General Question

windex's avatar

Did Most and/or all people back in the day smell really bad? (pre deodorant-Before 1940's)

Asked by windex (2932points) October 12th, 2008

Just wondering… before what year/era/time do you think.

reason for this questions is because whenever I watch a movie that takes place during those times, I just can’t help but think everyone in the queen’s castle (for example) must’ve smelled really really bad. (no shower/deodorant/perfume etc)

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21 Answers

eambos's avatar

During the time of the Black plague it must have been horrible. The people believed that the virus was carried by water, so all they did to wash was wipe the grime off with a dry cloth.

syz's avatar

There seems to be a lot of conflicting information. I’m finding quite a few references to the Middle Ages being less, um, aromatic, than I would have anticipated.

This seems to do a very good job of answering your question:

Deodorant, however, is pretty much a modern invention. Before the late 1800’s, people just covered up body oder with perfumes. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, would shave their hair (so they didn’t get lice!) and then wear wigs. On top of the wig, they’d set a cone of wax filled with perfume. As the wax slowly melted over the day, they’d always be surrounded by fresh scent! They’d also apply scented oil to their underarms. Greeks and Romans found that shaving the underarms would help too. And in the Middle Ages, it was customary for the wealthy to put rose petals and rose oil in their baths.

More sources:

Dental/oral hygiene:

A history of feminine hygiene products:

gailcalled's avatar

Starting arbitrarily at 3000 BC (the first Egyptian Dynasty), the Golden age of Greece, the Roman Empire’s dominance, the Middle Ages, the Plague,
and 1939–40 are different. I was barely sentient in 1940 but remember that none of my family or relatives smelled other than just fine. We did have hot water, soap, aftershave, toilet water, and dental hygiene.

My father smelled like Old Spice, my mother like lavender water and my paternal grandmother like French perfume and chopped liver, a nice combination. No queens or castles in our neighborhood in the Bronx.

For example, personal hygiene, including menstrual products, and cosmetics at the time of Nefertiti.

Lightlyseared's avatar

What makes you think they didn’t have deodorant before 1940. Mum was introduced in the late 19th century, and alum has been used as an deodorant for long before that.
Civilisations as far back as the ancient Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and Romans had perfumes.

jvgr's avatar

Pre-1940 to when?
When the regular use of soap and water became the norm, body odor did improve but that wasn’t really the case until almost the 1900’s. Even after water was discovered to be ok, water alone isn’t aall that effective as a cleanser or deodorizer.
While perfumes were discovered and used by early Egyptian royalty most people couldn’t afford it.
As mentioned above, perfume became more widely used in Europe when urbanization was underway. The gentry, who had money, would have a perfume soaked kerchief tucked in their sleeves and sniff it to blot out the worldy smells around them.

cheebdragon's avatar

they probably couldn’t smell it if they did, the odor might might make us vomit if we were to go back in time, but they would have been so use to it, that it wouldn’t really be considered a bad smell.

susanc's avatar

jvgr, “the worldy smells”, lol.

Haven’t any of you hung out with what my sons used to call “dirt hippies”? People who
think deodorant is a measure of a corrupt society? People like that smell a certain way.
It’s not exactly bad, but it’s definite.

Having travelled in parts of the world where there wasn’t much water, hence not as much
washing as we’re used to, I’d say people prefer to be clean and will find ways to
make it happen.

Nimis's avatar

Dirty hippies smell from lack of bathing combined with patchouli, not from lack of deodorant.
Have a lot of friends who don’t use deodorant and they smell quite fine.
They just avoid eating large amounts of onions, garlic or certain spices in hot weather.
Oh, yes. And they bathe frequently.

I’m thinking though, people might have been on the ripe side before the invention of aquaducts.

laureth's avatar

Before modern soap, the ancient Greeks cleaned themselves by rubbing on some olive oil and then scraping it off (and all the gack with it) with a special tool called a strigil.

Also, even better, “English cleric John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, ...complained bitterly that the Viking Age men of the Danelaw combed their hair, took a bath on Saturday, and changed their woolen garments frequently, and that they performed these un-Christian and heathen acts in an attempt to seduce high-born English women.”

Nowadays, people are used to the clean-smelling, deodorized masses because, on the most part, we bathe frequently as a society and the odd-out person is the stinky one. With everyone so clean, it has lowered our tolerance for human, uh, “natural aroma.” Back when people didn’t wash so much, “human aroma” was the normal baseline you would expect from people, so it would take a REALLY STINKY person to register as “offensive” to most people – and the Viking who bathed once a week had an “unChristian advantage” with the ladies. ;)

That said, sometimes even a little aroma wasn’t seen as a bad thing back then, as much as it is now. In France, armpits were once known as “spice boxes.” Napoleon is famous for writing to his wife Josephine, “J’arrive. Ne te lave pas. [I’ll be home soon. Don’t wash.]”

