To hear a lot of people tell it, up until some indeterminate date in the 20th century, everyone in Europe and the United States stank to high heaven. Supposedly no one washed, brushed their teeth, etc; everyone had lice; and so on. Is it true that the average 12th-century European, if he showed up in a modern room, could clear out the joint by stench alone in three seconds? Were lice the social norm? Would everyone’s rotting-tooth breath knock us on our asses? If so, at what point did matters improve? I’m imagining myself transported back in time to a room where the Founding Fathers are debating what to do about the Crown’s injustices, and almost passing out from the stink. What makes me skeptical that hygiene was so awful is that I often read of someone being particularly malodorous; if everything already stank horrifically, then how could people tell that someone had BO? Who had grounds to nitpick anyone else’s pungency? –Jonathan, via e-mail

Come on, Jonathan–a little body odor never killed anybody. Truth is, we live in an impoverished age, olfactorily speaking. Up until, say, World War I–some would put the date as late as 1950–human beings lived in a rich stew of scents, some revolting but a few delightful and many at least comfortingly familiar. Nowadays people in the developed world can go for days without sniffing anything more pungent than kung pao chicken at the food court. Progress has rid us of some pretty rank smells, but we tossed out some good ones too.

You heard right–people in the old days did stink to high heaven. What with domestic animals, nonexistent sanitation and refrigeration, and (after 1800) crowding and pollution, pretty much everything stank. Efforts were made to alleviate the stench, the most famous result being the public baths of Rome, but the more common practice was to disguise foul scents with fairer ones. A wealthy party host was expected to tickle his guests’ olfactory receptors with exotic perfumes, incense, and ointments. If he didn’t they’d be more likely to smell the chamber pots–separate toilet rooms draining to a cesspool weren’t common until the 19th century.

Probably the low point in terms of BO was reached during the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages public baths had been available in larger towns; while these were more recreational than hygienic and often did a good side business as brothels, you could get clean if you wanted to. In the wake of the plague, though, Europeans decided baths were dangerous. Hot water allowed toxins to penetrate the skin–better to keep the pores caulked with healthy grime. A grossed-out Muslim in the Arabian Nights suggested that once Christians were doused with baptismal water they felt entitled to avoid bathing for the rest of their lives. Personal grooming, such as it was, focused entirely on appearances. People washed their faces and hands sometimes but refused to immerse their entire bodies except on doctors’ orders. The rich drenched themselves with perfume to conceal odor. Lice and fleas were universal, etiquette requiring merely that one refrain from scratching conspicuously in public. People were used to a baseline level of putridity; to attract attention, you had to really reek.

This noxious state of affairs persisted for centuries. One small step forward was the wearing of underclothing, preferably of white linen–dirt would rub off on the linen, which you could wash every few weeks without having to wash yourself. The prejudice against water began to recede in the 18th century, but bathing remained an aristocratic luxury (later extended to the bourgeoisie) for another 150 years. (Not that the aristos set much of an example–it’s said Versailles stank due to blue bloods relieving themselves in corners.) Partly it was a matter of expense–for those too modest to simply jump in the river, the only bathing facilities were public bathhouses, revived in popularity but out of most people’s price range. It’s estimated that in 1819 the 700,000 inhabitants of Paris collectively purchased only 600,000 baths.

Change came gradually. In an at least semiscientific attempt to combat epidemics, cities began installing waterworks and sewer systems. Indoor bathrooms became more common, although they weren’t standard until the 20th century. Mass-produced soap appeared. Autos and milk trains made it possible to keep horses and cows and their offal out of cities. The middle class, with the energetic assistance of advertisers, realized that bad smells weren’t the inevitable lot of mankind. Even so, the modern cult of cleanliness, including daily showers and deodorant, didn’t take firm root in the U.S. until after World War II. Nowadays, thanks to air conditioning, kitchen fans, and for that matter fewer home-cooked meals (at my house, anyway), even cooking smells are fading away. I’m not complaining about the sterility of modern life in a literal sense–who wants cholera back?–but the world of abundant smells is one we have largely left behind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.