Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Smell....the sense of the past

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.


Kim from Hiraeth said...

I am reading Les Mis and so often as I read, I think about how it must've smelled. . .and I'm not only talking about the sewers of Paris!

I lived in a county in Ohio that had a large Amish population. Standing next to them in a store on a hot day is a reminder of how far we have come from our natural, human scents. (Not that I want to go back to those days!)

John of Dublin said...

Ha ha. Dangerous thoughts! That reminds me of Woody Allen in "Love and Death" movie I think mentioning a family member who died after "inhaling next to an Armenian"

Paul Moore said...

Hi John.

Reading your piece reminded me of something I read only last week about smells and body odour. It seems that our sense-place-time association is most strongly developed with the sense of smell. It seems that we can immediately place a long-forgotten smell much better than all other visual or auditory stimuli.

And now for a Trivial Pursuit question. Why do people get married in the summer and brides carry flowers? In goneby days, people wanted to marry soon after having their yearly bath (in the summer when water sources were warmer), and before their body odours would begin to reassert themselves again. Brides also carried flowers for the same reason - to camouflage those body odours.

John of Dublin said...

Hi Paul, interesting indeed. I think you have a point. Every time I smell lavender my mind goes back to a particular hotpress and chests of drawers when I was a child - my Mum used little lavender sacks. Other flowers and smells conjure up vague memories which I can't always quite crystalise from when I was really small. Must be an animal or territorial thing.

Yes, I'd heard that June bride piece of trivia, it's quite amazing!