Clean, and stink, appear to be relative. If we went back in time, we might find those people “ripe,” but I’m not sure they thought of each other that way.

gailcalled's avatar

@Laureth said: Napoleon is famous for writing to his wife Josephine, “J’arrive. Ne te lave pas.”

Thank you for that wonderful quote. I will be adding it to my list of favorites.

windex's avatar

@Nimis: ummm, I don’t know what to say to that…“Have a lot of friends who don’t use deodorant and they smell quite fine. ” Are you talking about humans? or pets?

@Laureth: Wow that (strigil) sounds AWESOME! Aaaand Disgusting at the same time.
Also, “I’ll be home soon. Don’t wash” ..ummm EW!

Thanks for all the answers!

I’m assuming people had to do a lot of Manual Labor, or even when performing basic tasks (since there were no, cars, air conditioning, Calvin Klein underwear etc.) that they would Sweat, and smell bad or…natural.

gailcalled's avatar

Check out the plant Saponaria

“Soapworts are cultivated for their attractive flowers; they grow freely in any soil and under most conditions. The crushed leaves or roots of S. officinalis have been used as a soap since the Renaissance. Museum conservators still use the soap made from its leaves and roots for cleaning delicate fabrics not able to withstand modern soaps, and it also makes a fine shampoo.”

Nimis's avatar

Friends of the human variety! Though now that you mention it, their un-ripeness probably also has to do with the fact that they all have office jobs. If they did manual labor, I’m guessing they’d be stinkier.

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

People did smell. That’s why the French invented perfume. People used to bathe once or twice a year, and given the difficulty of obtaining cloth, only had one or two changes of clothing.

It was not uncommon to only take a bath on Saturday night well into the 1900’s.

Amish_Ninja's avatar

@Alf The Egyptians created perfume, not the French. Wee Wee!

galileogirl's avatar

Nobody has mentioned food but what you eat can affect how you smell. Aside from the obvious garlic and onions, animal proteins can be pretty strong via pores. And if everyone is eating garlic and onions they sort of mask each other.

Also I have lived in several pre-40’s houses and they generally had windows in the clothes closets because they didn’t launder the same way we do and clothing had to “air”.

Remember that musky male phermones are considered sexually attractive to women.

bea2345's avatar

Except the smell is a stench rather than an odour or even a fragrance, one gets desensitized. I travelled by bus in Jamaica for 4 years and I cannot remember any smells except from the bags of produce – yams, fruits, livestock – carried by passengers. It is possible that in cold countries, where ventilation was sacrificed to warmth, inside could become quite fuggy.

ItsAHabit's avatar

Several centuries ago, Parisians changed their outer clothes no more than once a month and their underwear every two weeks at most. Washing them in the Seine caused them to turn a tan color because of all the pollution. Therefore, those who could afford it, sent them to the Netherlands to be cleaned where, after being washed,they were bleached in the sun. And the Parisians were much cleaner than most French people.

BoBo1946's avatar

Soap is actually a pretty early invention. They had it by 2800 BC in ancient Mespotamia! These soaps were made by boiling animal fats or vegetable oils with ashes and would have been pretty harsh and abrasive. The Greeks and Romans prefered to use something called a strigil. They’d oil their bodies, then scrape them clean with this strigil, a curved piece of wood. I guess that would be moisturizing, but I’m not sure how much cleaner you’d be!

Deodorant, however, is pretty much a modern invention. Before the late 1800’s, people just covered up body oder with perfumes.

Source: All Experts

Very good question @windex !

Youngandhung's avatar

It agree the idea that people were used to the smell back then. So a guy or girl would have to be pretty ripe to offend.. I also find it interesting that Napolian would tell his wife not to clean.. I can identify with that thought.. I have always been put off by body oder. I even remember once at a school dance I had a crush on this girl and had finally had the courage to ask her to dance. As we were dancing I was hit with a whaff of her underarm scent and I almost lost dinner right there. But I have noticed that once I fall in love with a particular woman. that same type of smell is sweet sweet aroma to my nostrils.. I guess its the Pharamones in it? I am not sure? But I can tell you that my current GF (I am in Cartagena Colombia for work) she is Colombian, and she has strong body oder at the end of a full day but it arrouses me to no end. I am instantly intoxicated by her youth and body oder(she is 14 years my junior) .
I guess love changes more things than we know? Because I do know that if I caught this oder from some strange woman on the street I would most likely be offended and want to vomit. can anyone explain this deeper?

gailcalled's avatar

^^ Odor. Pheromones.

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