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The Greatest Untold History Is Right Under Your Nose

Are historical smells just a museum gimmick? Experts say sniffing our ancestors’ stinks can reveal a surprising amount about their lives

Among all the momentous, world-changing things 2020 is going to be remembered for, few of us are likely to be putting “its own weird smell” near the top of the list. But in reckoning the pandemic’s impact on all the mundane things we used to take for granted, this historically awful year has also, to a greater or lesser extent, altered our daily intake of aromas. Aside from those who have contracted coronavirus and experienced a loss of smell as one of its symptoms, there are all those scents that went MIA along with much of our cultural life — the dense fumes of other people at sports venues, movie theaters, live music shows; the acrid nose-burn of the gym; the farts and armpits of mass transit.

There are also the more novel scents that COVID restrictions have imprinted on us: the reassuring ethanol hit of hand sanitizer or the hysterical amount of baking that’s been going on. The inside of my own face masks, with their musty tang of slightly off milk that never seems to quite wash out (together with the occasional, instantly regretted burp) has been a personal favorite. Like it or not, once olfactory normalcy has eventually been restored, it’ll be claustrophobic, vaguely shut-down-y smells like these that will instantly transport us back here.

It’s an interesting coincidence, then, that the European Union has chosen this season of sensory deprivation as the moment to award the largest ever grant to the study of olfactory history — the niche, nasal branch of research that seeks to recover and accurately recreate the smells of the past. In November, the E.U. announced $3.4 million in funding for the “Odeuropa” project, an ambitious, multidisciplinary effort to preserve and promote the “scent heritage” of European culture.

The aim of the three-year program is to gather the largest ever store of “smell data,” both past and present, which will be curated and published in an online Encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage. Also gleaned from the database will be meticulous scent reconstructions, giving the public and academics alike the chance to inhale, among many other fragrances: tobacco from the dawn of Europe’s colonial trade with the Americas in the 16th century, Italian motor oil from the early 20th century and smelling salts from the 18th century. Intriguingly, they’re also looking at synthesizing an Eau de Battle of Waterloo. Whether or not the grant actually has anything directly to do with 2020’s modulations to our collective “smellscape” (which is what the people who investigate odors at the level of population and history like to call it), $3.4 million isn’t to be sniffed at.

“It’s a lot of money! I was quite surprised,” says Lizzie Ostrom, who, as “Odette Toilette,” works in the U.K. as a consultant on scent for museums, galleries and brands, and is author of the book Perfume: A Century of Scents. According to Ostrom, who’s been immersed in the field for the past decade, it’s also a clear signal of just how fashionable sensory history has become. “There has been a real flurry of activity in the past five years or so,” she says, which she partly puts down to a “whole new cohort of PhD students who decided to look at sensory history and they’re now in posts in universities and really pushing it forward.” The sophisticated A.I. tools that Odeuropa plan to let loose on existing historical archives to sniff out the olfactory references also have something to do with it: “Until you had Big Data to be able to search archives for something so specialized as this, it’s just like, ‘Where do you go to look it up?’”

In her own work creating olfactory experiences and events, Ostrom has concocted fragrances similar to those used in human sacrifice in Meso-America, in which victims’ bodies were perfumed before death (“We were smelling something similar to the datura flower, which is quite narcotic”). She’s collaborated with a historical perfumer who recreated the oil used to anoint English monarchs like Elizabeth I (“That’s a very dense, rich smell, with a lot of ambergris in it” — a musky substance that forms in the intestines of sperm whales — “and rose and jasmine. It’s a bit like if you mixed Opium by Yves Saint Laurent with a big bunch of roses”). And she’s come across her fair share of nose-wrinklers: “There was one event that I did where we used a herb called spikenard, which was used a lot in the Renaissance; it’s a bit like smelling a small rodent who’s died near you. But one that’s still got all its fur and is next to a radiator — that sort of hot smell.”

