The Great Efluvium

Mmmmmmmmm. Don’t quite no where to start with this, many people obviously don’t know much about life before the bacteria therory took hold. In medieval times in England most people did not wash. Period. The layer of grime was protective – if you washed it off you opened yourself to the humours,

By the time these pictures were taken people maybe bathed every year or so, if that. They stank, but it was your own stink and since a family shared the same smell (same bacteria) it was fine, plus you could tell if a person was a stranger ‘cos they smelled funny. Same thing nowadays when you go into someone else’s home, there a subtly, or not, different pong than the way your house smells. Or you might be reminded of some other place because of smell’s ability to prompt recall of other places and times. So these Victorian guys and women would smell, they’d be rankly offensive to modern notions of cleanliness, hygeine, you name it.

It is only recently that I, an Englishman, have learned to shower daily, I grew up in an average middle class home in the 40’s with the weekly bath, and a family towel that was changed when needed. And while I have learned to bathe more frequently, it is just within the last couple of months that I’ve learned to enjoy the pleasures of the shower, rather than the bath.

The fastidious American middle class might think times changed a long time ago, but it didn’t happen quite as long ago as they might hope. The people in these pictures never ever washed their clothes and dry-cleaning hadn’t been invented. Much of London still looked like that when I first went there, the porters in Covent garden still carried those baskets on their heads, the buses, while petrol driven, still had back stairs like those in these photographs of Victorian London. And London was black, with soot a half inch thick in places. Not until October of 1958 when the new coal burning laws kicked in did the awful ‘pea-soup’ fogs stop. In1957, 15,000 old folk died in one memorable smog event, that’s what help change the law.

So take heed and succor – there’s hope to clean things up in our time from the perils of modern diesel pollution, it can be done, because in my living memory things got better, cleaner, healthier. And people don’t stink as much no mo.

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