Despite decades of debate, however, it only took one smallpox death to settle the inoculation question in France once and for all. On May 10, 1774, King Louis XV died after a two-week illness—an inexorable, excruciating, and very public demise. We rarely hear about the 10 other courtiers and palace servants who died during the same outbreak. But the new king, Louis XVI, was sufficiently alarmed that he took the controversial step of submitting to inoculation on June 18, 1774. His two younger brothers, the Comte de Provence and the Comte d’Artois, were inoculated at the same time—in other words, the entire line of succession.Share
The procedures were a success. The milliners of Paris, attuned to current events that could be translated into quick profits, commemorated the momentous event with an allegorical headdress dubbed the pouf à l’inoculation. Perched atop a woman’s powdered and pomaded coiffure, it depicted the serpent of Asclepius, representing medicine; a club, representing conquest; a rising sun, representing the king; and a flowering olive branch, symbolizing the peace and joy resulting from the royal inoculation. In commemorating the royal inoculation, the milliners and their female clients helped to publicize it, and the practice—like the pouf—instantly became all the rage.
Sadly, no image of the pouf à l’inoculation has survived. At the time, fashion magazines weren't published regularly, and trends came and went so fast that they rarely left a visual record. But as late as 1785, a fashion plate depicted a hat trimmed with a white-spotted "ribbon à l’inoculation," undoubtedly referencing the pustules of smallpox. At a time when many people still bore the scars of la petite vérole, it must have been a powerful and poignant fashion statement.
Crucially, the pouf à l’inoculation wasn't an explicit critique of the 18th-century anti-vaxxers, but simply a visible expression of support for inoculation. Instead of picking a fight, it presented inoculation as something normal and harmless. And because the pouf was worn by the fashionable elite of society, it went one step further, making inoculation look not just normal, but also cool. (Read more.)