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United States History

History StInKs!

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Rowie K., "Em literally holds her nose . . . " October 10, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

That is to say, the past smells!  Sometimes it smelled good . . . sometimes not so good.   Sometimes it may have smelled good at the time; but wouldn’t make it in our time and vice versa.  And, of course, smell preferences and reactions can be very personal — it’s a matter of taste — I mean smell.

The past had the whole spectrum of odiferous delights and repulsions – just like the present.  Some historians really would like to know how the past smelled.  The April 2011 American Historical Review–april-2011 carried: “Follow Your Nose?  Smell, Smelling, and Their Histories” by Mark S.R. Jenner.  Jenner’s article begins with a quote from Roy Porter, who said, “Today’s history comes deodorized. How many historians have given us the smell of previous societies? Researchers have been all too silent, repelled, it seems, by modern hygienic sensibilities even from contemplating the stench of the past [].”  Sniff around a little by doing a simple Google search, search “history of smell” – you’ll find some interesting stuff.  There was even an effort to have movies smell   Not just bad movies – truly smelly and scented ones!

Smell can be very personal and an integral and evocative part of our memories.  David Owen’s 25 January 2010 New Yorker piece entitled “The Dime Store Floor ” is an example.  Its abstract begins:

. . .  The first time the writer walked into the grove of pines behind his house in Connecticut, he experienced a form of time travel: the trees smelled exactly like the summer camp he attended when he was thirteen. But the trees soon lost their power to send him back in time. Today, his yard smells only like his yard. On a recent trip to Kansas City, where the writer grew up, he and his sister Anne visited a number of places they remembered from their childhood to find out whether they still smelled the same. They visited a medical building where their dentist’s office used to be. The smell was familiar but disappointingly faint. The most enduring and evocative remembered smell from their growing up, the writer and his sister decided, was the smell of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where they had gone on many field trips. As they drove to the museum, the writer was able to generate a mental simulacrum of its smell. Yet, once he and Anne were back inside the building, they could find no trace. The smell was gone. Eerily, today, the writer can no longer reproduce the old smell of the museum in his mind.

Nuala Bugeye, "Wake up and smell the flowers" October 10, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Interested in writing something smelly?  If you’re curious about what historians have done with smell —  and historical reenactors, major historical sites and living history museums have a lot to offer here as well – you could begin with America: History and Life and Historical Abreacts searches.  In AHL you’ll find: “The Nose Knows: The Sense of Smell in American History” and in HA: “Follow Your Nose?  Smell, Smelling, and their Histories.” 

For fun: Oxford University Press publishes a series of children’s books entitled “Smelly Old History.”  Volumes in the series are suggestive: Mouldy Mummies, Medieval Muck, Vile Vikings, Roman Aromas, Victorian Vapours, and Tudor Odours.  For the latter: “Take a deep breath and step back into the world of Tudor Odours. Visit the stinking streets, riddled with rats and plague, or the perfumed country houses of the very rich.” Things smelled so bad for a while that folks thought smell alone carried disease.  They had a word for it: Miasma.  See Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map – for smell aficionados I recommend the first chapter.  This book is about cholera and a whole lot of really stinky stuff.  Although, as you probably surmise, stink was not really the issue – but sometimes “where’s there’s smoke there’s fire.”  (That’s not quite right . . . you know what I mean.) Check it out in the Wikpedia and the Oxford English Dictionary or,  if you must be more authoritative amd detailed, Gale Virtual Reference Library

If you’d like to get a little philosophical, you can check out our philosophy department’s Carolyn Korsmeyer’s Savouring Disgust: The Foul and Fair in Aesthetics   It’s an Amazon look-inside-the-book book.  Do a search on smell and you’ll find some ideas to think out.  To come to think about it, search on smell in Philosopher’s Index and The Philosophy Documentation Center  Also use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  There’s a lot on smell; but shockingly not a dedicated entry on smell.  There is one on sounds though: Something smells wrong here?  Be sure to also use the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy  It lacks dedicated entries for sound and smell.  These are great sources if you really want to think about smell.  Cognition in the service of sensation, umh.  What does that mean?  Heck, there are a lot of famous quotes explicitly referring to smell.  For a whiff, visit this

No search would be complete without trolling through Google Books and Google Scholar  In Google Books, just type “history of smell”.  Do the same in Google Scholar.  In the latter you’ll find that 295 publications cite Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell and there’s also Jim Drobnick’s The Smell Culture Reader.  Check them out; they both have previews in Google Books.  You can also use a library catalog — the subject heading is “Smell – history and odors – history.”  Use WorldCat, becuase there are more books on smell than those in our libraries.

John Leslie, "Bloodhound Trials . . . " October 10 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Smell is a pretty serious and revealing thing. Ask your cat about smell (although dogs have a better sense of smell, most cats usually smell better), of course if your cat could talk he wouldn’t be a cat, but if he could speak he’d probably tell you how very sorry he is for your pathetic olfactory capabilities.  And imagine what your dog would say!  Not to say that people can’t smell (I mean smell and be smelled) – we just have a hard time smelling anything with the nuance of a cat, let alone a dog (or most other animals).  Is that why we have such a reluctance to record or imagine smell in our historical accounts?

So what’s the point: Let your mind wander on the Web and in the library, who knows what you’ll find out and what connections you may make?  Wander and wonder . . . what’s the connection?

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