For her, curated aromas can connect us with past cultures in ways that are far more visceral than respectfully nodding at fragile objects behind glass. “Museums and art galleries are keen to find ways to make their collections more immediate to people, and move beyond the white square of text.” Scent, she says, has the transportive power to make exhibits instantly more accessible, “whether you’re visually impaired, or you’ve got a learning disability, or you don’t feel included by the traditional academic approach. Basically, it makes it a more fun, sociable experience. Rather than standing in silence looking at a painting, if you’re there smelling something as well, you’re going to talk to the person next to you.”

Re-Odorizing the Past

For at least 35 years, using stink to make us think has also been the philosophy at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England, which has pioneered the use of smell in historical visitor attractions. “Our scents are provided as liquids, and these are put into small tanks stored centrally, where the fluid is heated and then piped around the set to the appropriate location on the tour,” says Jay Commins, communications officer for the center, which will be hosting a five-day series of live-streamed events (without the smells, unfortunately) in February.

To create a vivid sense of what life was like when the city was known as Jórvik, and functioned as the capital of an expansive Norse kingdom in the 9th and 10th centuries, visitors go on a car ride through an immersive Viking village, where the authentic smells are a central part of the experience: “We do want people to get a waft of fish or apple or incense at the appropriate point in the story.” The attention to olfactory detail is impressive. In recreating a forest smell from 960 A.D., for example, “we needed to be sure it was a deciduous scent rather than the perhaps more familiar smell of a pine forest. It can sometimes take our scent-makers a few attempts — just as it would a perfumier to perfect their blend — as we explain that it might need some more woody or earthy notes, for example.” 

Surprisingly, the bouquets they’ve bottled haven’t all been down to educated guesswork. The museum was built around a real archaeological excavation of Viking homes which took place in the late 1970s, and “one fascinating aspect of the Coppergate dig,” says Commins, “was the incredible preservation of organic remains. When our archaeologists unearthed a cesspit, for example, there had been very little decomposition of the matter within it due to the waterlogged soil conditions, so they got a real waft of a Viking toilet.” 

Thanks to that high level of preservation, researchers have been able to extrapolate an unusual amount of information about diets, lifestyles and local production, “and this means we have much more of an idea about how Viking-age York would have smelled than, for example, a dry Roman site where all that remains is fragments of pottery and stone walls.” 

“If you’re trying to understand how a group of people lived,” Commins adds, “you can’t have a complete picture without understanding all of their sensory interaction with the past.”

If that’s the case, though, it means there’s a gaping hole in our appreciation of the past, since references to smell tend to appear only fleetingly, if at all, in the historical record. And it’s an omission the vast majority of historians don’t seem that bothered by. Odor permeates our lives, so why has conventional history turned its nose up at it?  

“As historians, we work primarily with written documents, and smell is often referred to as ‘the mute sense,’” says Melanie Kiechle, associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, and author of Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. “And that’s both because we don’t talk about smell all that often — we’re constantly, in our ambient environment, encountering lots of different odors and that rarely requires conscious thought — but also we don’t have a lot of words to describe smell in the English language.”

Another, perhaps more problematic barrier, she says, is that people’s responses to particular odors, and how we interpret them in our social and environmental contexts, has changed over time. “So there are periods where, from our modern perspective, we might think, ‘Oh, that would have smelled absolutely terrible!’ — think about like when all transit was done with horses, so there was lots of horse manure. But no one at the time ever paused to say that, because that was completely normal in their sensory environment.”

Smelling history accurately, if we want to be more than stench-tourists, requires a lot more imaginative work from us than sticking our noses in a cloud of painstakingly reconstituted chemicals and going “eww.” Yuval Noah Harari makes this point in his bestselling history of humanity, Sapiens, where he warns us against “past[ing] our expectations on to the material conditions of others.” 

Acknowledging that smell, along with psychological well-being in general, has been one of the great lost continents in charting the human story, he writes: “In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t get it — they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content.”

Olfactory Nervousness

It might also be a mistake, though, to assume that our nostril-recalibrated ancestors blithely filtered out the unpleasant odors they lived amid. In fact, in her research into the scent world of U.S. cities in the 1800s, Kiechle has found that our recent predecessors were much more tuned in to what their noses were telling them than we are today. By the 1880s the Western world’s medical establishment was broadly accepting that germs were the main agents of disease transmission, but prior to that, the dominant explanation was “miasma theory.” It was a paradigm that tended to conflate “mephitic” smells with illness, attributing the spread of non-airborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, plague and even chlamydia to the “bad air” produced by rotting flesh and vegetation.

