July 24, 2011

"There's a growing movement to make sure that smells are incorporated into historical records."

"Historians, perfumers, and florists all want to make sure we can smell the past."
I've read that certain countries have a "smell", like Russia supposedly smells like a combination of cucumber peels, diesel oil and some other things. That's how history records smell, through description - Emile Zola has amazing passages on the smell of 1860s Paris in his novel The Kill, basically like dieing [sic] flowers and musty carpet. Maybe we need historians trained in the art of fiction who can evocatively record smells.

38 comments:

madAsHell said...

Soooo....isn't this a variation on: My shit don't stink!!

Imagine the fun the revisionists would have with this!!

oh! oh! Bonus question!! - What smell would they associate with the Obama presidency?? I mean, he stopped fartin' rainbows a long time ago.

Lincolntf said...

Paris smells like sour milk. Frankfurt smells like moldy leather.

Ann Althouse said...

Even if you could smell the smells that people smelled at some time in the past, since you weren't living through that time, structuring all the other senses and memories into your brain, you won't have the same associations. Without that context for the smell, you won't really smell what they smelled. Is it worth recording anyway, that disembodied smell? Why?

Jose_K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jose_K said...

In New York, circa 1900, there were added to the street 45 pounds a day of horse manure.
Juilan Simon Ultimate resource II.
Nop, i dont want to know the odor of history

MayBee said...

Without that context for the smell, you won't really smell what they smelled. Is it worth recording anyway, that disembodied smell? Why?

Good point.

I always wonder what the people on Survivor smell like. I imagine it is bad, but you never seen one person recoil from the scent of another. They grow accustomed to it.
Yet I imagine if one of the Survivor contestants walked past me in the grocery store, I would politely cover my nose.

Context is important to sensory experience.

edutcher said...

An old line from the "Ironside" show in reply to a young woman who said she would have liked to live in San Francisco before the Earthquake, "Oh, no, my dear. The whole world smelled of horses.".

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Quite an interesting thought, given that smells immediately plunge you back in time. Whenever I smell a pepper tree, I'm back on my elementary school playground. Whenever I smell diesel smoke, I'm on the deck of an Alaska troller.

But what I've always wondered is how did people smell. How did Elizabeth I smell? Gautama Siddhartha? Boss Tweed?

ET1492 said...

That reminds me, I think I left the scent tap on in my apartment.

Jose_K said...

How did Elizabeth I smell? She like most people of the time must stink. Bath are an american tradition. In the north,the protestants saw the body as a temple that must be clean.
In the south, natives liked to be clean.
Until, the industrial revolution, when people began working togheter bath and deodorants were the luxury of the very rich in continental europe.And still seems to be. Young europeans bath themselves but old people in France smell like rotten bodies. I wanted to jump by the window when i traveled in train between the french border with Spain and Paris.

chickenlittle said...

I'll bet the Althouse house smelled like teen spirit in the 90s.

chickenlittle said...

I love the kind of places that smell like an ol' factory.

Jose_K said...

When i said american , i meant the continent. South American natives

Ann Althouse said...

Teen Spirit is a deodorant.

chickenlittle said...

Kathleen Hanna said that first.

The Pagan Temple said...

You can experience France without leaving your home. Just go a week without bathing, then take a deep sniff of your arm pits. Make sure you wear the same socks that whole week and you can take a quick side trip to Belgium.

LarsPorsena said...

So history books are going to have a scratch-and-sniff page?

Ignorance Is Bliss said...

Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air--moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh--felt as if it were being exhaled into one's face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time. In New Orleans, in the French Quarter, miles from the barking lungs of alligators, the air maintained this quality of breath, although here it acquired a tinge of metallic halitosis, due to fumes expelled by tourist buses, trucks delivering Dixie beer, and, on Decatur Street, a mass-transit motor coach named Desire.

— Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume)

Jose_K said...

Not to mention that the odor of war is more than the sweet smell of napalm in the morning.Verdum: corpses, roasted flesh, dried blood, feces, urine and mustard gas beside the sweet odor of teh prairie

gerry said...

Without that context for the smell, you won't really smell what they smelled. Is it worth recording anyway, that disembodied smell? Why?

Without that context for the events, you won't really experience what they experienced. Is it worth recording anyway, that disembodied experience? Why?

We can't even agree about what the Constitution means. No wonder we keep repeating our mistakes.

gerry said...

So history books are going to have a scratch-and-sniff page?

Why not? National Lampoon once featured a scratch-'n-sniff girl's bike seat in an issue.

Carol said...

