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According to British historian Andrew Roberts, Napoléon Bonaparte wrote a letter to his wife Joséphine, in which he wrote "to her, ‘don’t wash for three days’" to spice up their reunion. This seems to be a common story also found in many other sources such as blogs and this popular science book on the biochemistry of attraction.

Some sources seem to be skeptical about the authenticity of this request and call it an urban legend. In an episode from the BBC show QI, it is claimed that "Napoleon did not say many of things we attribute to him to Josephine. There is no evidence that he told Josephine not to wash. The earliest source for this quote is 1981"

According to this neurobiology paper, the source might be "de Tourtier-Bonazzi C, Tulard J. 1981 Napoléon. Lettres d’amour à Joséphine", which is probably the source from 1981 mentioned in the QI script. According to this Quora answer, the passage might possibly be found on page 155 of the book, although the contributor on Quora does not claim to have checked the book. The authors of the neurobiology paper also only claim that the quote is "attributed" to the respective book, and seem not to have read it themselves.

The 1981 book, simply judging by its cover, does not strike me as fiction or apocryphal, thus I am skeptical about its dismissal by the BBC show "QI". One of its authors was a historian at the Sorbonne.

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  • I don't think people bathed that often back then that that would have been a concern. They took a bath every other month or so, even if they didn't really need to do so. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 17:03
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    @David Hammen You might very well be right (but I'm not well-versed on 19th century personal hygiene). Perhaps I should have added that the alleged letter is sometimes (allegedly) translated with "wash" instead of "bathe". To my knowledge, washing was much more common than bathing, around 18 hundred. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 17:19
  • Epic, Louis XIV of France, for example, is said to have taken only two baths in his adult lifetime — both times recommended by his doctors. Frequent bathing was generally perceived as not just unhealthy, but very unhealthy. Frequent baths / showers is a rather recent phenomenon. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 17:23
  • @DavidHammen Most people didn't bathe much, but Josephine did "Like Napoleon, Josephine was very particular about cleanliness, bathing daily" google.com/books/edition/Josephine/…
    – DavePhD
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 23:20
  • Bathing was viewed quite differently back then. Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 5:22

3 Answers 3

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I obtained the purported citation Lettres d’amour à Joséphine (Fayard, 1981), which was also mentioned by Chantal Jacquet in Le Monde in 2013. Page 155 does not contain anything like the phrase “Ne te lave pas, j'accours et dans huit jours je suis là”. It is a personal letter about Napoleon sending some decorative plants to Josephine and complaining about a blister on his arm. I don't see any other mention of odor in this book (and others didn't either).

I additionally searched two books by Chantal Jacquet which she wrote about odor: À vue de nez (2022) and Philosophie de l'odorat (2010). The latter book reproduces the false citation on page 104. Unfortunately, I could not get any hint from this book of where her confusion about this citation came from.

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It was an urban legend years before the alleged 1981 origin

I was able to find some snippets and they mostly throw doubt on it being a real Napoleon quote, not least because it's been attributed to so many other people. (There's no evidence that any of them said it either!) Because they come from Google Books, I can't be certain that the years are accurate, though I tried to verify each one by searching for other years.

L'Entente du couple, 1970:

«J'arrive, ne te lave pas...» écrivait Napoléon à Joséphine. Je pense souvent à ce cri de sensualité lorsque je vois ces affiches publicitaires invitant à bannir toute odeur corporelle et à transformer tout corps en fraîche salade.

Translation via Google:

"I'm coming, don't wash..." wrote Napoleon to Josephine. I often think of this cry of sensuality when I see these advertising posters inviting to banish all body odor and to transform any body into a fresh salad.

Des Français: roman, 1970:

...heureuse de briller par un détail qu'elle tenait de Francis, dit que cette négligence avait peut - être un fond aristocratique, puisque Henri IV écrivait à sa maîtresse: «Ne te lave pas, j'arrive.» Ce roi prétendait, du reste, qu'un bon gentilhomme doit avoir «les pieds fumants et l'aisselle suète».

Translation via Google:

...happy to shine by a detail she had learned from Francis, said that this negligence had perhaps an aristocratic background, since Henri IV wrote to his mistress: "Don't wash yourself, I'm coming." This king claimed, moreover, that a good gentleman should have "steaming feet and sweaty armpits."