Pestilential poison in the breeze became a pressing concern during the 19th century, as the sudden human crush of the new industrial cities brought with it smellscapes that were unprecedented in both their intensity and their — as was believed at the time — potential for lethal consequences. The olfactory shock, which fed into public health panics, is pungently illustrated in the “Great Stinks” of both London (1858) and Paris (1880), notes Kiechle, episodes that galvanized officials in both cities to invest in titanic underground sewage systems and other major sanitization projects. “What was so horrifying wasn’t the actual smell to the people — they knew what human shit and urine smelled like — but it’s that it was so overpowering,” Kiechle explains. “It was at this intensity that wasn’t normal. And that made everyone concerned about what was going on.”

Another example of smell-based public outcry was the rapidly expanding city of Chicago, where the first major industrial-scale stockyards appeared at the latter end of the century. These, says Kiechle, “were putting all kinds of smells into the ambient environment that people had encountered before — it’s not like killing a hog was a new activity. But they hadn’t encountered it on that scale. And in Chicago, this amplification changed the odor, and what the odor meant. Because it was inescapable. Normally you might smell something bad and be able to walk away. But when the smell is everywhere, you can’t escape it.”

Just how closely smell and disease were once linked in the historical imagination can be seen in public health advice over COVID today, she says. “Because of germ theory, we no longer do the things that people did when they thought the air was what made them sick. Ventilation was a hot topic in the 19th century, because you needed to air out your rooms. That is the same advice that a lot of health professionals are giving us today: ‘Open the windows; you need to have free exchange of air to lessen the risk.’” For us, she points out, this feels like a novel practice; something we need to be told. “But for people in the 19th century, they would have been doing that all along, because that was how they encountered the environment. They couldn’t have smells, or miasmas, build up — and so, they were constantly airing their rooms in a way that we just don’t anymore.”

Writing in June 1665, with London in the grip of the plague, the great diarist Samuel Pepys jotted down a rare insight into how pleasant odors were used as a prophylactic in his day, the hastily-reached-for antibiotics of their time: “I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell and to chaw, which took away the apprehension.”

Going further back again, according to the immersion experts at the Jorvik Centre, a heightened awareness of pungency would have prevented sickness in a more direct, and effective, way. “We don’t use our noses anywhere near as much as our ancestors would have done,” says Commins. “Is a food item still safely edible? We’ll check the best-before date on the packaging, whereas our ancestors would have sniffed and made a visual inspection of the item itself.”

Our tendency to leap to assumptions about how people in the past interpreted smell can also make us blind, as Kiechle notes, to “the things that haven’t changed as much as we think they should have.” Who knew, for instance, that Vikings were likely more fragrant than the Saxon populations they conquered in Britain? “Some Islamic and Christian contemporaries commented on the Vikings’ comparative cleanliness,” says Commins, while some English sources “have given the Vikings the reputation of a higher standard of personal hygiene, taking extra care over appearance and bathing once a week.”

Or that the infrequent washers of previous centuries might well have been highly conscious of scent, according to Ostrom, but were more inclined to “wear scented things in their clothes and put them in their furniture” than apply perfume to their bodies. “When I was writing my book,” she says, “I found some fascinating records of scented sachets that you could hide behind a chair or put around your room. It would contain things like orris root, and they might have other fixative ingredients that were quite heady. So domestic spaces, though possibly not the poorest, would have been quite heady with different sorts of fragrances — the air fresheners of the past. Maybe it’s like going in, and someone’s got too many Air Wicks going. It would have been fairly intense in some situations.” 

What Did Gettysburg Smell Like?

In the American context, one of the things that worked to sever the relationship between people’s sense of smell and their basic survival instincts was the Civil War. First, because physicians on the battlefield had demonstrated the effectiveness of mass-organized modern medical practice to the authorities; the first state-wide boards of health were established soon after the war, during the Reconstruction era, as oversight of public health was steadily ceded to governments and scientists. 

