Subjective Scents

In 1902, the poet and critic Sadakichi Hartmann attempted a performance described as a “melody in odors”:

In 1906, a movie theater in Pennsylvania hoped to increase interest in its newsreel of the Rose Parade by fanning the room with rose oil, to the complaints of everyone in attendance. A 1960 movie called Scent of Mystery was the only film ever to use a failed invention called “Smell-O-Vision,” a patented system of odors cued to the actions on-screen. At Disneyland’s California Adventure theme park, opened nearly a hundred years after Sadakichi’s performance, a gentle smell of citrus is spritzed on visitors during a ride where they seemingly soar over a grove of orange trees.

The invention of the perfume concert was a singular achievement; the execution of it was something else entirely.

Sadakichi insisted that his concert would represent an advance in technology, that the event had previously never been fully realized “due largely to the lack of an apparatus capable of driving odors forcibly into an audience and of producing precise impressions even at great distances… Such an apparatus has been invented lately.” The “apparatus,” an electric fan, was now blowing over the audience a sickly strong perfume of roses, which spread quickly across the orchestra, rising into the balcony seats. One man shouted that he “did not like the smell of the scuppers and there were too many aboard who were seasick.” Sadakichi responded that they were now arriving in England and were smelling the native wild rose. Another voice shouted that the creeping odor reminded him of the time the gas meter leaked. The audience had begun to turn.

“Now we reach Germany,” Sadakichi continued. The girls slid in a second square of linen, and after another long minute the distinct odor of violets was blown from the stage into the balconies. “Who does not remember plucking violets on a fair morning along the banks of the Rhine?” Sadakichi asked. “The violet is Germany’s flower.” But no one in the theater remembered plucking violets. Violets were soaps and cheap toilet water, saltwater taffy and last night’s whore. Roses were women in fox fur and fake hair, or husbands begging for forgiveness.

The perfumes that Sadakichi assumed would carve out the landscapes of provincial Europe had little or no effect on his audience. The nostalgia was his and his alone.