Our Ancestors Used to Stink

Let’s face. Our ancestors used to smell. You probably won’t read about personal hygiene in history books but the historians all will tell you attention to one’s body odors was more-or-less unknown until recent years. The “good old days” may have been good but they also were smelly.

Writing in the Irish Examiner, Robert Hume investigates what our ancestors did to keep themselves cool and deal with body odor. Or, as the Irish write it, “odour.”

Here are a few of Hume’s statements:

“The fondness for bathing stopped once the medieval church warned of the evils of nudity. In Europe, bathhouses were closed down in the 14th century as a way of trying to check the spread of plague.”

“Aristocrats were often as dirty as peasants. A visitor to King Louis XVI’s court at Versailles described it as a ‘stinking cesspit’”.

“When Elizabeth Drinker had a shower installed in her backyard in Philadelphia in 1799, she said: ‘I bore it better than expected, not having been wet all over for 28 years past.’”

“But at first soap was a luxury. Only when the soap tax was removed in Britain and Ireland in 1853 could most people afford to buy it.”

You can read more if you hold your nose and go to https://tinyurl.com/y956dwzo.

Camp life during the U.S. Civil War

While not mentioned in Robert Hume’s article, I am always fascinated by the clothing in old photographs taken the the late 1800s or early 1900s, often showing men and women alike dressed in heavy clothing and standing in outdoor backgrounds that look like summer weather. Those wool U.S. Civil War uniforms had to be mighty uncomfortable in August in the Confederate South and probably not much better in the North! Of course, civilian clothing was much the same: lots of wool although some linen, long sleeves, formal coats and jackets, and dark colors.

The photo above appears to have been taken indoors but long before the invention of air conditioning! I am guessing this gentleman probably wore similar clothing outdoors all year long.

Phew!

11 Comments

Yes, I have some real “stinkers” in my ancestry.

In fact, some were named Hume.

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I remember reading that one of the side benefits of the industrial revolution was the spread of clothing made from cheap (relatively speaking) cotton cloth made it possible for people to wash their clothing. Wool and linen cloth do not mix well with water, and silk is even harder to launder, so people just kept wearing the same clothes, day after day, as the dirt and grime (not to mention fleas and lice) continued to build up.

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It makes you wonder how we all got here! Yuk!!

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I am reminded of Tyrone, PA, a town near where I grew up, that had a paper mill, which are incredibly stinky. If you were passing through, the stench was awful, but if you stayed for a while, you stopped noticing it.
Hopefully, the same effect was true for our ancestors.

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Remember that famous comment by Napoleon in a letter to Josephine? He wrote her that he was coming home and he said “don’t wash”!

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That is where the phrase, “throw the baby out with the bath water” came from. On Saturday everyone took a bath, normally in the kitchen, in order of priority in the same bath tub. Father, then mother and then the children in order of age. By the time a baby got in the water was pretty “dark.” A baby could be lost in that water.

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Thats funny because I grew up in a town that manufactured soap and it stunk plenty. Lever 2000 is a soap that I use just to remind me of the stench

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What a coincidence – I just listened to the Ben Franklin’s World 200th episode this morning and Ann Little speaks about early American hygiene (or lack thereof) and why. Recommend!

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I remember reading a book about Coco Chanel. Along with her fashion advice she was adamant about telling women to take a bath and keep themselves clean. Apparently that was a novel idea – around 1900 or so.

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The custom of women having a handkerchief which they could hold “elegantly” over their nose came from having perfume in the hanky which hid the odors around them. As for the clothing in the mid 1800’s, remember that there was a “little ice age” in our climate then. Not actually a glaciation but more of a global drop in temperature. Their summers were not as hot as ours and their winters were definitely colder than ours: think about all the references to snow and pictures of snowy scenes in areas that today don’t get to see much snow.

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