century France, people in that era would remark that you are fashionable. The French art historian Eugène Viollet-le-Duc would even tell you that your scent reminds him of good times. I know. Pretty weird, right?
It was an era of less scrupulous sanitation. The malodor of privies and cesspools was no doubt part of the distinctive bouquet that jogged the lady’s memory. But it wasn’t just the chamber pots that reeked. In the era of Louis XV, it was fashionable to drench oneself in “animal scents:” musk from the scent glands of fanged Himalayan deer; civet from the perineal glands of civet cats; and ambergris from the intestines of sperm whales. Noblemen perfumed themselves with the same reeks that wild beasts used to mark their territory.
In their natural state, each of these substances smell about as bad as you would expect. The noxiousness of civet, for instance, can be indicated by the fact that early settlers of Virginia thought the skunks they smelled around the woods were a local variety of civet cat, and proposed bottling and selling their secretions for “good profit.” In the same vein, human excrement was occasionally referred to as “occidental Civet,” as the historian Karl H. Dannenfeldt notes in the Journal of the History of Biology.
But why did this happen? Why did such scents become popular that time?
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(Image Credit: John William Godward/ Wikimedia Commons)