The Good Old Days Were Smelly

Here’s an underwear ad for Victorians. Note in the center explanation that “indorsing” is misspelled. Note the modest look on the woman’s face as she holds up the underwear.

The wonderful book The Devil in the White City opens with a scene in downtown Chicago in the late 19th Century, as the World’s Fair was underway, which put the reader there with the sites, sounds, and, perhaps most important, smells.

Women’s underwear was crotchless, as are these.

Personal hygiene is a fairly recent human phenomenon and my guess is that in times past, the smell of the city was all but overwhelming, given that people bathed seldom, changed underclothes infrequently, and that women often simply spread their legs and urinated wherever they stood. Horses and cattle (a base of Chicago’s economy at the time) pooped in the street.

A young archeologist named Jennifer Borrett wrote a response to a question on Quora Digest today that resonates from that standpoint. She writes that in the late 19th Century “women generally did not wear underwear (knickers/underpants) due to the problem of menstruation as well as toileting needs. Most women had given birth several times and therefore couldn’t hold urine in as easily as a man can.

“They generally bled into their skirts, or maybe used wool tampons. In busy mills, the floor was covered with straw to catch the menstrual blood and possibly urine as the crowds of women worked. Rather than be ashamed, the Victorian poor woman was proud of her menstrual blood, believing it made her sexually attractive to men.” Women of means would likely not have been quite so unhygienic.

Men, of course, wore union suits of various types (some one-piece, some two), but that didn’t mean they were cleaner since they rarely changed their underwear.

I guess they got used to each other’s smells, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

By admin

Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On Advisory Board of New River Voice.

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