As a Danish company launches underwear that doesn’t need to be washed for a week, Robert Hume investigates what our ancestors did to keep themselves cool and deal with body odour.
The ancient Egyptians daubed their armpits with spices and citrus oils, and trimmed underarm hair to reduce the smelly surface area. They were also very fussy about changing their underwear regularly.
Tutankhamun was entombed with 145 spare loincloths – quite a supply for his journey into the afterlife.
Richer Greeks washed in bathtubs: Archimedes famously jumped out of his, shouting “Eureka”. Poorer folk used wells for washing.
Public bathhouses were introduced by the Romans.
The entrance charge was cheap enough for all citizens to afford. After a good soaking, they would rake off sweat with a metal scraper and anoint their bodies with oil – jasmine, rose, iris, lavender, violet.
The wealthiest men and women took baths in perfume at home, soaked their clothes in it, even perfumed their horses and household pets.
The fondness for bathing stopped once the medieval church warned of the evils of nudity.
In Europe, bathhouses were closed down in the 14th century as a way of trying to check the spread of plague.
People became used to the acrid odour of dried sweat, much as – until recently – we accepted cigarette smoke in public places.
Aristocrats were often as dirty as peasants. A visitor to King Louis XVI’s court at Versailles described it as a “stinking cesspit”.
When Elizabeth Drinker had a shower installed in her backyard in Philadelphia in 1799, she said: “I bore it better than expected, not having been wet all over for 28 years past.”
People “washed” by changing their shirts and shifts, and letting the linen absorb body smells.
One 17th century French architect chose not to include bathrooms in his chateaux, maintaining that linen “serves to keep the body clean more conveniently than the baths of the ancients could do”.
Heavy colognes helped mask body odour.
Wealthy men and women would often carry pomanders, balls full of perfume, on chains suspended from their neck or around their waist. The French aristocracy installed scented fountains at their dinner parties.
By the late 18th century, chemists had developed a soft soap using soda ash.
But at first soap was a luxury. Only when the soap tax was removed in Britain and Ireland in 1853 could most people afford to buy it.
By this time, Czech physiologist Johannes Purkinje had discovered sweat glands:
Each of us has between 2 and 5 million of them. Now, if that wasn’t proof we needed to wash!
Since then, pharmaceutical companies have convinced us we can smell pretty bad at times, and need to use more than just soap to keep ourselves clean.
Smelling good is “the first rule of long-lasting charm”, stated a 1919 American advert for deodorants. Another advert warned women that the “repellent odour of underarm perspiration never fails to carry its own punishment – unpopularity”: they would never get a second date.
“Mum’s the word!” Introduced in 1888, Mum was made from a waxy cream, containing antibacterial zinc oxide.
It was marketed for foot as well as armpit odour.
However, it was a messy business dabbing the paste on with the fingertips – and was even harder to get off.
The first antiperspirant, EverDry (1903), proved just as problematic, being so acidic that it ate through clothing.
Roll-ons: Inspired by the ballpoint pen, Mum produced the first roll-on antiperspirant deodorant, “Mum Rollette”, in 1952.
It was regularly advertised in The Cork Examiner, price five shillings. The revolving marble ball helped spread the lotion onto the skin: “No fuss, no mess, no sticky fingers.”
Aerosols: “Odo-ro-no” spray, manufactured by Northam Warren Ltd at its Dublin factory, claimed to “stop perspiration quickly and safely”, blocking pores so they could not produce as much sweat.
The handbag-sized plastic bottle was ideal for travelling. Unfortunately, being red, it easily stained clothing, ruining one woman’s wedding dress.
Recently the popularity of aerosols has decreased because of concern about their harmful effect on the ozone layer.
Sticks on threaded spindles have become today’s top-selling form of antiperspirant and deodorant, and are often preferred for giving a more solid, less wet, feel.
Interest has revived in using deodorants made not from chemicals and aluminium but from natural minerals such as alum and soda; shrubs or herbs – eucalyptus, lavender and lemongrass.
Now, an online Danish fashion company is offering outer-space style underwear that provides an “anti-microbial, odourless experience”.
Organic Basics’ new odour-free garments are treated with Polygiene Silver chloride.
With “advanced ventilation in critical sweat zones”, they promise to kill 99.9 per cent of all bacteria. “You won’t need to wash your underwear so often,” says the manufacturer. “They’ll be OK for up to a week”, one of the Customer Satisfaction team told me.
Handy if you’re on the road for a while; or are planning only to take cabin luggage on holiday this summer.
Too bad they weren’t available in Tutankhamun’s day.