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What Did the Past Smell Like?

Get a whiff of a new sensory experience in history.

When people entertain transporting to the past, 19th-century Berlin, say, they don’t often imagine a dramatic shift in smellscape.…By Ann-Sophie Barwich

When people entertain transporting to the past, 19th-century Berlin, say, they don’t often imagine a dramatic shift in smellscape. The inhabitants talk differently. Their fashion looks strange. But what do those streets smell like? Suddenly, it hits you—a texture of reality carried by a strong whiff of … horse manure. It may very well be that, among all your sense organs, your nose would register the starkest change.

Even so, it’s a tricky thing to pin down smellscapes of the past. Smells are notoriously fickle. They are not suited for permanent capture or easily imagined. Odors are caused by airborne compounds emanating from materials. The moment you open a perfume bottle it releases the very volatiles of which it is composed. (A museum of historical perfumes would come to a foreseeable end if it adopted an open-bottle policy.) That’s why the sensory recreation of history presents an intriguing scientific challenge1: How do we know whether we’ve succeeded?

SCENTS AND SENSIBILITIES: Using state of the art techniques in history research, a new project called Odeuropa aims to conserve the smells of Europe’s past. You can watch a video introduction here.odeuropa.eu

That’s a question with which the minds behind “Odeuropa” will have to grapple. Launching this January, it is a $3.3 million, three-year, multinational project on the collection and recreation of smells in 16th- to early 20th-century Europe that will marry historical and literary analysis with machine learning and chemistry. The project is pioneering and also, in a year of COVID-19 induced anosmia with sensory-deprived lockdowns, timely.2 We became aware of our need for environmental stimulation—and the undervalued power of smell.

The difficulty is that descriptions of past scents are people’s stated impressions. Labels express conceptualizations. They are not the same as perceptions. They also may not tell us specifically what materials were present. As horticulturalists know, a rose by any other name consists of hundreds of different volatiles and miscellaneous fragrant notes. The smells of Bulgarian roses are not the same as the roses in Kew Garden London.

Smell can enhance the feeling of visiting the past.

Descriptions of odor also are culturally mediated. A 2016 study showed that even French and Franco-Canadians today may not agree in their experience and evaluation of the same odor3: For the French, for example, wintergreen was rated much less pleasantly than for French-Canadians. “In France, wintergreen is used more in medicinal products than in Canada, where it is found more in candy,” a press release for the study stated. “Anise was rated similarly in two cultures but was described more often as ‘licorice’ in Quebec and as ‘anise’ in France.” Intricate cross-cultural differences make for intriguing anecdotes. But they are hard to document.

That’s part of the reason why history is built on preserving enduring visual and tactile artifacts, such as paintings, writings, architectural sites, or simply stones and bones. What’s missing is the material sensation of immediate reality that only direct sensory contact seems to provide. It is no coincidence that signs reading, “Please, don’t touch the artifacts (no, seriously, don’t do it),” are plastered around museums. Yet we deprive ourselves of connecting with humanity’s past by focusing on materials stripped of their sensory dimensions.


Odeuropa opens up a new sensory experience of history. The researchers will create a catalog of past scents by digging through 250,000 images and thousands of texts (in seven languages), ranging from medical descriptions of smells in textbooks to labels of fragrances in novels or magazines. Machine learning will help to cross-analyze the plethora of descriptions, contexts, and occurrence of odor names (such as tobacco, lavender, and probably horse manure). This catalog serves as the conceptual basis for perfumers and chemists to create fragrant molecules fitting 120 of these descriptors.

Such recreation poses an experimental challenge that is worth following over the next couple of years. Previous experimental recreations of past scents involved the synthesis of similar compounds (if you have their chemical structure and qualitative descriptors—for example of preserved rare samples). Or it might involve blending currently available compounds into mixtures that resemble a specific description of a historical smell.

Developing a better sense of the past and its loss may help us preserve and enrich the sensory present.

