“The Smells of London” and their Sources at the Fin de Siècle

By Jess Clark

In September 1889, the London Times printed a complaint from a disturbed Kensington resident. Under the heading “Smells of London,” Arthur Clay challenged “[t]he apathy with which Londoners submit to be bathed in disgusting odours.”[i] The author complained of distressing smells blanketing North Kensington, typically at night and often in the summer. Despite his claims that Londoners didn’t care, the response to his initial letter proved otherwise; Clay’s submission set off some three years of correspondence from displeased and disgusted residents. Despite sanitary initiatives, they described nuisance smells that they ascribed to a number of different sources: polluted waterways, dirty streets, blocked drains, poor ventilation. Contrasting official messages about the efficiency of London’s orderly modern infrastructures, correspondents instead foregrounded olfactory disorder.

In this early etching, George Cruikshank criticizes the expansion of building schemes across London. “Building materials marching out of London of their own accord to build suburban housing over greenfield sites,” 1829. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In taking to the London Times, correspondents discovered a forum to express their displeasure over London’s transforming urban smellscapes.[ii] In the wake of rapid growth and residential development, some nineteenth-century Londoners found themselves living next to chemical works and other industrialized sites. The mixing of residential and industrial space proved a recipe for Londoners’ dissatisfaction: in the lack of municipal action, in the lack of private responses, in the horrible stenches that wafted into their homes each and every night.

Indeed, if we look to letters in the Times between 1889 and 1891, many Kensington residents were deeply upset by the smell nuisances. To capture their frustration, they tapped into anxieties around smell’s “subjectiv[ity], variabi[lity], and uncertain[ty],” which had long been the source of its “social and cultural power,” in the words of Will Tullett.[iii] For some, this meant framing smells as night-time invaders of the home—a domestic sanctuary, which was supposed to be a refuge from public, daytime lives. One lady and her young ward, for instance, “both smelt the bad smell” in Eaton Place, Belgravia. She continued, “It awoke me; she was awake. It was very nasty and quite different to any other smell.”[iv] In another example, a letter writer “actually went downstairs in the belief that some part of the house was on fire.” He was not alone. “Other members of my family have had the same experiences, and not long ago searched the whole house from roof to basement for the supposed combustion going on.”[v] In a period of heightened distinction between private and public space, invisible nocturnal smells disturbed the illusion of domestic safety, as an external disorder that penetrated the sanctity of the private abode.

Other authors foregrounded the alleged health effects of these nocturnal smells, suggesting the longstanding influence of miasmatic theories of illness, which had dominated an earlier period. For one author, the smells were “like the breath of Tartarus, death-laden with horrid stenches and health-destroying fumes….” Meanwhile, the vicar of St. Matthews ominously observed “[t]he wonder is that we are alive to tell the tale.”[vi] For these authors, the stench was a disruption but moreover—it was a health hazard. “In my house, which looks across the whole of Hyde Park, the smell leaves us with headaches and sore throats,” explained another author, before demanding “what must be the effects in the narrow streets of small dwellings?”[vii]

Detail from Charles Booth’s “Life and Labour of the People in London” (1898), showing Kensington and the easterly edge of Hammersmith (including its brickfields). Courtesy of LSE Charles Booth’s London, public domain mark.

After three years of correspondence, one question remained; what comprised the horrible smells that so distressed residents of North Kensington in the late 1880s? After considerable debate, the source was allegedly identified: brickfields in neighbouring Hammersmith, which produced a “horrible and nauseous smell” each night “lasting for several hours.” This was not just any stench. Brickmakers burned refuse—garbage—to fire their bricks. What’s more, this “fuel” most likely came from the local government’s efforts to collect vestry rubbish, as part of modernizing efforts in city management. In a compelling twist, attempts to rid London of garbage – a visual nuisance –made for new and horrible smell nuisances for residents. By focusing on the unsightliness of garbage, well-meaning officials neglected a key element of urban life: its smells.

        

[i] Arthur Clay, “The Smells of London” Times (4 September 1889): 10.

