Our impressions of the distant past are mainly influenced by the written word, items, places, visual images as well as sounds such as music and voices.
Do we ever stop to think about the smells of the past? It's certainly not the first thing which comes to mind. In my casual readings of history, novels and watching documentaries I've often been hit by secondary thoughts that the distant past would have been unacceptable to us today in terms of bad smells.
We've rightly become rather intolerant today to bad smells and lack of hygiene. Most of us shower and change clothes daily, our houses are kept clean etc. We have very efficient chemicals, cleansing facilities and waste disposal infrastructure. We are intolerant of unclean bathrooms and we give out hell if a restaurant etc. has dirty toilets. Waste of all sort must be disposed of efficiently and rapidly go away from us in terms of visuals and odours.
Picture life in cities say 100-150 years ago. Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene was very difficult and labour intensive. Most of the time people would smell badly - their bodies, clothes, breath, teeth etc. Even the irregularly washed clothes with the crude soaps used would have smelled unacceptable in today's terms. The houses would smell badly too from a plethora of odours. Public baths were built and were irregularly used by the unwashed masses.
Out in the street horses were used for transport and dogs and cats were running loose. The place would have been riddled with the stench of fresh dung.
Buildings were damp and cold, open fires in houses and industry generated smog, food hygiene was poor - all generating more unpleasant smells. Disease was common, medicine was crude and ineffective - the smell of ill-health was regular. People smoked from unfiltered cigarettes and pipes anywhere they liked. More bad smells.
I suspect people used smell as a serious sense in the past. At one level they would not have been upset by the regular background of bad smells and on the other hand they would be able to make so many useful judgments in the richness of foul odours which made up their world. They could probably make all sorts of assessments of different people and places by their smells. A rather wild animal-like tool in today's terms.
Today we welcome pleasant odours as in florals and perfumes etc. However we are so revolted by anything even on the edge of a bad smell that everything is done to eliminate the chance of it ever hitting our nostrils.
We forget that the distant past was an extremely foul odoured place. Our sense of smell as a tool is slowly becoming redundant in our thankfully sanitized modern world.