6 Ways the Past Stank—Literally

The past was a stinky place to be.
The past was a stinky place to be. / Nana_Studio // Shutterstock (Stack of Photos); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Man Holding Nose)

It is my contention that the past stunk—both metaphorically and literally. It’s true: The past was a putrid place. The nostrils of our ancestors were constantly assaulted by unimaginable odors. It was like living your entire life in the men’s room at New York City’s Penn Station. Here are six reasons that you should be happy you and your nose live in modern times. 

1. B.O. ran rampant.

At Shakespeare’s Globe, “Penny Stinkards” was the not-so-affectionate nickname of those who bought the cheap tickets. The pious also smelled: St. Thomas Aquinas approved of incense “in order that any disagreeable smell, arising from the number of persons gathered together in the building, that could cause annoyance, might be dispelled by its fragrance,” according to a translation by historian Jacob M. Baum. (Other translations put it more bluntly, quoting Aquinas of saying the flock’s B.O. “can provoke disgust.”)

Nobles and royals gave off a stench, too. Queen Elizabeth I allegedly declared that she took a bath “once a month, whether I need to or not.” Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, was even smellier. Later in life, the rotund monarch had an open festering wound on his leg that you could smell three rooms away. The wound—which was partially the fault of wearing too-tight garters—was made worse by the royal doctors. Supposedly, these medical geniuses believed the sore needed to run in order to heal, so they tied the wound open with string and sprinkled gold pellets in to keep it infected (and putrescent).

Louis XIII of France, meanwhile, once proclaimed, “I take after my father. I smell of armpits.”

2. Bad breath was also pervasive.

Full-length portrait of Louis XIV - Painting after Claude Lefebv
Portrait of Louis XIV - Painting after Claude Lefebv / Photo Josse/Leemage/GettyImages

Speaking of French kings: Louis XIV was famous for his halitosis, which his mistress complained about to no avail. According to Texas A&M assistant professor Jane Cotter, oral hygiene at that time consisted mostly of toothpicks or a sponge soaked in brandy, but the Sun King’s oral issues ran much deeper: His palate had been punctured during the removal of some teeth, and “for the rest of his life,” Colin Jones writes at Cabinet magazine, “he could not eat soup without spraying his plate through his nose.”

It wasn’t until the 1920s that “advertisements for Listerine transformed halitosis from a bothersome personal imperfection into an embarrassing medical condition that urgently required treatment,” according to Laura Clark at Smithsonian.

3. There was garbage everywhere.

With garbage collectors a low priority, cities reeked.  As Catherine McNeur writes 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,” and they could all be found on a typical 19th century New York street.

Likewise, the floors of some houses doubled as garbage pails: In describing a 16th century British home, the scholar Erasmus wrote that “The floors are made with clay, and covered with marsh rushes constantly piled on one another, so that the bottom layer remains sometimes for twenty years incubating spittle, vomit, the urine of dogs and men, the dregs of beer, the remains of fish, and other nameless filth.”

4. There was a plethora of poop.

Two delivery men sit atop a horse drawn wagon, ca. 1900
Two delivery men sit atop a horse drawn wagon, ca. 1900 / Kirn Vintage Stock/GettyImages

We mentioned the piles of manure in passing, but poop deserves its own section. Consider this: In 1835, New York had about 10,000 horses, which translated to 400,000 pounds of poop each day and was swept to the sides of the street like a post-blizzard snow, according to McNeur.

And that’s not to mention two-legged animals. Human waste was a constant and rank companion. Thousands of so-called “night soil men” had the job of carting the waste from the cesspits to huge dumps on the edges of the city (one near London was called by the delightfully ironic name Mount Pleasant). Or more efficiently, they’d just throw the mess in the river.

In the sweltering summer of 1858 in London, so much human waste clogged the Thames that the stench was unbearable. The crisis came to be called The Great Stink of London. At Parliament, the curtains were doused with chloride of lime to cover up the smell. It didn’t work. Government offices shut down. Ironically, part of the problem came from the increasingly popular flush toilet, which created so much raw sewage that it overflowed the river. Londoners were particularly freaked out by the Great Stink because doctors at the time believed that smelly air transmitted diseases.

5. Death brought its own special stench to life in the past.

Then there was the smell of death—both human and animal. Butchers killed and disemboweled animals right in the streets, leading King Edward III to note in the 14th century that “The air of the city is very much corrupted and infected” because of the “killing of great beasts … putrified blood running down the streets, and the bowels cast into the Thames.” He tried to ban butchering in the center of London, but his law was often ignored.

Human corpses also wreaked reeky havoc on the noses of the living for centuries. The ancient Romans, for example, cremated thousands of bodies right outside the city walls. And in the mid-1800s, one British church stashed an appalling 12,000 corpses in its cellar, according to Catharine Arnold’s book Necropolis. The fumes from the cadavers frequently made worshippers pass out. The bodies caused a major scandal when they were discovered.

The aforementioned Henry VIII continued to smell after he died: The weight and gas from his bloated corpse allegedly cracked his coffin open, with fluids seeping out. Apparently, this was a longstanding tradition of English kings. William the Conqueror was being forced into his tomb when, according to the monk Orderic Vitalis, his "swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." 

6. Even technology added to the past’s odor.

Flemish Fulling
Flemish Fulling / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Before the Industrial Revolution, making wool was a particularly gross undertaking. The wool was cleaned in a process called “fulling,” which often involved hitting the wool with clubs in pools of stale urine. The urine contained ammonia salts which helped whiten the wool.

The early Industrial Revolution birthed its own nasty smells. The 1837 book London As It Is describes factories “vomiting forth … dense volumes of black suffocating smoke, filling all the adjoining streets with stifling fumes ... Many persons think that the smoke is beneficial rather than prejudicial to health in London, on the idea, probably, that it covers all other offensive fumes and odours: this notion cannot be found in truth.”

So yes, the world today sometimes stinks (both metaphorically and literally), but compared to the days of yore, we live in an aromatic paradise.