An American Ideal Gas Law: Ben Franklin and the Perfumed Fart

Dear CF,

I will compose a more dignified response soon but it is true that Everybody Poops, that no one’s smells more rosy by any other name, and that everyone, no matter how clean their pants crease, will have a silly day thrust upon them.

I’ve had such a day, having just been sexually propositioned by my adolescent cousin on Facebook. His opening salvo was informal and surprising. He riddled the follow-up with eager and expressive emoticons. I thought to myself, “Millicent, tread lightly. This could, if mishandled, turn into a Judy Blume moment (Boy Version).”

Facebook SOP dictate that the older cousin must—with the senseless dedication of a captain on a sinking ship—throw him or herself on the grenade of cool. “Hello Cousin,” I typed. Clunky, capitalized, and unpunctuated, I judged it, a two-word symphony of awkward that would tamp down amorous feelings in the ardentest of aardvarks, the stoatiest of stoats.

It worked. The offer was (as I suspected) a mistake. His message was intended for a tasty other. A strangled inquiry about my health erupted into a dazzling series of squinty-eyed emoticons and I opted to keep the poor boy—here, a hormonal but pitiable trout—dangling on my treble hook just a little longer than was absolutely necessary, asking him about his college classes and which was his favorite and what was he getting for Christmas, before he announced that he was very tired and needed to go to bed.

I call him a fish because I will have much to say about fish in other connections soon, as the subject is in the (farty) air and—I mean this in all seriousness—I can’t imagine a more fitting end to 2009 than with a discussion of fish and academies and eating and poop. And cabbages and kings.

Which brings me (and you!) to Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on farting. Written around 1781 and addressed to The Royal Academy of Farting, here is what Franklin envisioned in an alternate universe where his contribution to society was not electricity, the library, or the five-dollar bill:

A) A pun on Fart-hing.


B) This:

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

That so retained contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.

Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mixed with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes.

Your gasbag,