Cleaning protocols are all the rage these days. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” John Wesley preached in the late 1700s. The idea is much older, fusing moral purity with ancient taboos rooted in noticing what made people sick. That said, we all have distinct scents unrelated to health or godliness. Just ask a dog.
We can’t smell our ordinary selves; we habituate too quickly. Neither could our less-scrubbed ancestors. To ask whether they stank is like asking whether a falling tree makes a noise if no one hears it. Human noses then as now were attuned to difference, such as the warning stench of a sickroom or rotten meat. Street urchins and swineherds could smell each other but not themselves.
Our ancestors varied by culture, of course. Vikings bathed weekly and washed face and hands every day. European townsfolk frequented public baths until the arrival of the plague, when it became safer to stay dirty. Ancient Roman aristocrats used not only communal baths but lots of perfumes. I know less about the traditions of Africa, Asia, or the precolonial Americas. Diet alone could give any culture a distinctive aroma noticeable only to outsiders.
For elitists, xenophobes, and purveyors of deodorant, difference was and is the point. A sweet scent wasn’t about health or virtue, but the luxury of not having to work up a sweat. Distinctive cooking smells helped scapegoat immigrants and foreigners as dirty sources of infection. Showering daily may not make us any healthier than the ancestors who labored six days and bathed on the seventh, but it sells more soap.
Image: Archives of Ontario, c. 1910-14.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.