SEPTEMBER 2008 – NO. 26
What the Nose Knows
On remembering and reencountering forgotten smellscapes
My collection of semi-used perfumes is very big by now, although I didn't start wearing lots of them until the early '60s. Before that the smells in my life were all just whatever happened to hit my nose by chance. But then I realized I had to have a kind of smell museum so certain smells wouldn't get lost forever.
Andy Warhol may have saved modern culture without even realizing it.
Memories fade and get harder to find amid the mental clutter of a busy life. For a given smell, the odds that it will produce a riveting flashback shrink with each resniffing. That special scent becomes less special, its links to the past grow steadily weaker. Warhol's solution was ingenious: he would wear a cologne until it built up strong emotional connections, then retire it to his personal smell museum. Once out of active rotation, the cologne's memories were locked in, never to be confused with others. The Warhol wear-and-retire method was unusual but effective. By not switching back and forth between scents, he avoided the loss of memorability that psychologists call interference.
It's easy to reach into the past when the missing link sits on a shelf, clearly labeled. But even a cologne collection has its limits — brands don't live forever. Commercial death occurs when the last bottle comes off the production line, and psychosensory rigor mortis sets in with the last spray from the last bottle. An extinct fragrance triggers no memories. To preserve links to the past, we must preserve the juice itself. How will we know what we're missing when it's not there to smell?
The James Joyce scholar Bernard Benstock concludes that the juice doesn't matter as long as we have literature: "[E]ach work of fiction is posterity-proof. No captured smell specified in Ulysses is ever lost in the rereading or fails to register its full pungency for every new reader." Why is Professor Benstock so sure that every reader gets a noseful from the novel? This seems like wishful thinking. A reader may be able to reimagine a familiar smell, but for one he doesn't know, he's left to guess. To reexperience the smells of times gone by, one needs the actual stuff; without it, written references and therefore literature eventually lose their power.
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." The opening line of John Steinbeck's 1945 novel acknowledged the reek of the fish-processing plants on Cannery Row, but by the 1950s, overfishing had flattened the local sardine population and taken the factories down with it. When he returned to Monterey in 1960, Steinbeck climbed up Fremont Peak for a last panoramic look at the land of his youth. The canneries had disappeared and so had
their "sickening stench"; all that was left was the smell of wild oats on the dry brown hills. It brought to his mind Tom Wolfe's phrase: you can't go home again. Steinbeck had immortalized the smell of Cannery Row on the printed page, but he could no longer inhale the thing itself — and neither could his readers.
When an entire smellscape fades away, especially one familiar to many people, our culture suffers a loss. Take the case of the local tavern. The journalist and pundit H. L. Mencken grew up in Baltimore and accompanied his father — a cigar manufacturer — to the saloons where he sold his product: "In the days before Prohibition, which were also the days before air-cooling, I doted on the cool, refreshing scent of a good saloon on a hot summer day, with its delicate overtones of mint, cloves, hops, Angostura bitters, horse-radish, Blutwurst, and Kartoffelsalat. It was always somewhat dark therein, and there was an icy and comforting sweat upon the glasses."
Mencken couldn't relive his memories in today's gleaming, artfully designed modern brew-pub, but he might feel at home in a place like McSorley's Tavern on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which has been serving ale in an atmosphere little changed since it opened in 1854. Patrons find something soothing in its quiet, almost gloomy interior. As one regular described it, in 1943, "there is a thick, musty smell that acts as a balm to jerky nerves; it is really a rich compound of the smells of pine sawdust, tap drippings, pipe tobacco, coal smoke, and onions. A Bellevue intern once said that for many mental states the smell in McSorley's would be a lot more beneficial than psychoanalysis or sedative pills or prayer."
Coal-burning furnaces disappeared decades ago, and in 2003 the city's mayor banished the sweet, warm notes of tobacco, yet McSorley's retains its distinctive aroma: a dark, hoppy yeastiness livened by the sawdust on the floor. TGI Friday's it's not. McSorley's is the Kong Island of taverns, a place where prehistory lives on — for now.
