Can’t you smell that smell

Forgive me for the Skynyrd earworm.

I have this wonderful reference book, Never Done: A History of American Housework, that I’ve been reading. In the chapter “Fetch a Pail of Water,” the author talks about all the things for which our ancestors had to haul water to accomplish. When I came to the part about baths, I stopped. It seemed like way too much work!

My work-in-progress is set in 1929/1930 and at this time in much of the United States, running water and indoor plumbing was the new norm. Not true, however, for rural areas¹, like the little township of Inglewood where Rose and Harold live. It would be another 5-10 years or longer before rural America caught up.

So, Rose’s bathtime reality was this: dragging a tub into the kitchen—the warmest room in the house—then carrying in and heating the water to fill it. Luckily it was just her and Harold (and later, Charlie) since they all had to share the same bathwater (ick!).

No wonder bathing once a week, usually on Saturday evening, was the convention.

Which brings me to the smell… Folks, these people wore the same clothes for several days (you would, too, if you had to do laundry the way Rose did—a story for another day) unless they were “really dirty,” e.g. caked in mud or manure or the like. They bathed only once a week. Perhaps they took sponge baths during the week as needed. All this while working in the fields, mucking out livestock stalls, cooking in hot kitchens, etc. Things had to be pretty ripe.

Of course, all this is without the benefit of deodorant. Okay, yes, there is a product in the 1928 Sear catalog called Lady Janis’ Deodorant, a cream applied with the fingers, sold for 39¢. But that’s the only option. No equivalent for men.²

And, there are perfumes. Colognes. To mingle with the body odor. And smells of livestock. And kerosene thick in the air.

Oh, oh, that smell.


Sources and Notes

¹”Urban-rural differences continued to matter as well: the President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership reported that 71 percent of urban families surveyed and 33 percent of rural ones had bathrooms in the late 1920s.” [Strasser; Never Done, p103]

²Wikipedia reports that underarm hair may help decrease the growth of odor-causing bacteria that can thrive in sweat, so perhaps men didn’t need deodorant as much? Women, on the other hand, began shaving their armpits around 1915, thanks to a sundress and Harper’s Bazaar.

3 thoughts on “Can’t you smell that smell

  1. Zan Marie says:

    Um…not my idea of fun–either the work to take a bath, sharing the water, or only doing it once a week. I count running water complete with a water heater as a blessing.


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