Benjamin Franklin was many things: printer, inventor, postmaster, turkey-zapper, constitution-signer, and connoisseur of fart jokes.
The founding father fancied flatus. So much, actually, that in 1781 he penned an essay dedicated to the thunder down under.
Franklin lived in Paris at the time, serving as US Ambassador to France. There, he heard that the Royal Academy at Brussels was requesting scientific essays and would award prizes for the best papers. The news annoyed Franklin. He thought scientists were falling out of touch with reality. Year after year, they churned out pompous papers that didn’t make life better for the common man. Science should be practical, Franklin thought. Science should help everyday problems. Science should, you know, make farts smell good.
To the Royal Academy…
So Franklin wrote a mock letter, "To the Royal Academy,” which opened explaining why people try to restrain and contain their windy emissions:
"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.
Franklin argued that holding back gas could be painful, even life threatening. If science could improve the smell, maybe people would break wind freely:
“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.”
Franklin urges the academy to “Discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreeable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.”
Because who needs cologne when your air biscuit freshens the room with the aroma of blooming daisies?
An Idea Worth a FART-hing
Franklin’s letter was a joke, of course. He never sent it to the academy. Instead, he mailed it to Richard Price, a British philosopher and friend of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Price was a member of London’s Royal Society, and he would’ve appreciated Franklin’s jab at academia, especially its closing. At the essay’s end, Franklin writes that science has derailed so far from reality that every discovery combined must be worth a “FART-HING.”
(In case you’re wondering, fragrant flatulence probably isn’t possible. When you smell a flatus, you’re actually catching a whiff of hydrogen sulfide and methanethiol. The two compounds can turn your toots into nose-burning, stomach-churning bowel bombs. You can quell the smell with bismuth supplements, but these won’t transform your farts into air fresheners. They’ll just knock your stinkers scentless.)
Jonathan Swift: Master of the Gasser
Franklin wasn’t the only believer in the art of the fart. Sixty years earlier, Jonathan Swift—a master of satire and author of Gulliver’s Travels—wrote an essay titled “The Benefit of Farting Explain’d,” published in a pamphlet in 1722.
The paper’s title page is peppered with puns. Swift hides under the pseudonym “Don Fartinhando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Craccow.” The essay is “translated into English at the Request and for the Use of the Lady Damp-Fart, of Her-fart-shire” by “Obadiah Fizle, Groom of the Stool to the Princess of Arse-Mini in Sardinia.” Oh, and it was also reviewed by a “College of Fizz-icians.”
Seriously. We can’t make this up.
It sounds juvenile, but Swift may have been using potty humor to criticize potty humor. By the 18th century, flatulence had become taboo. Farting was rude, and gas-passing was merely raw material for crude jokes (and in some cases, subject to censorship law.) But it hadn’t always been that way—farts had a proud literary history. For centuries, authors had used scatology as a serious symbol for mortality, decay, and impurity. Dante, St. Augustine, Chaucer, Marlowe, Dryden, and even Martin Luther wrote about cutting the cheese, using flatulence as a literary symbol and even a political tool.
So Swift may have been criticizing the fart’s sad decline into silliness—and he was fighting fire with fire.
Inside “The Benefits”
The essay is divided into four parts, detailing gas’s relationship with law, society, and science. The second section, however, may be the most inventive: After clarifying the nature, essence, and definition of the common fart, Swift explains why it’s bad to bottle up your tailwind—and offers a (sexist) theory to one of life’s mysteries:
“I shall next enquire into the ill consequence of suppressing [gas], which . . . causes Cholicks, hystericks, rumblings, belching, spleen, etc, but in the women of a more strong constitution, it vents itself intirely in talkativeness; hence we have a reason, why women are more talkative than men.”
Swift says it’s better to let one rip than hold it inside. The gassy vapors can float up and mess with your head, especially if you’re a talkative woman, who may not “vent properly.” Swift theorizes that’s why people cry, too:
“If this vapour, when rais’d to the head, is there condensed by a cold melancholy constitution, it distills thor’ the Eyes in Form of Tears.”
He captures his thesis with the nugget: “Whoth stop’t at one end, burst out."
I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. “Une figure quelconque donnee, on demande d’y inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnee”. I was glad to find by these following Words, “l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE”, that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis’d greater Utility.
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 retain’d 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 mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.
That this is not a chimerical Project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations. That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Smell. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may any where give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed. But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter contain’d in such Places, and render it rather pleasing to the Smell, who knows but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produc’d in and issuing from our Bowels? This is worth the Experiment. Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water. A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in Nature, to find Means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water?
For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick’d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! The Knowledge of Newton’s mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack’d by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels? Especially if it be converted into a Perfume: For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction. The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a Liberty of Expressing one’s Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human Happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight & die for. — In short, this Invention, if compleated, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms. And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers above-mentioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your “Figure quelconque” and the Figures inscrib’d in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a