March 1, 2010

"People Just Smelled Worse Back Then..." : Period Deodorants

  I hear the statement that "People just smelled worse back then but everyone smelled so no one noticed," when people refer to the 19th century. I can't claim that this statement is wrong but it does conjure images of filthy, sweaty, putrid smelling people with rancid breath.

They did have water and soap. :D I feel like we tend to forget this. They had tons and tons of lotions, fragrant soaps, perfumes, powders, and creams. If anything, they probably smelled faintly of the inside of a Yankee Candle shop. On top of all of these inexpensive products, most people had a more rigorous daily cleaning regimen than most do today. While they were not taking two showers a day, they were "sponge" bathing out of a wash basin twice a day at least. It was said that it was best to wash hair in rain water--I know of few people today who would be so dedicated. Here is a book with a little segment on "How to Wash your Mouth," from 1865. Toothbrushes were common after the 1800s and so were toothpowders (although some books recommended charcoal for tooth whitening.)

A major difference in present-day cleanliness and 19th century cleanliness is the lack of modern day deodorant. This is always up for discussion at reenactments. Some people will sneak their little plastic tubes in their gear and others are determined to go deodorantless. But for everyone who has ever smelled an Amish person, I have been trying to find period solutions. I have heard that rubbing half a lemon under the arms is an early 1800s solution but as of right now, I can’t find any sources verifying it.    
For fun and possibly practical application (of the harmless ones,) I have included the following recipes detailing 19th century concoctions:

-->The New Family Receipt Book (1820):

-->From: Healthy Skin: A Popular Treatise on the Skin and Hair By Sir Erasmus Wilson (1854)  

Civil War Reenactor Deodorants
I think this one is particularly interesting because not only are they smelling the sweat on insane people, but also the sweat of mice. :D Interesting. I think the people visiting the doctor for smelling like onions or garlic is cute. 

-->Hall’s Journal of Health (1861): 
-->: The Medical World (1902)  Pg 116: 
This is one of those I just wouldn't recommend. Formaldehyde? I guess smelling dead is better than smelling bad. :D

During the 1860s perspiring was seen as a good thing, they realized the cooling application even if they did not understand the science behind it. Excessive sweating was seen as a sign of sickness that was followed by fevers. Many doctos claimed that many sicnesses were caused by sweating and cooling off too quickly, such as taking off a jacket after a walk.
I think I may try to make this powder from 1889 from The Practical Handbook of Toilet Preparations:

*Note: The Photograph at the top is from 1864. It is of soldiers bathing in the North Anna River.



  1. I still haven't recovered from the info about the women who suggested using earwax for lip- balm. Vile. Hope you make the rose powder--that sounds nice.

  2. :D The lip-balm, I know... The rose powder looks decent, I'm sure I'll smell like a little grandma but it might beat smelling like a smoked ham. I'll have to see next reenactment.

  3. interesting recipe... i wonder how long the nice scent would last on a hot day?!


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