Second, says Kiechle, was the experience of mass-mobilization in the 1860s. Troops on both sides were more willing later in life to follow the advice of doctors rather than their noses, partly because of the indelible sensory imprint left by the fighting itself.

When the soldiers, who largely hailed from rural communities, “went to these camps and then engaged in these huge battles,” she says, “they are encountering urban conditions for the first time — and they’re encountering physicians. So they leave with this different understanding. And very much because they’ve experienced the smells, at a hospital, for instance, or at a battlefield, they leave with that memory of a visceral experience.”

There is evidence from the written testimony of soldiers who survived, that the smells of the great battles of the 19th century would have been powerful enough to stay with them for the rest of their lives. “At Gettysburg or Waterloo, these are such massive battles, and what you’d be smelling are things like wounded flesh,” says Kiechle, “both from people but also all the horses that are gunned down.” A common adjective used in accounts of the battlefield odors during the Civil War especially, she says, was “indescribable.” One soldier at the Battle of Shiloh, aged 12, wrote home telling his parents “how they would never be able to imagine just how bad it smelled. That it was worse than the slaughterhouse or the charnel house in their hometown. Although he didn’t have a way to explain it to them, he was trying in different ways to get across how strange and altered it was.”

One way to get a sense of how overpowering battlefields were, and just how impossible it was to escape the pall of death that hung everywhere, is through people’s efforts to block it out. “This comes up often in Civil War hospitals,” says Kiechle: “Nurses would carry perfumed handkerchiefs to bring up to their noses because that was the only relief. People were using a lot of smelling salts; lemons were another thing, as well as pipes. They didn’t think smoking was dangerous; they thought smoking would in fact protect you because you would inhale the smell of the tobacco instead of whatever was the predominant odor in that place.”

For Kiechle, this is one of the major benefits a focus on sensory history can bring to our appreciation of the past. Confronting us with a genuine whiff of bodies decomposing, seasoned perhaps with a waft of burning château and essence of freshly splintered timber, might help dispel some of the popular romance that surrounds these episodes and instill a healthy wariness of warfare. With the focus the Odeuropa project will place on smell, she says, “I’m hoping that it can bring some of our more celebrated events, like the Battle of Waterloo, back down to reality — to a very physical reality, in a lot of ways.”

She is also enthused by the prospect of the public inhaling a more rounded bouquet of history than we’re used to. “Here in the United States, I can visit any number of historic houses that celebrate the rich and famous of yesteryear. And that distorts our public perception of history quite a bit — to [focus on] the best lives, the people who had the most money. So I’m hoping, too, that the project will be able to give us more of the lived experience of people who couldn’t leave a lot of documents behind.”

As a jump-cut to the lives of those who left little trace, smell is a great leveler for Ostrom, too. “The traditional ‘Great Man’ historical narratives are increasingly being challenged,” she says, “and alternative histories are receiving a lot of attention — whether that’s domestic histories, social history or history of the marginalized. One way you can bring back to life the stories of the people who didn’t have power is through these sorts of things — the more textured, immersive practices.”

That said, she also warns we shouldn’t get too intoxicated by the aroma. “The infuriating thing is that none of us can know. I wouldn’t claim to know exactly what 1810 smelt like, and I don’t think anyone should because it’s in no one’s lived experience.” But the olfactory snapshots of the kind Ostrom creates — and are being exhumed by the dedicated sniffstorians at the Jorvik Viking Centre, the Odeuropa project and elsewhere — are offering surprising insights that suddenly put us within a whiff of the real historical action, and the living humans at the heart of it.

Even if we can’t hope to share in their tastes and psychological associations, strong historical aromas do tell us that we have something very basic in common with the smellers of the past — just like they did, we react. The French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote in his short treatise “On Smells” in the late 1500s that he was “a great lover of good smells, and as much abominate the ill ones” — a sentiment we can all probably relate to. And in declaring of human bodies that “their best and chiefest excellency is to be exempt from smell,” most of us would agree he got it right on the nose.