In the late summer of 1880, a wave of offensive odors descended upon the city of Paris. For just over two months, between late July and early October of that year, Parisians complained of the putrid, insufferable stench. The tone of many reactions was apocalyptic: “[T]he odors are truly unbearable”; “We’ve never seen anything like this!” “This can’t go on!”
Complaints came from all sides. … The press protested violently against the government’s negligence. … People approached one another with but one greeting: “Do you smell that? What a stench!” It was a real public calamity. Parisians were panic-stricken; public officials were anguished; cabinet ministers were troubled.
Medical authorities, journalists, and fearful residents all agreed that the odors brought with them the threat of deadly diseases. The chorus of popular protest was seconded by scientific authority, as a special commission composed of the nation’s leading medical scientists (including Louis Pasteur, the father of bacteriology) concluded that foul-smelling emanations were capable of transmitting the germs of contagious disease, and that “these odors which have spread over Paris … can pose a threat to the public health.”
Fifteen years later, the capital’s residents again found themselves beset by stench. “Fetid emanations,” “nauseating” and “disgusting” odors, “Paris again turning putrid”—the noisy complaints that began in early June 1895 sound like a reprise of August and September 1880.
Disgusted and indignant reactions to the odors of Paris again emphasized their intolerability and the urgent imperative of remedial action. As in 1880, the search for the culprits focused on the sewers and on suburban waste treatment plants, and once again local government officials were harshly criticized for inaction and complacency. Only the certainty of impending epidemics and the search for germs in the foul miasmas were missing from the public reaction in 1895.