[ii] See Jonathan Reinarz, “Smell and Victorian England,” in Smell and History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018). On the importance of public complaints in the American context, see Melanie A. Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

[iii] William Tullett, “Re-Odorization, Disease, and Emotion in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 62.3 (2019): 787.

[iv] G. J. Symons et al, “The Smells of London,” The Times (10 September 1889): 6.

[v] J. E. Latton Pickering et al, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (17 October 1890): 10.

[vi] W. Domett-Stone et al, “Offensive Smells in London,” The Times (20 October 1890): 14.

[vii] E.H. Carbutt, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (15 October 1890): 7.

Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula

Katarzyna Gromek

Winter in medieval al-Andalus varied from the rainy, foggy, and cool season in Córdoba to snowy freezing weather in regions at higher elevations. The winter dampness seemingly aggravated stomach ailments in the general population and caused excessive weakness among some of the elderly inhabitants.

Image 1. View of Old Town and the Mezquita de Cordoba, Córdoba Spain. Image credit – Julia Kostecka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The famous physician from eleventh century Córdoba, Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī al-Ansari, also known as Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis, included several recipes for fragrant remedies to treat winter ailments in his work on medicine, Kitāb al-Taṣrīf. The three recipes described below are included in volume nineteen, part one, which is dedicated to perfumery. There was little difference between fragrance and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products.[1]

First, let us have a look at lakhlakhah, a moist compound paste used for rubbing on the body after bathing.[2] Abulcasis mentioned that this recipe was first recommended by Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue) for the treatment of patients suffering from a stomachache or from excessive cold in winter.

The ingredients, cloves, Ceylon cinnamon, nut grass, mastic resin, wormwood, Indian spikenard, agarwood, costus, sweet flag, and green cardamom, are crushed, ground to powder and sifted. Next, enough boiling water is poured over the aromatics to form a paste which is left to steep overnight. Then powdered saffron threads and lily ben (moringa) oil are mixed into the paste. The paste is worked into a flattened ball shape and fumigated with high-quality agarwood for several hours.

To scent the lakhlakhah paste, I set up an experimental apparatus for fumigation of compound fragrance ingredients, consisting of a pottery bowl, a pierced cast iron tray, a large ceramic pot that holds the aromatics for censing, and a source of heat. Apartment living requires some creative approach for the use of open fire, and the tea light candles with lead-free wicks are the best substitute for use of charcoal or hot ashes.

Image 2. Fumigation setup for the lakhlakhah paste.

I re-kneaded the paste every time I added fresh agarwood for fumigation. After twenty-four hours of censing, I formed smaller spheres from the paste, and continued fumigation for another twenty-four hours. [See: Video 1. Fumigation with agarwood]

 

This lakhlakhah is very soft and easy to rub on wet skin. I cannot vouch for its therapeutic properties, but the scent is definitively pleasant, very spicy and musky.

Image 3. Small lakhlakhah spheres after the fumigation process is finished.

Another concoction I attempted to recreate is muthallatheh, which reminds me of modern vapor rub.[3] First, I ground some saffron threads and soaked them overnight in musky rosewater which I distilled beforehand. The muskiness of the rosewater comes from the addition of crushed ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), a plant-derived replacement for deer musk grains. Ground Borneo camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica was also added to the saffron soak. The next day, I crushed and ground costus, agarwood, and dark white sandalwood (sandalwood comes in several varieties of colors and odors depending on the tree types). These rare aromatics formed the base for muthallatheh. I mixed the prepared aromatics with the saffron and camphor infused rosewater and worked it into a paste which was spread in a thin layer on a ceramic plate. I dried it under the cover of loosely woven linen.

Image 4. Mixing the base aromatics with the rosewater infused with saffron and camphor, and the drying process.

Once dried, I ground the base again, mixed it with hot cooked honey (cooking honey removes water which prevents spoilage) and worked it into a thick paste. I shaped small spheres which were rolled in a mixture of ground saffron and camphor.

Image 5. Rolling the muthallatheh spheres in powdered saffron threads and Borneo camphor.

These fragrant spheres were used as a medicated incense preparation or smeared directly on the chest to aid breathing in case of congestion. They have a very pungent but pleasant odor, and it is easy to understand why they were used as a treatment for colds.