How to design a museum of scents? Part of the answer already exists. Mandy Aftel, a natural perfumer and author of the 2014 book Fragrant, curates in Berkeley, California, a library of curious scents. The New York Times said the place “manages to contain the olfactory history of the world: hundreds of natural essences, raw ingredients and antique tinctures gathered from every corner of the globe, and all available for visitors to smell.” Odeuropa identifies an omission that it aims to rectify: the increasing absence of material presence that smells seem to convey. Smells may seem intangible and immaterial to many people. But what is the last thing that people give away of their beloved departed? Their clothes, carrying the last intimate trace of a person’s being: their scent.

Part of the Odeuropa team is a research project called Smell of Heritage, carried out by Cecilia Bembibre, a doctoral student in heritage science at University College London. Heritage scientists look to come up with new ways to study materials and collections that make up cultural heritage, as well as how the environment interacts with it. Bembibre, for example, analyzes and archives culturally essential aromas. “In the heritage context,” the Smell of Heritage website states, “experiencing what the world smelled like in the past enriches our knowledge of it, and, because of the unique relation between odors and memories, allows us to engage with our history in a more emotional way.”

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Preservationists ignored this for a long time. “A tradition of denigration of the sense of smell can be traced back to the Enlightenment,” the preservationist-artist Jorge Otero-Pailos wrote in a 2016 paper, “and there is still surprisingly little serious research on a topic that, on the face of things, might be central to the discipline.”4

Anyone living abroad traveling back home can tell you that each culture, every area, all localities have their unique smellscape: the particular foods and spices (street vendors, bakeries, family recipes), and the various kinds of industrial fumes or plant emanations. I really know I am back in Germany, not when the plane has landed (or I hear the announcement in its unmistakably staccato melody), but when I pass the scent of dusty cold cigarette smoke at Frankfurt airport’s train station.

We should not forget about our desire to sensually experience.

Otero-Pailos’ preservationist art captures and illuminates this sort of experience. On his website, Otero-Pailos writes, “I gravitate towards monuments, the objects that entire cultures latch onto in order to transition into new phases, to remember, to celebrate, to come together.” By preserving smells in architectural sites, his work creates a platform to investigate the environmental and cultural history of buildings as active and abandoned social sites.

Such research helps uncover and evaluate the impact of the world’s changing materiality on society. Fish or meat markets and olfactorily rich gardens have vanished (when have you last experienced a rose that actually carries a deep rose smell?). They made way for shops selling electronics and bubble tea. Smells present sensory witnesses of the materials in our environment. Policies often originate in these environmental signals instead of abstract societal models. You may have escaped some stinks of the past, but you are benefitting from their consequences. For example, according to the historian Melanie Kiechle, fears of industrial fumes and stench in late 19th-century America prompted countermeasures.5 One was creating a green lung at the heart of a densely populated metropolis—marking Central Park’s birth in Manhattan.

The historian and author of Smell in the Eighteenth Century William Tullett, also part of the Odeuropa project, highlights the importance of thinking about authenticity in both its sensory and historical expression. With historic spaces, smell can help lend a sense of authenticity to the experience of being there. It enhances the feeling of visiting the past, and thereby a more enduring appreciation for it. Can we experience these smells just as our historical predecessors did? That might be a stretch. A Parisian in the 18th century won’t share the same judgment of the fumes of rotten fish with the same foreign fascination as our weary time traveler. That is the inherent cognitive challenge of smell—a challenge that now presents an opportunity for sensory exploration.