High on the list of endangered smellscapes is the heartwarming aroma of Grandma's kitchen. Fewer families eat dinner at home, and when they do, they don't cook: they microwave frozen food, which doesn't pack the same emotional punch. The aroma of a tomato sauce simmering all day? Fuhgetaboutit. Chicken roasting in the oven? No one has the time. Apple pie? Pick it up at the A&P. Coffee aroma? Kiss it good-bye: half of Americans in their thirties get their hot java at a store; the proportion is even higher for those under 30. Home-brewed coffee will soon be a game for the elderly.
The extinction of familiar smells leaves the fabric of our culture looking rather moth-eaten. It even affects movie watching. Take the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where a classroom full of students plunge their faces into quiz papers fresh off the ditto machine. The visual joke is lost on anyone born after 1982. The Wite-Outsniffing school secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off will be equally incomprehensible: Correction fluid died with the typewriter.
When most Americans lived on farms, cow manure smelled of income and family security. In rural areas today, newly arrived suburbanites feel differently; they consider dairy farms a public nuisance, and object to the spreading of manure on fields. To defend farming as a way of life, the Planning Commission in Ottawa County, Michigan, put a manure-scented scratch-and-sniff panel in an explanatory brochure for people moving into the area. Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, followed suit with its own smellustrated pamphlet.
It is the natural order of things for smell preferences to change from generation to generation. Back in 1931, a survey ranked the popularity of 55 commonplace odors. The results were not surprising: pine, lilac, rose, and violet were at the top, garlic and perspiration at the bottom. It is odd to look back at some of the other smells included in the survey: witch hazel, sarsaparilla, lard, and turpentine. These were commonplace 77 years ago, but today they seem exotic. When did the last drop of sarsaparilla evaporate from the national smellscape? Did it outlive witch hazel? It would be enlightening to track changes in odor perception and public opinion over the long term. What we need is a Scent Census.
The architect Rem Koolhaas knows how rapidly a smellscape can vanish. "I turned eight in the harbour of Singapore. We did not go ashore, but I remember the smell — sweetness and rot, both overwhelming. Last year I went again. The smell was gone. In fact, Singapore was gone, scrapped, rebuilt. There was a completely new town there."
In the Northeastern United States the smell of burning leaves was once emblematic of autumn. Everyone understood Booth Tarkington's allusion to it in The Magnificent Ambersons: "When Lucy came home the autumn was far enough advanced to smell of burning leaves, and for the annual editorials, in the papers, on the purple haze, the golden branches, the ruddy fruit, and the pleasure of long tramps in the brown forest." The lazy plume of gray smoke from a smoldering leaf pile accompanied the mood of a declining season, a time of endings, sadness, and reflection. Edgar Lee Masters used it to depict an old man's melancholy: "Now, the smell of the autumn smoke, / And the dropping acorns, / And the echoes about the vales / Bring dreams of life."
By now, several generations of children have grown up without burning leaves. The scientist and physician Lewis Thomas thinks this is a shame: "[W]e should be hanging on to some of the great smells left to us, and I would vote for the preservation of leaf bonfires, by law if necessary." For Thomas, playing by a curbside bonfire was fun and risky — the perfect childhood activity. "It was a mistake to change this, smoke or no smoke, carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect or whatever; it was a loss to give up the burning of autumn leaves." Environmentalist sensibilities be damned; Thomas wanted to empty the leaf bags and toss a lit match. His nostalgic fantasy is unlikely to come true; few will ever know the acrid smoke and quiet crackle of burning leaves. The old incense of suburban lawn worship has been replaced by the new roar of leaf blowers and the fumes of half-burned gasoline.
