The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle against Filth and Germs by David S Barnes ~ perfume books

Great Stink of ParisFill up your pomanders, take out your nosegays: it's going to be a hot summer. “In the late summer of 1880 in Paris, death was in the air and it smelled like excrement.” So begins David S. Barnes’s history of the birth and dissemination of public health in France. The author shows that scientific discovery alone did not change the way a nation understood sanitation and the spread of disease. Eberth and Klebs's isolation of the typhoid bacillus (1880), Roux’s diphtheria antitoxin (1884), Pasteur’s work on anthrax (1881) and development of the rabies vaccine (1885) were the talk of the town, but that wasn't enough. It took a convergence of ideas (new scientific knowledge, persistent folk etiologies of contagion, a shift in political thinking toward Republican positivism, increased secularization, France's mission to "civilize" the peasantry and colonies) to garner acceptance of germ theory and support for sanitation control.

Barnes focuses on the years between 1885 1880 and 1895, a period framed by two "Great Stinks" in Paris intrusive enough to spark public outcry, political debate, and relentless commentary in the daily papers. One front-page cartoon, lampooning the government's slow response to the stench disaster, includes a transposition of the city motto fluctuat nec mergitur [it is tossed by the waves but it does not sink] to fluctuat et merditur [it is tossed by the waves and it — well, you get it]. Each smelly summer incited outrage, but by 1895 — though offended and disgusted —  the public no longer feared that the fetid stench of Paris streets would cause death and disease. The author coins the term ”sanitary-bacteriological synthesis” (SBS) to explain how during the time between these two events, public health reformers brought pre-Pasteurian beliefs (that foul smelling emanations are bad for you) into harmony with new scientific knowledge about the dangers of microbes (which might be accompanied by foul smells).

Why did Paris stink in the nineteenth-century? In fact, Paris was notorious for its noxious odors long before and long after 1880. The author traces some of Paris's earliest waste-removal efforts to 1184. In 1539 King François I mandated the installation of residential cesspits in an effort to rid the already filthy streets of human waste (liquid and solid). Foul odors signaled a gruesome crisis in the late 18th century, when the walls of a mass burial pit gave way. The Cemetery of the Innocents was literally leaking into the homes of near residents, who discovered odors, gasses, and even decaying corpses spilling into their cellars. By the nineteenth-century, overcrowding had led to hygienic alarm. It was the "offal" of everyday life, "the daunting volume of all organic matter produced, consumed and excreted by nearly a million Parisians — uneaten foodstuffs, animal hides, carcasses, dung, all human body fluids and solids — that worried contemporaries” (78). Think of poorly sealed cesspits (a sort of holding tank for residential raw sewage), and the emptying thereof. Add to this a horse-rendering plant and waste dump in northeastern Paris whose putrid emanations were believed to be the cause of disease and death in the area. Or consider a sewer under the Boulevard Rochechouart, so filled with fumes from human excrement that four sewer men cleaning up the place died of asphyxiation. The helmet and buttons of rescuers who saved a fifth worker turned fist red, then black upon exposure to the noxious vapors. All of this against the backdrop of narrow streets subject to public urination and filled with all manner of organic waste, stewing in the summer heat.

To show how nineteenth–century Paris, the birthplace of modern clinical medicine, also made a science of public health, Barnes combs through medical and public hygiene reports, daily newspapers and city records, not only in Paris, but in villages as well. Smelly anecdotes from the provinces include the story of a typhoid outbreak in Les Andelys in 1901, where the investigating doctor discovered that locals washed laundry in three ponds fed by manure runoff, and whose water was rumored to make excellent cider (204). In 1898 twelve cases of dysentery and four deaths were all traced to the same house near Neufchâtel-en-Bray. There, the Lasnier family had refused to follow doctor’s orders regarding the handling and disposal of excretions: they “deposited” in the bed and on the floor, or defecated into bowls, later emptied into their vegetable garden (207). Barnes focuses on such repellent cases to draw attention to how and why they were written up. Reports of the peasantry's filth were imbued with moralizing commentary on the inferior nature and intelligence of the poor, thus justifying a need to involve the government in "civilizing" the provinces.

