Published January 11, 2023 | Version v2
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Smells, Stocking, and Feet

  • 1. University of Northampton


Shoes, socks and feet are proverbially smelly. The foot is often regarded as an unclean extremity of the body, and the shoes and socks that cover them create an environment for the growth of malodorous bacteria. As the podiatrist William Rossi remarks, 'most foot odors are shoe odors' (1996). Modern footwear is partially to blame here, since the use of inorganic materials does not allow the foot to breathe, and sweat is absorbed by fabric linings and foam padding: we are all familiar with the stink of old sneakers. The premodern world was similarly preoccupied with the smell of feet and their coverings, but they understood it in a different way and it highlighted distinctive social anxieties from the time. The feet had an important place in the humoural body, since they sweated and purging was vital to maintaining the body's healthy balance. They were also regarded as the sink of the body, where impurities were carried off to the extremities. The smells emanating from the feet were therefore a factor in the body's general health, and were of interest to medical science. A medical dictionary from 1722 defined 'dysodia' as a genus of disease consisting of 'stinking exhalations from the whole body, or from a particular part, as stinking breath, stinking feet, &c.' (Quincy 1722, 294).


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