19th century, 19th century clothing, authenticity, clothes, Clothing, common people, historical clothing, historical myths, historical reenactors, history, interpretation, laundry, smell
One of the most common questions you get when you’re wearing historical clothing is the undying, “Aren’t you hot in those clothes?”
A heavily perspiring visitor wearing practically nothing usually asks this question, and the standard reply is a variation of “Aren’t you hot? In really warm weather, everyone is hot. But natural fibre clothing wicks the moisture from the skin and helps to keep you cool.” My internal response (vocalized only once) is, “Why yes, I am—and thank you for noticing. I work hard for this look.”
The “aren’t you hot” question is often followed by, “Wow, and they didn’t bathe, so everyone really smelled.” You try not to think of that Monty Python sketch about Britain’s deadliest joke program in WWII and move the conversation on to weekly laundering of body linen, multiple shifts, shirts, and under-drawers, and the general hygienic practices of the past.
What struck me after a sticky weekend is how much I noticed the smell of modern people.
My traveling companions and I bathed on Friday morning, drove for 7+ hours in muggy weather, slept in our clothes, wore wool, cotton and linen in rain and thick humidity, sweated in the tailor’s shop, slept in our clothes again, and spent another warm, close, day in muggy weather, including grave digging and pall bearing. But as feral as my shift may have been on Sunday night, I never smelled us.
Mr H reported that his wool trousers were really stinky in the rain, and I think his white Spencer was well-seasoned even before this weekend, but I didn’t notice anything. Mr S’s soaking greatcoat was whiffy only at extremely close range.
What I did smell were modern perfumes, deodorants, and hair products. Those linger around their wearers and trail behind them, sometimes eye-watering in their intensity. I encountered lingering perfume in a bathroom at the museum, and we were overwhelmed by cologne at diner Monday morning: wow, people must really smell now, of petrochemicals.
This is not to say that homeless people and sulky teenagers don’t smell of unwashed bodies and clothes, but people in the past may not have smelled quite as badly as we think. They washed, if not bathed (bathing being full immersion washing) and by changing body linen and airing their clothes, they kept reasonably clean.
There was plenty to whiff in the past: wastes of all kinds, stagnant bodies of water used as dumps, rotting foods and corpses. But I’m not convinced that we haven’t simply exchanged one set of smells for another of different origin and intensity.
I really like this post and wholly agree. I usually feel like I stink by noon on Saturday and then a few hours later I no longer notice.I also find that wood smoke is a natural deodorant of sorts.
I don’t think most modern people understand just how easy it is to quickly clean up with a rag (and preferably a bar of soap). All you need is a bowl of water. We tend to be overly spoiled by showers but a basic sponge bath is highly effective. And I tend to think we clean ourselves too much anyways. We strip the healthy oils right out of our hair and skin.
I have actually been asked by a new member of our regiment if there were showers available at events. I don’t think she liked the answer because I haven’t seen or heard from her since.
I would have *felt* better if I’d sink bathed, but to be honest, I probably felt worse than I smelled. Muggy weather will do that to a person.
We know there were shower bathing arrangements in Providence in 1799, and people used them. Whether they used them often is another question. They were a novelty, after all.
I think we forget how biased we (and our noses) have become. Now, urine-vat indigo is reliably nasty, I am told, and I believe it without smelling it for myself. The odors of a town or farm must have far outstripped the inhabitants, as anyone who has lived near a rendering plant or a brewery can attest.
There are definitely smells worse than human sweat out there, though even those become less offending over time. I grew up in upstate NY in farm country and actually sometimes miss the smell of manure. I used to be able to tell the type of farm from the smell. Not just animal type by whether it was a traditional farm or open stall. In Virginia I don’t smell anything usually, which strikes me as a little weird.
I can only imagine what urine-vat indigo or a rendering plant must smell like though…
Speaking as someone who’s done more than a few sig vats, I have to say– the smell is eye-watering when you’re leaning over it with the lid off, but otherwise it’s a smell one can get used to, like manure. I rather miss it.
It’s so funny you bring this up! We were striking camp after a very, VERY hot weekend, all reeking to high heaven, I’m sure, and someone, somewhere, doused himself in Axe body spray (or an equivalent, I’m not up on my men’s perfumizers). We all scented it *instantly* even though we were apparently numb to our BO!
I often tell visitors who ask if I’m hot that, yes, I am, but I’m not nearly as uncomfortable as I assume I look 🙂
I’ve got a perfume allergy, and someone would have to be eyewateringly bad (genuinely) for me to care. Some scents are worse than others in leaving a vapour trail for stench behind them. Many people are unaware of how petrochemicals scent them these days.
I usually mask up for the dash down the laundry aisle of a supermarket.
^ their natural odour would have to be bad, that is
Andrew B said:
I experienced much the same thing this past weekend. My wife and I were taking part in a 1740 event in St. Augustine, Florida. Infernal heat–mid 90s during the day, never getting below 80 at night and 60% humidity. I never noticed any odors, just the slick, slimy feeling of my body. We aired out our clothes as best we could at night, but it was a challenge to get all my layers of wool back on for Sunday’s program. In Florida the “are you hot” question is simple–yes I am, from late March until late December, all day, every day.
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