An Olfactory Library

Jul 21 2011 @ 5:42pm

Courtney Humphries reports on a campaign to capture and preserve smells for future generations:

[I]ncreasingly, technology is making it possible, and historians, scientists, and perfumers are now taking the idea of smells as historical artifacts more seriously. They argue that it’s time to delve into our olfactory past, trying harder to understand how people experienced the world with their noses – and even save scents for posterity. Their efforts have already made it possible to smell fragrances worn a century ago, to re-create the smell of a rare flower even if it goes extinct, and to better understand the smells that ancient cultures appreciated or detested.

Limburger is surely on the list. Humphries continues:

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.

David Owen recounted his "smell memories" for The New Yorker last year.