5 smells that made Georgian England

They say a picture paints a thousand words, but what about smell? William Tullett delivers an on-the-nose guide to the pungent aromas that raised a stink in 18th-century England

Depiction of the five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell and touch) by a late 18th/early 19th unknown artist. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

If we were to transport ourselves into an English town or city in the 18th century, we would be struck by a panoply of pungent pongs and perfumes. But for the Georgian gents and ladies who populated Jane Austen’s novels, these smells would hardly be worth mentioning. People got used to the smells around them very quickly. So, whilst the unsanitary streets of Georgian towns would have offended our 21st-century noses, they elicited very little comment from people at the time.

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Pamphleteers complained that the scent of coffee was like urine, soot, old shoes and even the sulphurous stench of hell

The story of coffee is a good example of this. Today, the aroma of roasted coffee beans is so common we fail to pay much attention to it. But if we took our noses back approximately 350 years, when coffee was first becoming popular in London, we would find a very different story. Late 17th-century Londoners were waking up and smelling the coffee – and some of them did not like it. Pamphleteers complained that the scent of coffee was like urine, soot, old shoes and even the sulphurous stench of hell. At least one gentleman unlucky enough to live next to a coffee house in London attempted to take the owners to court for bothering him with odours and smoke caused by coffee roasting. Yet by the 1720s, when people had got used to the scent of coffee, the complaints died away. A smell once described as a stench was now deemed fragrant by the noses of Englishmen and women.

Smells are around us every day and – with a few exceptions – most human beings through history have possessed noses. So, smells can tell us a great deal about how past people perceived the world around them. When historians delve into the archive and start sniffing, there are five scents that waft from the annals of the 18th century with particular pungency: rose, fish, ammonia, tobacco and paint. This rich bouquet can tell us a lot about how Georgians saw (and smelled) their world, as we explore over the following pages.

1

Otto of rose

Come up smelling like roses

In the Tudor and Stuart period, perfumes were still being sold by druggists and apothecaries. The word ‘perfume’ came from a Latin word that meant ‘to scent by smoking’. The first perfumes were in balls that, when burnt, released a smell into the room around you, and in the 16th and 17th centuries they had been purported to protect against plague by purifying the air and warding off bad odours. But in the 18th century, commercial perfumers emerged and began to ply their wares in shops selling cosmetics, hair-powder, and scented waters.

By the second half of the 18th century, one of the most popular of these scents was ‘attar’ or ‘otto’ of rose. This was an essential oil produced by distillation, a technique devised by Arabic chemists in the 12th century. Roses and water were heated in a large copper still, and the essential oil released by the process was siphoned off and made into a perfume.

Otto of roses was so fashionable that worries emerged about counterfeit products, even into the 19th century. A guide for servants from 1831 advised readers how to check for fake perfumes: “Drop a very little otto on a clean piece of writing paper and hold it to the fire. If the article be genuine, it will evaporate without leaving a mark on the paper; if otherwise, a grease-spot will detect the imposition.”

Why was otto of roses so popular in the late 18th century? The same period saw the rise of Britain’s empire in India, and a taste developed for exotic luxury products from Britain’s new territories. Perfumers capitalised on the demand by advertising ‘The True Persian’ or ‘True Indian’ otto of roses. It also replaced earlier perfumes that were going out of fashion. Civet, a perfume extracted from a gland near the anus of the civet cat, was popular in the 17th century, but Georgians increasingly felt that wearing a perfume taken from a cat’s bum was not especially gentile.

2

Fish

Something fishy

In Georgian England, people bought their food in marketplaces, and these were rather different from today’s supermarkets. Food had no protective packaging, no sell-by or use-by dates, and very little quality control. The onus was on the customer to ensure their purchases were fresh. Buying food that had gone off might make you ill, but it also made you look foolish in front of dinner guests who might think you were being cheap. Luckily, lots of household manuals were printed in the 18th century and these told consumers what to look (and smell) for when they went to market.

When buying meat and fish a curious nose was especially valuable. Lobsters, prawns, and shrimps had to be sniffed; if they had a ‘slimy’ smell, then they were to be avoided. When buying pheasants, standard practice was to pick them up and sniff around the throat to determine their freshness and to make sure they had no ‘tainted’ smell. Butter also required testing. Buyers were advised to avoid depending on the piece of butter offered by the tradesman (as was common practice), since they would give you the tastiest bit to try. Instead, customers should bring their own knife, put it straight in the middle of the butter, and then give it a sniff to determine its freshness.

Of course, sniffing people’s produce did not go down well with all merchants. Billingsgate women, who sold fish in London’s main seafood market, were notorious for being loud, sweary, and angry. Several satirical prints from the period depicted Billingsgate women insulting customers after they asked to smell the fish before making a purchase. For some fisherwomen, asking to smell their fish was insulting. It suggested that the customer did not trust them to sell fresh fish and that something smelt fishy in more ways than one.