The third preparation is dharīrah, a scented powder that can be used as incense, sprinkled on the clothes and body, or kept in a sachet. This recipe is known as the recipe of Al-Jafarieh ( a place or personal name). Dharīrah was known to strengthen the body organs like the brain and heart.

I started by powdering, sieving, and mixing dried rose petals, agarwood, cloves, dark white sandalwood, Indian spikenard, nutmeg, and Borneo camphor. I sewed a bag from silk fabric (tightly woven Japanese silk works well for fine powders) and transferred the powder to it.

Image 6. Making the dharīrah powder bag.

The dharīrah needs to mature, and this is done by fumigation. The aromatic for censing in the summer was camphor, and in the winter it was deer musk grains. I splurged on this recipe and used a mixture of ambrette seeds and true deer musk grains (which are harvested from farmed male deer without killing the animals). Since the musk is quite sensitive to heat, it was placed on top of a little bowl placed upside down.

Image 7. Fumigation of the bag containing powdered aromatics.

I gently mixed the bag’s contents every three hours, for a total of twenty-four hours of fumigation. [See: Video 2. Fumigation of the dharīrah powder]

The odor is so intense that even if this silk bag is stored inside a closed plastic bag, it doesn’t prevent the scent from escaping. This scent brings me great joy, so most likely this was the beneficial property of dharīrah.

These fragrances were made as part of my ongoing project in experimental archaeology of fragrances, and as such, they have no known therapeutic properties. All effects as experienced by me and a group of my volunteer testers were subjective.


Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.

Her passion is experimental archaeology of beauty products. She is interested in how beauty products were made and used across time and cultures.  She recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.


[1] Hamerneh, Sami K. “The first known independent treatise on cosmetology in Spain.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39(4) (1965):309-325.

[2] King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden Boston: Brill, 2017, 272-283.

[3] Khatib, Chadi. “Aromatherapy rules as mentioned in the ancient Arabic manuscripts (Albucasis as example).”  Journal of Pharmaceutical Toxicology 1(1) (2018):1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Like a Collapsible Concertina”: Cosmetic Interventions in Fin-de-Siècle London

Jess Clark

In the Fall of 2020, new reports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Face Harness,” from William A. Woodbury, Beauty Culture (New York: G.W. Dillingham Company, 1911), p. 341. Public Domain via Hathi Trust.

While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.

One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:

Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.

Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.”[1] Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.

“The Geography of a Dissipated Woman’s Face,” from Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), p. 318. Public Domain via Hathi Trust..

 

It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.”[2] Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.

 

 

[1] “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (29 October 1904): 1230.

[2] Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), 185, quoted in James Bennett, “Face Skinning,” Cosmetics and Skin, 25 January 2019, http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/aba/face-skinning.php

The Kitchen, Courtyard, and Bazaar: Meditations of “Natural” Health and Beauty

By Mobeen Hussain

Early twentieth-century vernacular literature aimed at elite and middle-class Indian women was full of contradictions in authors’ attempts to mediate conflicting colonial modernities in the pursuit of personal care, beauty, and health. During the interwar period, middle-class consumers could choose from a barrage of foreign and local products, albeit on tight budgets and alongside concerns of domestic economy (as espoused by social reformers). In domestic literature as well as advertising, the use of bazaar-bought branded products and homemade chemical concoctions were proffered as desirable resources and products, but also revealed the potential for dangerous artifice and excess. In these same domestic manuals and women’s periodicals, a plethora of methods were identified for natural beatification and aesthetic health including exercise, diet, and domestic remedies which were perceived as “natural” by virtue of being homemade. However, these concoctions, from cold and toning creams to soap, involved purchasing chemicals and ingredients not usually found in the Indian kitchen.

