18th century body odors

by Diana Gabaldon 

source: thelitforum - June 2020 

Diana Gabaldon's response to smells   


They probably didn't smell as bad as you might think. Your skin has a natural bacterial fauna (something like the microbiome of your intestinal fauna), and these bacteria break down sweat, body oils, and various skin invaders. I can't remember at the moment I read this, but a few years ago I came across a study in which the investigator tried to leave people without bathing for long periods of time (taking scrapings of the fauna from their skin at regular intervals), and I found that - assuming the person wasn't doing something that constantly added smelly stuff to their skin - the bacteria reached equilibrium after about a week, and the person stopped feeling visibly "bad". The (obviously subjective) report said unwashed people smelled differently than people who washed with soap every day (thus eliminating odors,
We should also keep in mind that the human body has two different types of sweat glands: the exocrine glands secrete the type of sweat that cools you down, and also work to keep your salt (including potassium) and water in balance. - but exocrine sweat is practically odorless. Endocrine sweat glands are concentrated in your armpits and crotch, and although they secrete sweat, they also secrete strong odoriferous compounds, which are a) intended to be social cues and b) when broken down by skin bacteria, _real_ stink. (Presumably, we kept the hair in our armpits and crotches to function as odor traps for exocrine secretions, especially sexual secretions.


In another interview, here's what she said:   


For what it's worth, I haven't used soap on my face (and very rarely on my body unless I need to remove something sticky. ) for thirty years. I wash my face in cold water (but I must use makeup remover if I have been made up by a professional, because this product does not wash off). I use shampoo (every three or four days except in the middle of summer, when it's so hot and I sweat that I have to rinse myself off every day), and I rub a handful of lather on my armpits and intimate areas., but that's all.
While the 18th century (and other eras) were unmistakably smelly in places (sewage disposal had well-defined limits, clothes were often not washed for a long time, and it was difficult to keep food from s 'spoil), later 20th-century bathing research found that people who didn't bathe frequently balanced the bacteria in their skin - and didn't stink.
In addition, what we consider to be body odor is largely due to the breakdown of endocrine hormones, which are (normally) only secreted in the hairy parts of the body, namely the armpits and pubic hair. Regular sweat (from heat or exercise) does not smell because it does not contain endocrine hormones. (Now, throw sweaty clothes in the back of your closet and leave them there ... that's another thing ...). " 


Response from Diana Gabaldon about clothes  

“Try to live in a climate like England / Europe, where your only sources of heat are your fireplace and your family's body heat, during the period known as the Little Ice Age (which encompasses the 18th century), and it can sound more reasonable.
In fact, I've worn layered and long outfits every now and then (at Renn Faires, Dragon Con and others) and in terms of temperature, they are surprisingly comfortable. Insulation works both ways, I mean - and if you look at how Bedouins traditionally dressed, it's obvious that the length and layers work just as well for warmth as it does for cold. " 


One reader pointed out the great number of times we encounter the odors of sweat or something else in the characters. Taking into consideration the difficulty of maintaining good hygiene in the conditions of the time, she came to the conclusion that everyone smelled bad.

She also noticed how the figures are covered in so many layers of clothing and was amazed.