There is a wondrous irony that smell, the sense associated with memory (and Proust’s overexposed madeleine), has been sidelined in our recollections of history. Our autobiographical memories are filled with vivid smell episodes—the dust-rubber cloud in my father’s garage, the bittersweet whiff of that cheap perfume of your teenage crush ... The sense of smell also poses interesting neuroscientific puzzles here. It is the only sense that bypasses the thalamus and has almost immediate access to the core cortex—including the hypothalamus, involved in the processing of new memories and associative learning. How the brain makes sense of scents has only recently garnered proper attention. How the brain makes memories with scent now makes for the next neural frontier.6

Developing a better sense of the past and its loss may help us preserve and enrich the sensory present. Modern life, in the 21st century, has a different sense of materiality than in the past—including the past of the previous centuries (like the foul and fragrant richness of 18th-century France7). Even the lost scents of the past few decades (that alienating static smell sitting in the corridors of the bureaus of socialist East Berlin). Cityscapes became increasingly homogeneous in their sensory appeal. Today, we find the increased presence of the same shops, products, and foods almost everywhere. This homogenization has also affected our habits as travelers and somewhat dulled our sense of curiosity.

Our qualitative associations with food and drink have also changed. Some of these developments resulted from food shortages during and after the two World Wars. The impact of the industrial flavor and cosmetic industries in our daily life, with its ongoing de-scenting and re-scenting of commercial products, created a unique sensory environment for modern humans. (Many children don’t know the flavor of freshly pressed orange juice and have come to associate orange with its extracted counterfeit. The same holds for vanilla and other products.)

These developments were not malicious in origin, as people skeptical of the chemical sciences may think. The work of the historian Nadia Berenstein captures the industrialization of our food products during the 20th century. It often originated in economic necessity: Producers of ersatz coffee, from malt barley, for example, tasked researchers like Tadeus Reichstein, a Swiss chemist and Nobel laureate who identified nearly 30 coffee aroma components with his colleague Hermann Staudinger, with making malt coffee smell like real coffee.

Our biosphere is in flux, too, and with it the richness of our sensory heritage. Consider the challenge of climate change with a diminishing species diversity (flowers and many other organic life forms). Smells, once lost, are impossible to recover—unless we try to preserve them. Perhaps the last expedition with a 19th-century Alexander von Humboldt flair is Givaudan’s “Scent Trek.” One of the two largest commercial fragrance producers, Givaudan, sends out researchers to capture the scent “headspace” of rare or less widespread flowers—like the plants Biangai dancers in Papua New Guinea use for decoration—as inspiration for new fragrances. (Such is the value of new scents to the multi-billion-dollar enterprise of commercial fragrance production today!)

The historical conservation of smell visualizes (for lack of a better term) our need to directly experience and engage with the changes in our history’s materiality. In a world accelerating the digitization of knowledge and the virtual documentation of other people’s lives, we should not forget about our desire to sensually experience. It’s vital, for me at least. Things like virtual reality, which can persuasively simulate visual, auditory, and even tactile sensations, won’t feel convincing enough without also incorporating smell, the next and perhaps ultimate frontier, given how difficult it is to substitute. A fan of the outdoors like me wants to get a whiff of the horse poop.


Ann-Sophie Barwich is a cognitive scientist and empirical philosopher. She is the author of Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind. Follow her on Twitter @smellosopher.


References

1. Barwich, A.-S. & Rodriguez, M. Fashion fades, Chanel No. 5 remains: Epistemology between style and technology. History of Science and Humanities 43, 367-384 (2020).

2. Barwich, A.S. Going viral: What COVID-19-related loss of smell reveals about how the mind works. Statnews.com (2020).

3. Ferdenzi, C., et al. Individual differences in verbal and non-verbal affective responses to smells: Influence of odor label across cultures. Chemical Senses 42, 37-46 (2017).

4. Jasper, A. & Otero-Pailos, J. Smell and preservation. Future Anterior 13, 3-7 (2016).

5. Kiechle, M.A. An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA (2019).

6. Shepherd, G. Neurogastronomy Columbia University Press, New York, NY (2011).

7. Scott, J.W. Olfactory Vigilance. The New York Times (1986).


Lead image: Just dance / Shutterstock

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