A Blast from the Past
The need to preserve today's smells might not seem urgent — after all, we can always use technology to recover the past. The trouble is that it takes an extraordinary effort to re-create an extinct smell. Take, for example, a 1984 study in which researchers tried to revive food aromas in order to study the composition of prehistoric diets. The smells they were after were locked into a fossilized human turd (politely known as a coprolite). The specimen in question was deposited on a cave floor in Utah about 6,400 years ago. Perfectly preserved by the desert climate, it presented the scientists with a challenge: there was no established protocol for resuscitating ancient poop. Accordingly, the research team spent a month inventing and perfecting their own technique. The first task was to produce a set of reference stool samples for training purposes. They did this by feeding a series of controlled meals (high fiber, mixed fruit and vegetable, peach only, etc.) to a selfless volunteer who saved the resulting output. His contributions were freeze-dried to create pseudo-fossils for pilot testing. To make the practice samples sniffable, they were soaked in a solution of trisodium phosphate until they released enough aroma for analysis. (Note to students planning science fair projects — this step takes a few days.) An experienced sniffer took notes as the volatiles exited the gas chromatograph. Out came a rainbow of aromas: bread, corn, peanut, beer, peach, popcorn, onion, licorice, cauliflower, and meat. The more things the volunteer ate, the more smells the team detected.
Having perfected their technique, the team was ready to analyze the turd of historical interest. They placed the ancient sample in the gas chromatograph and waited for it to yield its secrets. One can imagine the tension in the lab as the instrument warmed up and the researchers hovered over the exhaust vent in anticipation. Would they get something, or was all their preparation in vain?
Within minutes secrets of the ancient bowel movement began to spill from the gas chromatograph. The researchers got a noseful of the expected fecal notes, but along with them came an assortment of food aromas: green leaves, grass, and (weirdly) licorice. Next, they injected a sample from a more recent specimen, one found in Glen Canyon and dating from AD 1100 to 1300. From this one they smelled burned corn, meat, and, once again, licorice. The licorice smell was not an aberration; two plants native to the region smell of it, American licorice and sweet cicely, and both were eaten by Native Americans. Science has succeeded in turning the GC into a time portal.
There are probably a lot of fossilized smells lying on museum shelves; which one will be reanimated next?
If You Build It ....
With entire smellscapes going extinct, there is an urgent need for preservation. Can a scaled-up version of Warhol's personal smell museum solve our crisis of collective memory?
In Salinas, California, the National Steinbeck Center is attempting to preserve Steinbeck's marvelous fictional smellscapes. His inventory in Cannery Row of Doc's workroom in the Western Biological Laboratory, for example, is a sustained tracking shot for the reader's nose:
Behind the office is a room where in aquaria are many living animals; also are the microscopes and the slides and the drug cabinets, the cases of laboratory glass, the work benches and little motors, the chemicals. From this room come smells — formaline, and dry starfish, and sea water and menthol, carbolic acid and acetic acid, smell of brown wrapping paper and straw and rope, smell of chloroform and ether, smell of ozone from the motors, smell of fine steel and thin lubricant from the microscopes, smell of banana oil and rubber tubing, smell of drying wool socks and boots, sharp pungent smell of rattlesnakes, and musty frightening smell of rats. And through the back door comes the smell of kelp and barnacles when the tide is in.
On display at the Steinbeck Center are permanent interactive exhibits in which smells are matched to the books where they appear: horse stable for The Red Pony, mangrove flower for The Log on a live webcam. As its popularity soared, A. titanum got an image makeover; the term "corpse flower" was quietly dropped and the plants were given personalities. In 2001 Miami named its blossom Mr. Stinky. UC Davis countered with Ted, followed by Tabatha in 2004. Cal State Fullerton trumped Tabatha with Tiffy. Tabatha drew only 4,000 live sniffing visitors, but pulled 52,000 hits on the website and 11,000 visits on the webcam. (This is puzzling: Why stare at Mr. Stinky online when you can't smell him?) Merchandising tie-ins are only a matter of time: "Hi, my name is Tiffy. You can watch me on my webcam, and buy my fragrance online."
Mapping the Smellscape
Rudyard Kipling memorialized the transporting power of scent in these widely quoted lines: "Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack— / They start those awful voices o' nights / That whisper, 'Old man, come back!'" Where Proust was concerned with time, Kipling was concerned with space. His theme was homesickness; one smell encountered on two continents. Kipling wasn't being abstract — he had one particular smell in mind, and it shows up in the next, less quoted, stanza: "That must be why the big things pass / And the little things remain, / Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg, / Riding in, in the rain." The smell of wattle, which appears in all five verses, is central to the poem. What, you might ask, is wattle and why did it have this profound effect?
