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Putting the Smell Back in History

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Between 1950 and 1960, French households increased their spending on soaps, perfumes and other related products. (1957 advertisement image courtesy of Proctor and Gamble)

A trip back in time to early twentieth-century France, not unlike the one taken by actor Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris,” conjures images of romantic cafes and late night walks along the Seine River across the Pont Alexandre III. But in reality, it would be hard for anyone from the modern era to overcome a daily reality of fin de siècle France: the unbearable stench.

Crowded apartments with no ventilation or water; garbage in the streets; rotten food; and human waste from outhouses shared by dozens of families who rarely bathed, changed clothes or brushed their teeth all contributed to the unsavory smell of the day. These conditions, and the smells that accompanied them, would eventually improve, but not for many decades – a process referred to by Steven Zdatny, professor and chair of the history department, as “the hygiene revolution.”

In his latest paper, “The French Hygiene Offensive of the 1950s: A Critical Moment in the History of Manners,” in the December 2012 issue of The Journal of Modern History, Zdatny explores the dramatic changes in the sanitary conditions and hygiene habits of twentieth-century France. He plans to turn the paper into a book in his ongoing effort to “put the smell back in history” while adding to his growing body of research on twentieth-century French social history.

“One of the things missing from history is smell,” says Zdatny, who has lived and worked in France intermittently since the 1970s. “Most of the time people don’t think about it historically, but smells are very powerful, and the French consider smells an important part of life."

The 'process of civilization'

Zdatny describes the hygiene revolution, also referred to by sociologist Norbert Elias as the “the process of civilization,” as focusing on three internal aspects of the "civilizing" process: “a historic makeover both of the way people treated their bodies and of sensibilities about what was tolerable and what was disgusting, which advanced in tandem with the material culture of scrubbed skin and tidy dwellings,” writes Zdatny. “Just as better plumbing made cleaner lives possible, a discomfort with old standards of propriety — because they were downright unpleasant or merely considered so by others — led people to invest the time and money it took to be less dirty.”

Change was fueled by three influential parts of society: churches, schools and the military. Religion linked personal hygiene to “notions of luxury and sensuousness” with church authorities considering the body “an instrument of sin” and worried that it would lead to “evil thoughts.” An 1865 education law called for “the care of bodily cleanliness” and required teachers to make sure students washed faces, necks, hands, and feet, and that hair was free of parasites and underwear was acceptably clean. The following rules were enforced: don't lick your fingers before you turn a page; don't pick your nose; don't scratch your pimples; and, above all, keep your mouth clean. The army of the Third Republic made itself “the agent of modern hygiene” establishing some small reforms in the 1850s, concluding that “dirt and ignorance made for bad soldiers.”

The process of cleanliness in France lagged behind that of the English or the Germans, partly due to infrastructure, Zdatny notes. Some towns and regions did not see public water and sewage facilities until after World War II. A 1951 U.N. report on the proportion of lodgings equipped with bathrooms ranked France -- at just six percent -- far behind countries like Switzerland and Germany. A housing boom in the years that followed provided more plumbing and updated ammenities, and between 1950 and 1960, households increased their spending on refrigerators and washing machines tenfold, while spending on children's clothes, perfumes, soap and other related products continued to climb.

While some French considered bodily odors chic and natural and tied to sexual attraction and chemistry, women's magazines started pushing for more sanitary personal habits and cleaner homes. An article in the 1954 issue of Fémina Pratique, suggested the following sanitary habits for women and girls: weekly baths, twice-daily toothbrushing and face washing, shampooing every ten days, twice-weekly yoga, and biannual visits to the dentist, among others. The magazine justified such advice by pointing to the fact that the French used less soap than any other country in the developed world.

“Nudged by the media, propelled by state action, inspired no doubt by the American brand, and supported by a surge in consumerism and a widespread desire to be younger, hipper, and cleaner — in a word, more modern — the French began to leave their tubless cold-water flats and collective pissotières behind them and to adopt more refined standards of personal hygiene," writes Zdatny. "It was, by most accounts, a long road to travel.”

Bringing smells to the classroom

Zdatny has written three books, thanks in part to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a Fulbright Fellowship as a visiting research scholar at the French National Center for Scientific Research: The Politics of Survival: Artisans in Twentieth-Century France (Oxford University Press, 1990); Hairstyles and Fashion: A Hairdresser’s History of Paris, 1910-1920 (Berg, 1999); and Fashion, Work, and Politics in Modern France (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), in addition to countless articles in English and French.

When he shares his research with students, many of them are disgusted by the details of life in France at the turn of the twentieth century. “I love giving readings to my students because they are so appalled,” he says. “They can’t believe that people never changed clothes, never washed or wore underwear. For them, the test is whether they could have sex someone like that, and the answer is almost always ‘no.’”

But sometimes, opinions of Zdatny's research go the other way. "I’ve been called a ‘cleanliness imperialist,’" he admits, by those who counter that modern hygeine standards lead to waste and commodification. "Whatever criticisms might be made of mass consumerism and ‘unnatural’ standards of hygiene," Zdatny writes, "the fact remains that, while individual habits have ranged from the impeccable to the indifferent, once the French got used to being cleaner, they never went back.”