Vernacular texts simultaneously elaborated on the superiority of indigenous systems and practices, including Ayurvedic (Vedic-based medical system) and Unani Tibb (of Greco-Arabic origins) recipes and prescriptions (or nukshas), reviving and adapting these older practices by including select chemicals and Western concoctions. In Hifz-i-Sihhat (Preservation of Health), an Urdu-language manual written by the Begam of Bhopal Sultan Jahan and published in 1916, the chosen format for nukshas was to print English chemical names in brackets and offer an Urdu transliteration.[i] In other manuals, too, English functioned as a corroboration for the superior nature of chemicals, construing them as scientific. In a 1944 Bengali-language Narir Rupa-Sadhana o Vyayama (The Pursuit of Beauty and Physical Exercise for Women), for instance, author Latika Basu shared technical recipes containing numerous chemicals such as hydragyri cholor corrosive, ammoni chloridi purificati, and mist arneygdalae amar.  Basu embraced the bazaar alongside chemicals purchased from dispensaries and cooked up in the kitchen and courtyard of the Indian home as connected epistemological spaces in which to attain ideal beauty and health.[ii]

Cover of Ismat magazine (New Delhi), reproduced with the permission of the Endangered Archive Programme, EAP566/1/2/6, British Library.

Ready-made and branded products also came with their own contentions. Susie Sorabji, writing for the Madras-based The Indian Ladies Magazine (1901-1938), criticised the use of “paint and powder,” by arguing that English products were incompatible with the Indian locale and environment, reminiscent of nineteenth-century evaluations of western medicine in India.[iii] Instead, she advised that women should “keep the hair, that glory of a woman, intact, and dress as simply as possible.”[iv] This advice departed from that of the Urdu-language Ismat magazine (1908-1993), in which a housekeeping/house management column called Khaanadari, comprising nukshas, domestic notes, and sections on health and comportment, first appeared in 1932. The author, Mohammad Zafar, offered advice for bodily beauty including exercise, nutritional advice, seasonal adornment, tips for soap and cosmetic use, and step-by-step guides for maintaining “rang aur roop” [colour and glow].[v] Zafar’s approach, in contrast to Sorabji’s, focused on the careful selection and use of products— adornment was a delicate thing [singaari ek nazuk cheez hai] and “cosmetic goods needed to be selected with caution.”[vi] The Khaanadari column also routinely offered advice on altering skin colour, coded as making skin colour [rang] beautiful [khoobsurat], correcting the colour that was pale [zard]— read unhealthy and sickly—or purchasing prepared “rang cream” from shops.[vii]

A decade later, by the late 1940s, Zafar’s position moved closer to Sorabji’s. In a 1948 column (now published from Karachi in the newly-formed Pakistan), he delineated a difference between khoobsurati and husn (both broadly mean beautiful). He prioritised the cultivation of khoobsurati, as general beauty that encompassed inner beauty (“one always has it”) and health, over the pursuit of husn, a beauty that garnered praise, attraction, and “affects another person”.[viii] He also claimed that adornment had become a sort of purdah (female segregation) or niqab (a garment that covered the body and face), warning that bad cosmetics could ruin your face.[ix] The purdah analogy revealed Zafar’s anxiety that cosmetics were being used as superficial masks rather than as resources in the cultivation of natural beauty: a template for ideal modern middle-class womanhood. Yet, despite this late rejection of cosmetics and overt beautification, most popular literature of the late colonial period drew on and adapted intergenerational oral cultures and substances, naturalised chemicals through “cooking” them at home, and borrowed from multiple repositories of transnationally-circulated printed methodologies to transform homemade chemical concoctions into natural, authentic, trustworthy products.

 

 

[i] Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal, Hifz-i-Sihhat (Bhopal: Sultania Press, 1916).

[ii] Latika Basu, Narir Rupa-Sadhana o Vyayama, (Calcutta: Kailaschandra Acharya, 1944)/

[iii] See Seema Alavi, Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600-1900(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p.237.

[iv] Sister Susie, “Our Fashion Suggestions,” The Indian Ladies Magazine (Madras), Vol.2 No.8 March 1929, p.436.

[v] Mohammad Zafar, “Khanadaari”, Ismat (New Delhi), Vol.54 No.4 Apr 1935, pp.313-14.

[vi] Ibid., Vol. 59 No. 2, July 1937, 185-187, p.187.

[vii] Ibid., Vol. 81 No.5 Nov 1948, p.249; Ibid., Vol. 61 No.2 Aug 1938, p.181.

[viii] Ibid., Vol. 81 No.2 Aug 1948 p.105.

[ix] Ibid.

 

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