Summer Stinks!: The Odoriferous 18th Century

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

Virginia is a hot place during summer and even for much of autumn.  While we once wrote about how people in pre-air conditioned colonial times dealt with the heat in a previous blog post aptly titled, “The heat is beyond your conception”, I want to talk today about another bane of colonial Americans’ comfort in summer,  namely smells and particularly body odor.

Today, history comes scent-free.  We must study the past without using smell, one of our main senses, and, as we will soon see, that is probably for the better.

An 18th century summer smelled of human and animal waste, garbage, stagnant water, and body odor.  These odors permeated every breath taken by colonists, whether very rich or very poor.  Noted philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once complained about the aroma of “stagnant urine” the hung about the Palais Royal in summer.[1]

How did colonists attempt to deal with the ubiquitous human stink before deodorant and regular bathing?  What were the deodorizing options available to the likes of George or Betty Washington? What could they have possibly used to keep the dreaded stink of summer away or, at the very least, subdued?

Bathing

We’ve previously written about bathing in the 18th century in detail but toward the end of the 1700s, baths, or the immersion of the body in a tub of water, were becoming more popular with more affluent Americans.  As the intrepid Elizabeth Drinker wrote of her first experience in a shower, “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett [sic] all over at once for 28 years past”. [2] The wealthy tended to bathe more because they also had the luxury of milder soaps. Generally, the main soap available at the time was not normally used in washing the body because it was made of harsh cleaning agents.[3]  Additionally, few experts advised taking more than one bath a month for health reasons.[4]  There was actually a widespread fear that bathing could make you sick. Most importantly, very few people could devote time or energy to the immense task of fetching water and warming it for a bath.  People’s daily washing consisted of a splash of cold water from a basin usually in the kitchen or bedchamber.[5]  They washed the bits that showed namely the face, the feet, and the hands.  This daily washing helped George or Betty start off their day smelling fresh but it didn’t last long in the brutal Virginia summer.

Wash Basin in Bedchamber

Wash basin in Historic Kenmore’s bedchamber.

Wash Basin

Close up of the wash basin in Kenmore’s bedchamber.

Wash Basin Pitcher

Pitcher that goes with bedchamber wash basin.

Clothing

In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey advised brother, Edward, who was preparing to come to Virginia, that “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible . . . You must carry a stock of linen waistcoats [which were kind of like vests] made very large and loose that they may not stick to your hide when you perspire.”  Light and thin fabrics made of natural fibers like cotton and linen absorbed sweat from the body and dried relatively quickly.  Additionally, lighter undergarments could be washed more regularly than the outer garments which usually weren’t laundered.

Toward the end of the 1700s, a weekly changing of underwear was recommended and more frequent cleanings lead to more incentives for perfuming washtubs, chests and drawers.[6]  Besides laundering, people also infused garments with a lovely fragrance or sewed up sweet smelling sachets to put in their pockets.

The English Husewife contains an interesting recipe to perfume gloves that involved soaking them in a mixture of angelica water, rose water, cloves, ambergris, musk, lignum aloes, benzoin, and calamus.[7] Meanwhile, The Toilet of Flora provided instruction on using violet and cypress powder to make sachets that could be secreted in a ladies pocket.[8]

Even ornamentation and jewelry didn’t escape the quest to hide the stench of summer.   Recipes for perfumed chaplets and medals created a smelly paste substance that could be concealed in jeweled smelling boxes or worn as wax decorative medal.[9] Similarly, little sponges soaked in essential oils could be hidden in jewelry to give the wearer a sweet aroma.

Perfuming

As shown by all this perfuming of jewelry, clothes, and clothing storage, perfumes and waters were the most common way people in the 18th century tried to cover the stench of summer.  Perfumes are strong concentrations of scents that last for a long time while waters are the more diluted eaux de toilette or eaux de cologne.  All were available for purchase in colonial stores for those of means.[10]  Additionally, there were dozens of handy books that supplied many easy to follow recipes for various lovely smelling perfumes and waters.  The Toilet of Flora had about 6 perfume and 60+ recipes for waters.[11]

Toilet of Flora frontispice

Frontispiece and title page of a 1779 edition of “The Toilet of Flora”.