I highly recommend this book to readers with a deep interest in the history of public health and hygiene. As a scholar writing for scholars, Barnes articulates a tight central argument, solidly situated, and carefully justified against a backdrop of previous scholarship and research methodology. He untangles a fine knot in the thread of inquiry on contagion theory leading from miasmic to macrobiotic explanations: while most historians have viewed the advent of Pasteur’s discoveries as a seismic paradigm shift, Barnes contends that there was overlap  in the old and new ways of thinking — an overlap without which germ theory would not have been as widely accepted.

Though filled with colorful smelly examples, the book is a challenging read overall. Those who are intrigued by the subject might want to begin with academic studies that offer more context and scope before delving into The Great Stink of Paris. Georges Vigarello's Concepts of Cleanliness and Alain Corbin’s The Foul and The Fragrant would do the trick. Vigarello's work on changing notions of what is dirty and what is clean covers the Middle Ages through the 19th century. Corbin primarily treats 18th- and 19th-century France, examining a wide range of topics related to the social and cultural history of smell, including perfume.

Dear Fragrant Readers, you have no doubt guessed by now, that if it is beach reading or a perfumed book fix you are after, The Stink of Paris will not deliver. While there a few mentions of burning papier d'Arménie to deodorize homes, the majority of the text will besiege you with the stench of  “pestilential mist” (17),  “a swarming and oozing population” (92),  “foul effluvia and pestilential vapors” (93) and “cadaverous gas” (239).

I hate to leave you high and dry, so if you read French and are interested in the stink of Paris, but have no time for lengthy academic studies, click on this article: "Mais pourquoi ça pue autant dans le métro parisien ?" ('So why is the Paris metro so stinky?'), in which "Nez and professional perfumer Céline Ellena [Jean-Claude Ellena's daughter] describes with surgical precision the palette of odors that 750,000 daily travelers at Châtelet-Les-Halles [a major subway and commuter train hub] endure all year long" (translations my own).

If all of this malodorous talk starts getting you down, consider these words, attributed to Henri Bouley: "Tout ce qui pue ne tue pas, et tout ce qui tue ne pue pas"  ('All that stinks does not kill and all that kills does not stink").

Now, Guerlain, take me away!

The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle against Filth and Germs
David S. Barnes
The Johns Hopkins University Press
314 pages

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  1. ggperfume says:

    Great– if malodorous– topic, Cheryl. Anglophones may also want to seek out info on London’s Great Stink of the mid-19th century, which led to major innovations and renovations of the public water supply. I’ll see if my French is up to your suggested reading.

    • Cheryl says:

      I’d love to read more about London, too.

  2. Zazie says:

    Such an exciting subject!

    The Great Stink of Paris sounds a fascinating read, together with the other books you mention.
    I’ll make sure to be burning SMN Carta d’Armenia (the Italian answer to papier d’arménie) to neutralise the most evocative smells during my read… and to have a couple of classic Guerlains at hand – in case I end my supply of the delicious papers before the end of the book…

    On the subject what is clean and what is dirty in smell… well, I’d like to learn more.
    It seems that in some countries it is more likely to encounter people disturbed by Jicky, Une fleur de Cassie and the like but much more tolerant (or anosmic?) to musks… So there might be also a cultural thing there? maybe your books will provide me with an answer! Thanks!

  3. Cheryl says:

    I agree–the cultural component is intriguing. I have a few books on my shelf that deal to some extent with the cultural relativity of disgust, reactions to odor, etc.–many of which I haven’t read yet. One lead: The Smell Culture Reader by Jim Drobnick, Marcello reviewed it on NST (
    Some of the essays go in the direction of cultural differences in tolerance of odors.

  4. dee says:

    Great review Cheryl! The history of public health is one of my favorite topics, and The Great Stink is going on my “to read” list right away :)

    • Daisy says:

      Cool…..around here we have a great interest in stuff like the plagues that swept across Europe….we enjoy a good Barbarian Invasion too….if the Visagoths, Turks, Huns, etc were up to something: we like to know about it!

  5. Karin says:

    Thank God for modern septic systems!!!!!

  6. Cheryl says:

    Thanks, Dee! If you are interested in the history of public health, this one’s for you!

