The scent of the past

The Boston Globe has a fascinating piece on the growing movement to incorporate smells into the historical record and the technology that is allowing us to ‘record’ scents.

To put smells in a historical context is to add a whole dimension to how we understand the world. Boston’s Back Bay, for instance, has at different times been filled with the smells of a saltwater marsh, a cesspool, horses, and car exhaust. Some smells vanish, new ones arise, and some shift in a way that tells a cultural story.

The jasmine and leather notes of a Chanel perfume from 1927 help us understand the boldly androgynous women of the flapper era, just as the candied sweetness of the latest Victoria’s Secret fragrance tells us something about femininity today. What we smell in our cities, homes, and natural spaces is just as much a part of our lives as the what we see, hear, and touch.

It’s a fantastic article that touches on everything from the neuroscience of smell, to the cultural meaning of certain scents, to the science of storing and recreating odours from the past.

Link to fantastic article ‘A Whiff of History’.

4 thoughts on “The scent of the past”

  1. Great post. Those interested in the topic may want to track down Alain Corbin’s wonderful classic “The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination” (1986). He really pioneered the idea that the senses may have a history.

  2. This is a great note. I’ve always thought that an awesome research or thesis area would be “How smells and tastes have shaped civilization.” Maybe done in parts: Ancient (pre-Greco-Roman), Classical (Greek and Roman times), Middle Ages, and of course today. It would include things like the search for a shorter route to India — largely driven by the spice trade, emperor Nero’s “burning smell”, the constant desire for new and exciting deserts in royal France (maybe all of Europe), today’s fascination with articifial tastes and sweeteners, and other oddities associated with these senses that are left out of the mainstream due to the diffuclty of objective analysis and historical references.

  3. This is an utterly fascinating subject to me as I have experienced the very same phenomena as described in this article. I have memory of a certain smell from my childhood that seems to be unique in its time that I haven’t experienced in nearly fifty years but one I recall very vividly that comes to mind every now and then.

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