The Founders risked their lives for an ideal. Their wisdom shapes the most noble experiment in democracy. And they might have smelled like a running shoe filled with oysters.
Casual thought about history is unscented—I blame a Hollywood that gives us Victorian prostitutes with great teeth and skin. But the past oozes with odors, the great humanizing textures of everyday life. Standing in a gas station bathroom in horror, we forget that this is the golden age of hygiene, when most Americans have running water and live nowhere near hog-based industries.
In fact, a turnpike bathroom at 12:32 a.m. outshines anything enjoyed by the majority of our leaders. Decompressing at his Vermont homestead, Calvin Coolidge—not 90 years ago!—would have done his deepest thinking while leafing through a Sears catalog on an indoor privy. Guests at James Buchanan’s Pennsylvania bachelor pad could have speculated on his sexuality while enjoying a group trip to the cozy five-seat outhouse (no partitions). On toilets alone, history is a smelly, smelly place.
But had you a time machine, you would have no questions for Silent Cal (who would not answer you) and only one for Buchanan (who would not answer you). Practically speaking, you would never have to brace for their smells. If we’re setting up a historical power brunch, it’s with the first five presidents, whose thoughts on public life could profoundly enrich our understanding of America.
So before we go through the trouble of inventing time travel and setting up an omelet bar in the late 18th century, it behooves us to ponder: would James Madison’s B.O. trigger a gag reflex? What did the Founding Fathers smell like?
There is no smoking gun, no private indictment detailing taco night at the Continental Congress. We update Facebook anytime a co-worker cooks fish in the kitchenette microwave, but the Founders are largely silent in their papers when it comes to stench. They swam through a river of it every day, and immersion surely led to indifference.
Which isn’t to say they had a laissez faire attitude toward odor. Groenland whale oil “has a smell unsupportable within doors” noted Jefferson (the foremost presidential commenter on whale oil), thereby establishing that some odors could go too far. There were also standards for personal smelliness: in one of his less enlightened moments, Jefferson published his belief that biological differences gave blacks a “very strong and disagreeable odour.” You know, either biology or working as slaves. One of those.
Jefferson wasn’t the only one with limits. The delightful Anna Berkes of Charlottesville’s Jefferson Library combed the available papers of Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and Dolley Madison and turned up grousing from the second president. “Sat down to Table with the old Woman and another Woman,” wrote Adams in June 1771, “and a dirty, long, greybearded Carpenter who was at Work for Landlady, and might be smelled from one Room to the other—so that these Republicans are not very decent or neat.” So containing your funk to one room was laudable.
But if we’re going to grasp how the presidents themselves smelled, we’ll have to turn to deductive reasoning.
Their environment was pungent. Philadelphia, the finest metropolis in the land, was covered in horse mess and garbage (like a Phillies victory parade, but every day); Abigail Adams called the summer air “putrid.” All five men lived on farms that would have been swarming with animals, covered in manure, crowded with laborers and short on plumbing. So if you parked the DeLorean anywhere near people, you would puke a bit as soon as you rolled down the window.
Free of television and laptops, the men themselves led active, sweaty lifestyles: Adams took daily strolls, Washington and Jefferson were constantly on horseback, and Madison had to keep up with Dolley. They wore heavy clothes even in those burning, putrid summers, and some had a thing for leather pants. Laundry service was probably decent, but bathing wasn’t a full-body activity—most days they would be washing just their face and hands in a basin, leaving bacteria to wage a revolution everywhere else.
To be fair, they probably smelled good for the era. Jefferson, Adams and Monroe undoubtedly practiced odor management as diplomats in Europe. As prominent, relatively wealthy gentlemen, all probably felt social pressure to make an effort at cleanliness. It was a status symbol, and plantation Virginia was like an upscale New York bar mitzvah—you had to keep up. Berkes found no mention of anyone complaining about Jefferson’s aroma.
But objectively, it all adds up to smelly. Though progress has erased his odor, leaving no definitive record, the James Madison of my mind smells like a burning wool sock dipped in sour milk. It is no disgrace. They were men with the same smells and headaches as everyone, and by achieving so much while smelling so bad, they only expand their legend.
And in at least one case, a Founder blazed trails to a better-smelling tomorrow. George Washington probably reeked. A man who oozes that much machismo—from dancing, riding, distilling or liberating—is going to pit out a few shirts. No matter how much you clean hippopotamus-tusk dentures (on display at Mount Vernon!), there’s a good chance that your breath will smell like hot cottage cheese. So he covered it all up.
Caswell-Massey Apothecary, founded 1752, had a selection of 20 scents. Washington settled on Number Six, liking it enough to give out bottles as a gift. The company and product survive today, and for $30 you can have a 3 oz. bottle: “the choice of the man who, like our first President… embodies the indomitable spirit of our American heritage.”
It smells like smoldering oranges. There’s enough citrus to burn through background smells, but enough smokiness to keep you from reeking like a bathroom cleanser. My girlfriend isn’t a huge fan, but she might be threatened by my newfound indomitability.
George Washington would not kneel before the crown, nor body odor. First in war, first in peace, first in the nostrils of his countrymen.