  7. kaos.geo says:

    This is really interesting.
    The only relatively big european city that I’ve visited is Barcelona.
    I must say that having lived all my life in south america (Buenos Aires), and having visited Sao Paulo (in Brasil) and Mexico D.F. AND knowing (and LOVING) New Orleans pre and post katrina, I had my share of foul smelling cities, but… OLD CITIES SMELL MUCH WORSE THAN ALL OF THOSE!
    I mean if you get a whiff of the stench off the sewers in Barcelona, which is a REALLY old city, you’ll get what I am saying.

    I will try to read this at some point.. is it on kindle books? Thanks!

  8. Cheryl says:

    Yes, I saw a Kindle option.Fortunately there is no scratch and sniff edition.

    • Haunani says:

      LOL! Thank you for the interesting book review, Cheryl.

      • Cheryl says:


      • Daisy says:

        …and thank goodness for NO scratch and sniff! ;-)

  9. Excellent review, Cheryl. This part of history probably goes some way into explaining why Paris and the Parisians have garnered a lasting reputation for smelling a bit ripe. It may be because having spent half my life here I only notice the worst bits (stale urine in the metro, or that particularly stench-filled Châtelet-Les Halles RER station I avoid as much as possible), but frankly, it’s not that bad except in during heatwaves.
    I highly recommend the Alain Corbin as well: it’s essential reading for perfume lovers.

    • Cheryl says:

      I’ve noticed each stop has its own odor. And then I tend to remember the smelly ones.

      • If you haven’t been here in the past couple of years: now there’s a lily-of-the-valley scent diffused in many stations. It’s a little weird, because you kind of start looking for the person with the toilet-freshener sillage!

        • Cheryl says:

          I’ve heard that but didn’t notice it ( It’s been a year–and might be the lines I used from the place I was renting).But I have a friend who can’t stand Diorissimo b/c it reminds him of bad metro smell!

  10. Daisy says:

    This is fascinating stuff…I’m going to take your recommendation and seek the Foul and the Fragrant and Concepts of Cleanliness first…I guess you can’t call them a literary appetizer…more like a literary UNappetizer….but I find this sort of thing very interesting. (and yet disgusting)
    Thanks for the great review!

    • Cheryl says:

      Disgusting can be so appealing!

  11. megank4 says:

    reminds me of the opening of Perfume by Suskind.

    • Cheryl says:

      Yes! I had forgotten that entirely.

  12. Suzy Q says:

    Thanks for this excellent review. It’s a fascinating subject.

  13. Cheryl says:

    Thank *you*!

  14. Rappleyea says:

    Wonderful review, Cheryl, and a really excellent post. I probably won’t read this one, although I *will* read the other two suggestions. The interesting thing though is that a very close friend gave up her law practice to write a book (fictional) and did a lot of research on this very same subject and during the same time frame. So I’ve learned a lot of interesting things about this from her. Same problems were going on in London as well.

    • Cheryl says:

      Her book project sounds wonderful.

  15. RusticDove says:

    As a self professed germaphobe who bleaches or uses distilled vinegar on a regular basis [I know, I know – I’m weird], I don’t think I would have fared well in ole stinky Paris or London. Blech. [And no wonder the French created the most wonderful perfumes!]

    • Daisy says:

      Oh Rustic….you are one of us….bleach is the great equalizer! it’s bacteria or us!

      • RusticDove says:

        Except for friendly bacteria of course, It’s such a fine line. ;-)

        • Daisy says:

          oh yes, of course… a yogurt! keep your good internal bacteria hale and hearty…..for the rest I’d suggest a couple of tablespoons of bleach in a quart spray bottle of water…..

    • Cheryl says:

      I don’t think of myself as especially germ phobic, but come to think of it I use hand sanitizer *a lot* and am constantly cleaning keyboards, telephones, grocery cart handles, steering wheels…I think I’m in the club.

  16. TY for the review on this quite curious topic. Another germaphobe here! I don’t think I would have lasted a minute during those times.

    • Daisy says:

      I know! Forget disease! I’d have succumbed to just the grossness of the times….” yes, it appears she was grossed-out to death!”

    • Cheryl says:

      Makes me think twice about the joys of time travel!

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