History I Never Knew – EEEWWW! The origin of vinaigrette, and the real lives of our stinky ancestors.

I usually order vinaigrette salad dressing when I go to a restaurant. I think I’ll go back to Greek, now that I know where the term “vinaigrette” came from.

Vinaigrette Box

Vinaigrette Box

Back in Victorian times – think the 75 years or so before the era of “Downton Abbey” – fashionable ladies carried their vinaigrette everywhere. Depicted here, the vinaigrette was a little perforated box filled with aromatic herbs and a vinegar-soaked sponge. It was handy for sniffing in times of “olfactory distress.” The ladies’ attendants also found the vinaigrette handy in reviving their mistress after she had swooned and fainted for one reason or another.

Apparently, there were plenty of occasions of olfactory distress back in those days. A great deal of the ladies’ fainting must have been caused by the relentless assaults of offensive aromas.

According to “The Royal Armpits” in the latest issue of Mental Floss magazine, our forerunners stank. To high heaven, they stank. The article’s subhead wryly points out,  “We should be thankful they don’t make history books scratch n’ sniff.”

So how bad was it? Hard to imagine, but it started ‘way back before the Victoria era. People in those days thought that baths caused disease by opening the pores and allowing diseases to invade the body – the exact opposite of what happens.


Elizabeth I - never had the luxury of Dove Body Wash.

Elizabeth I – never had the luxury of Dove Body Wash.

Queen Elizabeth I once stated that she “took a bath once a month, whether I need to or not.” Henry VIII had a foul-smelling, festering wound on his lower leg; you could get a whiff of it from three rooms away. The royal doctors made it worse by tying the wound open, thinking that the sore needed to run in order to heal. They even sprinkled gold pellets onto it, keeping it infected and putrefying.

Over in La Belle France, Louis XIV, “The Sun King,” had such bad breath that his mistress doused herself in perfume to ward off the stench. His predecessor, Louis XII, once declared, “I take after my father. I smell of armpits.”

Outside those royal rooms it was just as bad, if not worse. In cities, people would simply toss the products of their bathroom visits out into the street. In 1900, in New York, there were about 200,000 horses within the city. That means a daily output of five million pounds of poop, most of which was just swept to the curb.

Louis Quatorze - could have put Scope or Listerine to mighty good use.

Louis Quatorze – could have put Scope or Listerine to mighty good use.


Wealthy Londoners employed an army of “night soil men” to cart the stuff away. They disposed of it in dumps on the outskirts of the city. One such place – typical British humour – was named “Mount Pleasant.”

The invention of the flush toilet made it even worse. In the summer of 1858, so much human excrement clogged the Thames River that it became known as the year of the “Great Stink.”

There was also the smell of death. In London, butchers killed and disemboweled animals right in the streets. One greedy British pastor sold “burials” to his flock, but didn’t bury the bodies. He stashed 12,000 of them in the church cellar, and the fumes made churchgoers pass out.

Even in churches where the dead had been properly buried, the smell of the people was too much to take. Thomas Aquinas approved the use of incense because the faithful’s odors “can provoke disgust.” In Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the people who bought the tickets in the cheap seats were known as “penny stinkers.”

Yes, I am very glad that our history books are not scratch ‘n sniff. And I have a suggestion for historians.

Let’s revise, once again, those notations that describe calendar eras. “BC” is now “BCE,” and “AD” is now “CE.” I say that we do away with them.

The most accurate way to depict former times is to start back at the beginning. Make the year that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden “Year One, B.O.”

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