We’ve been smelly for over 5,500 years. Well, we’ve probably been smelly for a lot longer than that - but it only came to our attention around 3,500 BC.
At times, we’ve bathed in pools of essential oils to combat it, while at others, poor hygiene has been the pride of Kings and Queens. Our history and relationship with body odour has been a little bumpy, so APHA.LAB thought it would be fun to jot down a little timeline broken unevenly into two parts; the first 5,370 years (Before Mum, BM), and then the last 130 (After Mum, AM). This might not seem like the most conventional way to split up a timeline, but don’t worry, there’s a good reason for it.
You might know the people of Sumer from such inventions as the wheel, written language and sail boats – just to name a few. We can’t understate the significance of their many contributions so it’s understandable that these nifty Mesopotamians are considered to be the founders of modern civilisation as we know it.
Specifically relevant to this page however, their early wordsmithing pursuits have revealed what appears to be the first recorded descriptions of a penchant for deodorant.
But while this group of intelligent ancestors kicked off a love for the deodorised, it was really the ancient Egyptians who turned that love into an everyday ritual.
Life in ancient Egypt was largely viewed as a celebration, so it was important to look your ‘party-best’ at every opportunity. Scented baths, shaved heads, cosmetics, perfumes and even breath mints, were a common component of all personal daily routines.
Presenting oneself as clean wasn’t just a cultural norm, it was religious sacrament. A particular reference, contained within the Egyption Book of the Dead, states that one wouldn’t be able to speak in the afterlife if one wasn’t clean.
Beyond just being clean, it was equally important to smell good. Egyptologist Helen Strudwick notes that “the Egyptians loved sweet, spicy perfumes that filled the air with their heady, long-lasting aroma.”
Kyphi is perhaps the most well-known of the time, consisting of frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper, mint, and other herbs and spices – not a stone’s throw away from many modern-day perfumes.
Deodorants were equally as important, but held a subdued scent as to not combat with the perfume (and here we were thinking that was APHA.LAB’s idea). One recipe called for ostrich eggs, nuts and crushed tortoise shells, which were turned into a paste-like substance for light application.
Ancient Greece and Rome had long been entranced by Egypt’s wealth and culture, so sure enough scented bathing soon became common practice throughout the empire. Unfortunately, as Europe entered the middle ages, bathing practices garnered some rather misaligned associations.
The fall of the Roman Empire saw a decline in hygiene standards across Western Europe with the Christian elite drawing a link between evil and bathing. Justifiably so, this culture of grubbiness opened a new market for incense and perfume as war was waged against the resulting body odour.
"Priests were so overwhelmed by the stench of their worshipers that they would avidly burn incense to counteract the worshipers' body odour," antiperspirant expert and science journalist Sarah Everts has said.
While we here at APHA.LAB think the “dark ages” should probably be re-named the “dank ages” in Western Europe, bathing was (fortunately) being kept alive in the east; fans of modern Turkish Baths (Hammam) can send their thanks way of the Byzantines.
Back in the west however, the medieval church was maintaining its hostility towards cleanliness, proclaiming that ‘excessive’ washing was linked to the sins of pride and vanity. As time went on, bathing remained culturally undesirable but attitudes shifted from immorality to the spread of disease. The prevailing theory of the time suggested that water could transmit ailments through the pores of one’s skin; bathing was proclaimed a health hazard.
During a visit to France in the 17th Century, a Russian ambassador famously noted that “His Majesty stunk like a wild animal”. The ambassador was referring to King Louis XIV, who’s renowned odour was the result of medical advice from royal physicians; simply, to bathe as infrequently as possible.
Following the lead of royalty, bathing abstinence became something to be proud of among the French aristocracy. Visitors to the court of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in Versailles were said to have remarked it a “vast cesspool” of odour. Demand for perfume was high and its use was prolific, but it could only do so much.
As doctors started to develop a greater understanding of the health benefits associated with bathing, people began getting on-board with this whole ‘being clean’ thing. The haze of odour was starting to dissipate across Europe and with this the need for perfume was too.
Perfume had once been an absolute necessity, but following the French Revolution its link to the toppled bourgeoisie only further intensified its declining demand. Many did however continue to regard perfume for its medicinal function, applying Eau de Cologne liberally (and often consuming it) to ward against plagues.
Through the 19th century, after a spate of cholera pandemics, many European cities were inspired to improve sanitation infrastructure and access to clean water. Perfume’s stature and importance was falling by the wayside.
Having all but lost its place in the medicine cabinet, perfume thankfully found a new home in fashion. Brands began developing unique scents which took on a more feminine tone distinct from the natural body odour of men. Perfume was no longer a combatant against off-putting smells; it was an accessory.
It must be said that attitudes towards odour around the turn of the 20th century were quite dissimilar to modern day. Commercial deodorants didn’t exist, and even when Mum (the first commercial example of deodorant) was released in 1888, awareness and interest was slow to develop. Any minor concerns were handled with a delicate splash of perfume and regular washing. Generally, people didn’t see the need for deodorant.
This all changed in 1919 when body odour was exploited as a social faux pas for commercial benefit. Insecurities were manipulated, paranoia was exacerbated and dangerous ‘solutions’ were supplied. The Patriarchy had found a new way to press its heel.