3

Tobacco

Smoke is out, but spit is fine

Even in Georgian England, the smell of tobacco smoke had already begun to court controversy. Whereas in the 17th century, men gathered around newspapers and puffed on their pipes in coffee houses, the 18th century saw smokers chased from many venues.

Georgians believed that women could not tolerate tobacco smoke

The Georgians believed that women could not tolerate tobacco smoke. Articles in magazines told stories about wives who had threatened to leave their husbands if they did not give up their pipes. The Georgian period also saw an explosion of social life: new theatres, ballrooms, and pleasure gardens popped up in towns and cities where men and women went to mingle, socialise, and find somebody to marry. In these venues puffing a pipe was deemed impolite.

Instead, many fashionable Georgians turned to taking snuff: finely ground tobacco that was snorted up the nose. Shoving tobacco up your nostrils presented its own problems: it led to sneezing, grunting and spitting. But, unlike smoking, it did not invade others personal space. It allowed tobacco to be consumed without engulfing those around you in a pungent haze.

Snuff may have been fashionable, but many found it disgusting. Attendees at church complained about snuff-takers spitting, hawking, and grunting during sermons. The respectful silence was disturbed by ‘the music of the nose’. Some snuff takers recognised their habit was unattractive. The Reverend William Jones described his battle to quit snuff in his diary, and on 18 July 1808 he finally wrote, “I trust I have done with snuff – and I cannot sufficiently rejoice! I now carry a decent handkerchief instead of a portable dunghill, which almost every snuff taker may be said to do!”

4

Ammonia

The faintest notion

The smell of ammonia is particularly pungent. It’s a solution of nitrogen and hydrogen that can be produced by fermenting stale urine, but it’s also found as naturally appearing crystals. The former was frequently used in dyeing clothing. But the crystals, known as sal ammoniac, were also used as a medicine.

The pungent smell of ammonia sets off our trigeminal nerve, which is linked to emotions and facial expressions: it’s the thing that causes your eyes to water and the sensation of heat when you eat strong mustard. The 18th century was when physicians became particularly interested in the nerves: some medical writers blamed almost every illness on them. They believed that sniffing ammonia woke up the body and restored it to its senses.

Having sensitive nerves became a mark of superior social status. The more sensitive you were, the more fashionable you appeared. Women were held to be particularly prone to nervousness. In novels and dramas, Georgian heroines were portrayed swooning, fainting, and collapsing as their emotions overcame them. To combat this, men and women carried smelling bottles full of ammonia or ‘smelling salts’. These were thin bottles – often with screw tops or stoppers – that could be held in the hand or placed in pockets. Images portrayed theatre audiences in which female spectators, unable to deal with an on-stage surprise, had to reach for the smelling bottle to revive themselves. One performance by the actress Sarah Siddons in Dublin was said to be so emotional that the music was drowned out by “the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of the corks drawn from smelling-bottles”.

The powers of smelling salts even extended to resurrection. In the late 18th century new so-called ‘humane’ societies began to spring up, formed by physicians with the aim of finding ways to resuscitate the ‘apparently drowned or asphyxiated’. Putting smelling salts to the nose of the drowned person could jolt their nerves back into action. This was just one of several techniques explored; another included pumping a tobacco smoke enema up people’s posteriors to revive them – a rather rude awakening.

5

Paint

The colour of tragic

The smell of paint might seem an odd inclusion, but it is one of the few smells regularly described in Georgian diaries. Why does it appear so often? Well, one reason was that household redecoration was not an everyday occurrence, so the smell of paint was an unusual one. It was also hard to ignore. Georgian paints contained ingredients such as linseed oil and turpentine, which gave them a particularly strong smell.

Those who made paint got used to its smell, but in the early 18th century it was believed to be dangerous to health. It was the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini who suggested in his Treatise of the Diseases of Tradesmen (which was translated into English in 1705) that the strong smelling ingredients used to make paint meant that those tradesmen who produced it often loss their sense of smell.

Ramazzini wrote about the effects of smells on many different types of artisan. In fact, he was one of the first people to suggest a history of smell. Smells were so important to medicine, religion, and science, Ramazzini argued, that somebody ought to write a “natural and physical history of odours”. But Ramazzini himself felt ill-equipped to do so because he felt it would be too difficult, complicated, and intricate.

Luckily, just over 300 years later, historians are finally using their noses and sniffing out the stories hinted at by Ramazzini.

William Tullett is a lecturer in history at Angela Ruskin University. His most recent book is Smell in Eighteenth-Century England: A Social Sense (OUP, 2019)

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Revealed