"Lichtenberg" is told in the voice of an Australian trooper from New South Wales who is riding his horse in South Africa during the Boer War. Golden wattle is a plant — a small tree in the mimosa family. It is also the floral emblem of Australia. In the spring it develops a spectacular, golden-yellow flower head that throws off a heavy, floral scent with a honey-like sweetness. Kipling's inspiration was an incident that happened when he was in South Africa: "I saw this Australian trooper pull down a wattle-bough and smell it. So I rode alongside and asked him where he came from. He told me about himself, and added: 'I didn't know they had our wattle over here. It smells like home.' That gave me the general idea for the verses; then all I had to do was to sketch in the background in as few strokes as possible."
The power of smell to evoke a particular place gives the smell museum a unique opportunity for innovative exhibits. Perhaps something along the lines of a recent presentation by the designer Hilda Kozári and the perfumer Bertrand Duchafour. They linked scent and place in a 2006 artwork called AIR — Urban Olfactory Installation. Kozári suspended three translucent globes from the ceiling, each one large enough for a visitor to step into through a hole in the bottom. Around each globe's equator, a thin layer of spongy material was moistened with a city-scent composed by Duchafour. Monochrome video images were projected onto the sphere's surface. By standing inside, one could experience Budapest (Kozári's hometown), Helsinki (where she works), or Paris (just because).
Great balls of smell is a very cool concept. The light, leafy-green scent in the Helsinki ball was pleasingly matched by the green-tinted video. The smells of Budapest and Paris, however, were indistinct, and the three videos, shot from a moving car, made all the cities look the same — an endless loop of roads, bridges, and traffic. I entered the balls with high hopes, but left underwhelmed. I thought of Kipling's poem and yearned for a Lichtenberg experience; I wanted to smell wattle and watch it rain in Australia on one side of the globe, and in South Africa on the other.
If we're serious about preserving scents of place, it's not enough to capture random locations; we should survey an entire geographical area. I once accompanied a New York Observer reporter on a sniffing safari of Manhattan. It was midsummer and New York was ripe, but nailing down the actual source of the malodors wasn't easy. The air in an upscale sports club was a tad stale but not too objectionable. Our most noxious find was a puddle of rancid sidewalk water at University Place and Thirteenth Street. Something terrible had happened there, and the ghost of it lingered in the late afternoon. The Observer reporters conducted walking tours with other nose experts and published the story along with a whimsical odor map of the city.
The guided odor tour has become a features-section standby. For example, a Washington Post reporter rides along in a limo with a perfumer and a retired sanitation worker as they make a haphazard tour of New York. They hit the usual tourist sites with predictable results: rancid pork fat in the Meatpacking District, hot frying oil in a Chinatown kitchen, and intense horse manure near the carriages in Central Park. All the while the French-born perfumer plugs her line of neighborhoods-of-New-York-themed perfumes. (Fair enough — it was her limo and driver after all.)
The New York–based gossip blog Gawker took a refreshingly egalitarian approach to urban odor mapping. It invited readers to e-mail in odor reports for every train station and subway platform in the city. The general outcome was not in doubt. (Even Paris Hilton knows the score; in her memoir she writes, "Yes, I admit I've taken the subway in New York — and it smells. It literally smells like pee. Why can't they do anything about that?") Gawker compiled the vox populi into an interactive New York City Subway Smell Map. Mouse over a particular station, and colorful icons pop up to tell you which of ten malodor categories is found there. Waiting for the A-C-E train at Thirty-fourth Street and Eighth Avenue? Gawker icons indicate the presence of body odor, feces, urine, sewage, and vomit. Need more detail? Just double-click for reader comments: "Something dead and decaying … Old outhouse poop ... Fresh poop ... Sewer water ... Urine post–asparagus buffet ... Breath of a hungry old lady ... Stinks like puke." According to the Subway Smell Map, stations on the Upper East Side are exceptionally non-odorous. This may be true, or the result of sample bias — hipsters who read Gawker may never venture that far uptown.
