The last two books we've discussed (Classen's Aroma and Süskind's Perfume) give a good impression of the malodors that infested the streets of 18th century Paris, and of the negative connotations attributed to smell since the Enlightenment. Alain Corbin's The Foul and the Fragrant fits well in this context, as it explores the relation between odors and hygiene in 18th and 19th century France. It traces back the social history of smell, particularly in the French capital, with the aim to better understand the "deodorized" world in which we live today.
Ever wondered how we ended up being so intolerant towards stench and body odor? You may think the answer lies in the invention of modern hygiene and deodorants, but according to French historian Alain Corbin, things are not that simple. Indeed, we sometimes forget just how radically science has changed our outlook on Nature in the past centuries; what looks obvious to us, may have been inconceivable to our ancestors. The Ancient Greek's assumption that air, fire, water, and earth are the primordial elements of life serves as a small reminder: it wasn't until the second half of the 18th century that Empedocles' ideas were debunked by empirical science (think of Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, John Dalton, Amedeo Avogadro).
Taking this into account, it's hardly surprising to see how the concept of "bad air" meant something very different to people in 1750 than it does nowadays. It was (falsely) identified as a source of contagious and incurable diseases such as pestilence; doctors looked for ways to purify and control so-called "miasmas" by means of pleasant fragrances. The "stench of the city" was considered a major health threat to all people, regardless of their social class or fortune.
In mid-18th century Paris, smell had become a public issue: those who could afford it, made sure to stay clear from the putrid, fecal odors of the streets. Water was considered another conveyor of malady, therefore bathing was highly discouraged. The bourgeois elite turned to mountain air to preserve their health, and the first plans were devised to restrict urban, public malodors as much as possible.
In the first half of the 19th century, smell started to play a role in the private domain as well. The absence of odor in the intimate realm was a sign of good taste: the elite's increased sensitivities towards smell meant that musky, heavy perfumes were replaced by delicate, thin florals, reminiscent of the aforementioned mountain air; while men stopped using perfume altogether, women no longer applied it directly to the skin. Deodorization became a new means of distinction: a way for the elite to "physically remove" themselves as much as possible from the stinky masses.
Corbin's historical exploration ends in the late 19th century, when new discoveries in sanitation and healthcare underlined the importance of cleanliness; the difference being that deodorization was no longer a weapon of social distinction, but a symbol of modern, rational, civilised society.
The Foul and the Fragrant is certainly not an easy book; there are countless references and footnotes on each page, and the subject matter is intricate, not to mention rather philosophical at times. I don't think everyone should run to the bookstore an get a copy of this book, unless they're in for a standard in French academic literature on the history of smell. Although a bit unaccessible, it makes for a great complementary read next to Classen's Aroma and Süskind's Perfume.
The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1986)
Translated by M. Kochan, R. Porter and C. Prendergast
Original title: Le Miasme et la jonquille : l'odorat et l'imaginaire social, 18-19e siècles
Alain Corbin (1936) is a history professor at Sorbonne University (Paris). The Foul and the Fragrant has been translated in several languages, and should be available for around $25 USD.