I thought Paris in 1986 smelled like urine and cheap perfume.

galdosiana said...

Whenever I smell strong diesel and cigarette smoke, I immediately think I'm in Madrid.

Joe said...

I don't recall what Paris of 1993 smelled like, but there sure was dog shit everywhere.

Scott said...

Kuala Lumpur smells like durian and two-stroke exhaust, laced with open sewer.

traditionalguy said...

Smells need to carry the year and the place that they were bottled in.

Some years will become collector's items.

A fine 1955 North Carolina Paper Mill scent would be in great demand.

But for me a 2011 Rose Bowl would be quite a treat, complete with the smell of tears.

And then there is a 2011 Madison Wisconsin Capitol that has a hint of communist mob in the aftersniff.

Cedarford said...

It is a worthy thing to note that most history and travel is written and talked about without enough attention given to all the senses. Aside from the jokes about dog crap in NYC or Paris...smell is something that is most evocative of a place and roots itself in deep memory. Artists, moviemakers know this too, and regularly seek to find ways to fulfill patrons missing some experiences of the senses...the infamous "smell-o-rama", the artist that wants work touched but fears too much contact would harm it.
We can remember the smells of our wedding day more readily than we can remember some of the guests and speeches. We don't forget the scent of a Thai market, a Parisian Park in spring, the distinct smell of the Louvre vs. an old English castle or Japanese shrine.

Alaska has crisp, clean air. Cleveland always had the scent of remote garbage. Downtown Atlanta the acrid sweat of unwashed black people. A beach on Florida's gulf coast smells different than the Atlantic side, and different than a Cali, Maine, Hawaiian, or Sri Lankan beach. Idaho smells of sage, Connecticut of flowers and gasoline.

Craig said...

I've never tried to dye flowers, but in junior high we had to dye our gym shorts.

A. Shmendrik said...

Jose_K:

45 lbs.? Perhaps every 100 feet. Take a look at the vintage photography on Shorpy. Back in the day it was piled high and deep almost everywhere you looked. It was so omnipresent and abundant, I think you might not need some sophisticated olfactory imaging to convey its pungency and putridness.

Lou Kramer said...

Seoul smells like kimchi. I don't like kimchi or Seoul.

Scott said...

"Downtown Atlanta the acrid sweat of unwashed black people."

Oh Jesus, Cedarford. Take that back. Have a modicum of respect for human dignity.

ironrailsironweights said...

Nothing is finer than the magnificent concentrated aroma (and flavor) emanating from a woman's thick, rich, luxuriant ... oh, to hell with it. Some things just aren't ever coming back :(

Peter

Nichevo said...

Scott said...

"Downtown Atlanta the acrid sweat of unwashed black people."

Oh Jesus, Cedarford. Take that back. Have a modicum of respect for human dignity.

7/24/11 8:59 PM


See, C4, this is what I mean when you say "you sometimes have half a point." Whatever the scientific basis, and I think there is one, it is widely acknowledged that some groups of people have different body odors. I knew a guy in HS...

Anyway, though, do you even realize that you are saying a nasty thing in a nasty way? Is that the objective of your speech, or is it accidental on account of bluntness, or is it a free hit because it "has the added advantage of being true?"

Now I suppose it's no nastier than the widely alleged belief of the Japanese that Westerners smell of meat and dairy products. Details of whether the smells differ based upon diet or upon (racially-based?) differences in the apocrine glands may or may not matter. But I have to say, if a Japanese were to tell me this to my face, I do believe he or she would have a modicum of politesse about it, in order to, as Scott says, respect human dignity.

I'm gonna guess that you mean to be rude, but I just want to give you the chance to say otherwise.

Nichevo said...

OpenID ironrailsironweights said...

Nothing is finer than the magnificent concentrated aroma (and flavor) emanating from a woman's thick, rich, luxuriant ... oh, to hell with it. Some things just aren't ever coming back :(

Peter

7/24/11 9:22 PM



Enough of the grossouts, Peter, I'll give you a tip.

Get her SEXUALLY AROUSED and she'll smell just the way you want her to...but it will be FRESH. Me, I like the hair out of my face.

Kirk Parker said...

Scott,

I see you don't know our C4. :-(

Mickey said...

Major in history with a minor in Proust.

kcom said...

A movement? Really?

Civil rights was a movement. This is just an idea. Or an interest. "There's a growing interest to make sure..." Anyone calling this a movement is full of themselves.

Nichevo said...

BTW don't expect a response from him. If he slunk off when I called him a liar in fact, why would he stoop to defend an opinion? He's more the shit-and-run type.