“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will”*…
Since ancient times, people have felt that eliminating the foul odors of human bodies and effluvia is an effective– indeed, in some times and cultures, the most effective– way to improve public health.
Consider the sweet, intoxicating smell of a rose: While it might seem superficial, the bloom’s lovely odor is actually an evolutionary tactic meant to ensure the plant’s survival by attracting pollinators from miles away. Since ancient times, the rose’s aroma has also drawn people under its spell, becoming one of the most popular extracts for manufactured fragrances. Although the function of these artificial scents has varied widely—from incense for spiritual ceremonies to perfumes for fighting illness to products for enhancing sex appeal—they’ve all emphasized a connection between good smells and good health, whether in the context of religious salvation or physical hygiene.
Over the last few millennia, as scientific knowledge and social norms have fluctuated, what Westerners considered smelling “good” has changed drastically: In today’s highly deodorized world, where the notion of “chemical sensitivity” justifies bans on fragrance and our tolerance of natural smells is ever diminishing, we assume that to be without smell is to be clean, wholesome, and pure. But throughout the long and pungent history of humanity, smelling healthy has been as delightful as it has disgusting…
The whole stinky story at “Our Pungent History: Sweat, Perfume, and the Scent of Death.”
* Patrick Süskind,
As we hold our noses, we might spare a thought for Sir Joseph William Bazalgette; he died on this date in 1891. A civil engineer, he became chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, in which role his major achievement was a response to the “Great Stink of 1858,” in July and August 1858, during which very hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent. Bazalgette oversaw the creation of a sewer network for central London which addressed the problem– and was instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics and in beginning the cleansing of the River Thames.