Skin Health and Beauty, 1969:

Baudelaire, who had been vacationing in the south of France, upon deciding to return to Paris telegraphed his mistress, “Ne te lave pas. J'arrive demain.” (Don't wash. I'm coming home tomorrow.)

An American Romance: The Alan Poems, a Journal, 1969:

Was it Baudelaire, to his mistress, sent the wire 'Due back in Paris in three days; don't wash'?

Before that, nothing

For something that was allegedly said by several famous people who died over a hundred years prior, there is no trail in Google Books dating back any further than that. It's not in Les lettres ardentes de Napoléon à Joséphine or Napoleon's Letters to Josephine. The latter, however, has some other quotes by Napoleon about baths:

  • Corvisart tells me that it is a good sign that the baths are having the desired effect, and that your health will soon be re-established.
  • You say nothing of your health nor of the effect of the baths
  • Advise me by the courier what you intend to do, and how soon you expect to end your baths.

With this explanatory text:

The waters.—Mlle. d'Avrillon describes them and their effect—the sulphur baths giving erysipelas to people in poor health. Corvisart had accompanied the Empress, to superintend their effect, which was as usual nil.

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  • 3
    Yeah sounds like the doing of a bored and possibly greedy historian, who wanted to get famous so faked up something. Without the actual letter, it's impossible to prove such ridiculous claims. Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 9:30
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    If she was taking sulfur baths, I can certainly understand why he'd ask her not to bathe! :)
    – jpa
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 9:51
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    Also a bit of a racist stereotype, given that all of the purported sources for the quote are French, no doubt actually made up by English or Americans who have long had this opinion of the French. Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 20:42
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    @DarrelHoffman: Well, a stereotype, but by the time these claims were made, Americans weren't generally treating various nationalities from Western Europe as separate races; they'd all become "white". But yes, national/cultural stereotypes are still a thing. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 0:06
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    @Yakk I don't understand, you suggest that the French are a race? The American use of the word "racism" is extremely imprecise. The primary message of the comment (if I get it correctly) was that it is not a racist stereotype but a national one. It seems like a great over-exaggeration to say it is a "racism apology" because (if I understand it correctly), it is only focusing on the language side and does not claim anything about morality.
    – skywalker
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 19:25
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The earliest example I see so far of this claim is from 1963:

See Car and Driver volume 8, June 1963, page 75 (alternative link to University of Michigan source):

Your room , which will be spotless , will cost you about six or seven dollars a day including your petit déjeuner , rolls and coffee . If your wife complains about the bath being down the hall or perhaps not on the same floor , tell her what Napoleon wrote his empress , Josephine : " I'll be home in a fortnight ; don't bathe . "

Also, the July 1967 L'Express (alternative links to Indiana University and University of Michigan sources) says:

MEDECINE

Le vrai moteur de la sexualité

Rentrant de campagne , Napoléon ne manquait jamais d'avertir Joséphine : « J'arrive , ne te lave pas . » Ce qui était la marque chez l'Empereur d'un sûr instinct biologique , affirment les spécialistes modernes des problèmes de l'odorat.

Ils étaient réunis à Cannes , le mois dernier , pour le V Symposium européen de leur discipline, et ils étaient tous d'accord pour constater , peut - être avec une pointe de nostalgie : « Peu à peu , la civilisation a fait passer au premier plan certains types de sensations , la vue , le toucher , l'ouïe. Mais si l'on en croit l'exemple animal , le vrai moteur de la sexualité , c'est l'odorat . »

Le fait est connu depuis longtemps chez les insectes L'odeur des dames papillons fait accourir les mâles, de plusieurs kilomètres à la ronde . En reconstituant cette En reconstituant cette odeur de façon synthé- [end of column]

L'EXPRESS 10-16 juil . 1967

(issue 838, the week of 10-16 July 1967, page 29, right most column)

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    Google Books doesn't always give accurate dates of publication! My best guess for the year of publication is 1992. See for example the results for 1990 which are more visible.
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 12:36
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    @Laurel if you search "Juillet 1967" and similar within the book you get lots of hits, google will show partial images. I added one to the answer. Google is wrong about years, but here google is specifying the month and the inside search matches the month.
    – DavePhD
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 13:34
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    @Laurel the one mention of 1990 is in a sentence about further plans, versus 69 results for "1967".
    – DavePhD
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 13:49
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    @JohnBollinger , ok, sorry, I fixed in the answer
    – DavePhD
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 19:36
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    I believe this would be better with an English translation.
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 18:10

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