The ultimate objective for nasal surveyors is a navigational chart of the entire American smellscape. Is such a thing possible? Helen Keller thought so: "I can easily distinguish Southern towns by the odors of fried chicken, grits, yams and cornbread, while in Northern towns the predominating odors are of doughnuts, corn beef hash, fishballs, and baked beans." American cities were so distinctive she had her own Olfactory Positioning System: "I used to be able to smell Duluth and St. Louis miles off by their breweries, and the fumes of the whiskey stills of Peoria, Illinois, used to wake me up at night if we passed within smelling distance of it."
Landmark smells, even those of home, are not always pretty. The writer Celeste Bowman describes her experience in Texas: "My eyes flew open as my nose was assaulted by the acrid odor of saltwater, decomposing fish and seashells, a peculiar fragrance that I love. Sea smell is the smell of home. I was back in Corpus Christi, a guest in the city of my childhood."
Commercial odors serve as locator beacons on the smellscape. For 55 years the Life Saver factory poured fruity sweetness over Port Chester, New York. The Mars candy plant keeps Hackettstown, New Jersey, smelling chocolaty, and the Maxwell House roasting operation periodically gives Hoboken a jolt of joe. A Snapple bottling plant fruitifies part of Baltimore, while a rendering plant, vinegar distillery, and giant bakery define other areas of town. McCormick & Co. blew a potpourri of spice across Baltimore for more than a century before relocating to Hunt Valley. A paper mill leaves a big, if unfavorable, impression on Muskegon, Michigan, and the Owens Country Sausage plant gives Sulphur Springs, Texas, a special yumminess.
We could fill an almanac with the site-specific scents of America. Because I grew up there, my nasal circuits are hopelessly imprinted on California. It's the source of dozens of characteristic smells — all true and equally essential — enough to fill a wing of the smell museum. The Golden State overwhelmed the intrepid Helen Keller: "I think I could write a book about the rich, warm, varied aromas of California; but I shall not start on that subject. It would take too long."
I'll give it a try. Start with the redwoods and the Sierra foothills full of kit-kit-dizze and coyote mint. Leave space for the La Brea Tar Pits and the pleasant, clean, tarry note that hovers over them. Include the stinkpots of Mount Lassen in the far north, and the sulfury hot springs of Esalen, down near Big Sur. The Pacific Coast has its own special collection: heaps of rotting kelp and the rich funk of tidal mud inside the Golden Gate. Depending on the wind direction, there's the stink of guano off Seal Rocks or the stench of the elephant seals at Point Año Neuvo.
The journalist and social observer Heather MacDonald grew up in the tony Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Living in a dense urban metropolis, she delighted in the nearby outdoors — a typical California contrast. "I spent a lot of time in the Santa Monica Mountains. The smell of the dry chaparral in the summer time and the eucalyptus and the wild mustard plants and the light … There are so many smells that I associate with the land around here."
Eucalyptus, that Australian import, is everywhere in California. Another Australian, the Victorian box tree, has become part of the Southern California smellscape. Its nighttime perfume — an intoxicating blend of orange and honey — blankets Los Angeles every February. The local columnist Mary McNamara writes, "Seeping in through open windows, under doors, the scent saturates the air, the bedclothes, so dense you can taste it. Ambrosia rising, within and without."
The best way to sample California smells is by car. Drive down I-80 with the windows open as you pass the oil refineries in Pinole. Cruise past the Harris Ranch and the stockyards off I-5 in Coalinga and get the full blast of the cattle. Take US 101 through Gilroy and inhale the garlic. (And don't forget that the famous Lockheed "Skunk Works" in Los Angeles was named for the obnoxious smell of a nearby plastics factory.)
Maybe Helen Keller was right — California demands a lot of the cataloger, and these are just the bigger features of the smellscape. Zoom in to the level of neighborhoods and the picture gets more detailed, and even more evocative. Odor mapping is an exhausting effort. Is it really necessary to capture and preserve all this stuff that's just out there, floating around? Of course it is. The Hunt's tomato cannery in Davis is shuttered; the garlic depot in Vacaville is gone; Cannery Row smells only on paper; and it's a rare day when Fisherman's Wharf smells of a fresh catch. The recent past — our very lifetimes — is evaporating day by day.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
Reprinted from What the Nose Knows, by Avery Gilbert © Avery N. Gilbert. Published by arrangement with Crown.
Back to Top