Before continuing, we should define some terms to help navigate the confusing and complex world of perfumery.

PERFUME is made of essential oils or an aroma compound as well as fixatives and solvents.  ESSENTIAL OILS are oils from a plant usually extracted through distillation.  Compared to fatty oils, they are lighter and tend to evaporate without a trace. A perfume usually contains 15 to 20% pure essence.  A perfume’s FIXATIVE helps the scent last. Today, we use synthetic fixatives but, in the 18th century, popular fixatives were benzoin (aka gum of Benjamin) labdanum, storax, ambergris (basically whale vomit), castoreum (the castor sacs of a mature North American beaver), and musk (the glandular secretions of the musk deer).   Lastly, a perfume’s SOLVENT dilutes the perfume oil. The most common solvent being some type of alcohol/water mix but coconut oil or liquid waxes like jojoba oil can be substituted. Perfume is very strong and lasts for about five to eight hours.

EAU DE TOILETTE is light-scented cologne with a high alcohol content, 5 to 15% perfume essence and is usually scented with something floral or fruity like lavender, lilac, orange or lemon.  An eau de toilette has a light scent that lasts around 3 to 4 hours. EAU DE COLOGNE is composed of two to four percent perfume oils in alcohol and water.  The first eau de cologne was made in Cologne, Germany in 1709 and contained many different citrus oils.  An eau de cologne has a light scent that only lasts a couple of hours.

One particularly perfume recommended in The Toilet of Flora contains musk, cloves, lavender, civet and ambergris.[12] While it likely smelled nice, it was probably expensive to make so would not have been an item produced for everyone.  Nor did some think that perfume was appropriate for a woman of good repute to wear at the time. They instead recommended eau de rose or eau de lavender as a more appropriate alternative.   As one guide stated, “In no circumstances should real perfume be applied to the skin.  Only aromatic toilet waters – distilled rose, plantain, bean, or strawberry water – and eau de cologne were permissible”.[13]

Perfume Bottle

Portion of an 18th century perfume bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Needless to say, while perfume and waters masked some smells, they were not viable deodorizers for many who couldn’t afford the luxury.  George Washington, being a practicing gentleman, probably used an eau de toilette in the morning when washing.  It is believed that George regularly purchased bottles of scent from Dr. William Hunter’s apothecary in Newport, Rhode Island, the forerunner of today’s Caswell-Massey.  Of the 20 scents Hunter offered, George settled on Number Six and even bought some bottles as gifts.  Number Six is still available for purchase today so that even you can smell like George!  Betty probably used an eau de toilette or scented soap in the morning. It would have been inappropriate for a young lady to wear a perfume, but she may have worn it on special occasions as a married woman.

No matter if they used a scent, laundered clothing, or bathe, the fact remains that an 18th century summer just stunk.  People tried to mask it with whatever concoctions they could invent but it took another 100 years before deodorant and antiperspirant were invented to save humanity from the smell of itself during the hot humid summer months.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1986: 27.

[2] Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Mar. 1988): 1214.

[3] “Wash-Balls” in The Toilet of Flora, London, 1779: 199-207.

[4] Corbin, 178.

[5] David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, Daily Life in the Early American Republic, 1790-1820: Creating a New Nation, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2004: 46.

[6] Corbin, 179.

[7] G.M., The English Huswife, J.B., London, 1623: 142.

[8] Toilet of Flora, 196.

[9] Toilet of Flora, 6

[10] Nivins and Warwick advertisement, Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), Apr 4, 1766, pg 4, col1; https://research.history.org/CWDLImages/VA_GAZET/Images/PD/1766/0021hi.jpg

[11] Toilet of Flora, 50-114

[12] Toilet of Flora, 57.

[13] Corbin, 183.

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