On Smell

World history is a chronicle of odours.

‘On Smell’ appears in edited form in the ‘Noses’ issue of Museum magazine.

From a distance, ginkgo trees are beautiful.

Their fan-shaped, lobed leaves are a sight to behold, transforming from a light, pleasant green to a brilliant yellow in the autumn. The foliage falls in waves, blanketing the ground in what is widely named ‘golden snow’. A fully grown ginkgo tree, which can grow to fifty feet in height, recalls the delicacy of a woodcut or a classical Chinese painting.

They still blossom under the hardiest and most unlikely of conditions. They are an ancient species, dating back to the Cambrian era, and they have no close surviving relatives. A tree near Chengdu is believed to have lived for more than 1,200 years. The natural hardiness of the ginkgo tree saw them survive the bombing of Hiroshima. A tree only one kilometre from the epicentre of the blast began to bud less than a month after the event, having suffered negligible damage.

The robustness and low maintenance requirements of the tree made them popular with U.S. urban planners during the 1970s. Ten percent of all trees in Manhattan are ginkgos. Iowa City planted many as part of a broader urban renewal scheme. Few things mask the scars of urban decay better than the aggressively beautiful yellow hues of a ginkgo tree.

There is one problem. Female ginkgo trees bear an apricot-like fruit which smells like a vile concoction of stale vomit and rancid butter. Some Manhattanites have taken to calling them ‘vomit trees’, and their stench has compelled the introduction of city ordinances forbidding the planting of female trees on public property.

But not everyone finds the smell abhorrent. Chinese immigrants and tourists collect the fruit as they fall to the streets below. They believe the gametophyte inside the seed possesses myriad medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, and dishes featuring ginkgo — such as congee — are often served during special celebrations like weddings and Chinese New Year.

“None of those seeds are sold into commerce,” writes Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies professor Peter Crane. “Those seeds are used locally because people enjoy eating them.”

Where some might smell rancidity and decay, others smell prosperity, sustenance, and life.

Smell is one of our primary and most immediate ways of understanding and interpreting the world and everything in it.

We naturally categorise things into good and bad smells, and gravitate towards the former. Billion dollar industries exist around masking smells; making our environments and bodies smell better and less human. We often intuitively talk about smell as a shortcut to memory — with a certain, distinct scent being enough to remind us of of a certain time or place, often with great emotional intensity.

Yet throughout history, smell has oftentimes been considered a lower sense, through which we can only access a baser reality.

Plato renounced smell. He vastly preferred sight and hearing, which believed to be ‘nobler’ senses, because they gave us greater access to an idealised world. We cannot smell geometry; we can only see it. Musical perfection can be heard. Smell was for foul odours and perfumes — and he believed perfumes were only for prostitutes.

Philosopher G.W. Hegel contended that smell was not like sight. He, for example, objected to the very notion that we might be able to make art from smell. A fragrance, he suggested, leaves no trace of its unique experience once it is inhaled and dissipated, and it cannot be apprehended by anyone else any longer.

When the Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th century, understanding of the modern germ theory of disease eluded doctors. Instead, they believed that toxic air, which rose from rotting organic matter as a miasma, was the cause of the almost invariably fatal disease. Plague doctors packed their distinctive, birdlike masks with ambergris, myrrh, rose petals and camphor to filter the dirty stink of city air. These efforts, of course, amounted to little.

Enlightenment thinkers dismissed smell as irrational and unverifiable. Sight was the primary means by which we engaged with a rational, ordered universe. We could categorise things and study them through a keen, structured and scientific approach to things we can see and visualise. Sight, as the vessel for great art, literature and science, was a ‘higher’ way to interpret the world. Smell, on the other hand, was associated with brutishness and savagery, a primal sense better suited for beasts than men. It was animalistic and sexual, a sense which conjured images of dogs sniffing one another prior to intercourse.

But not all throughout history have rejected smell as low and base. The Ongee of the Andaman Islands put olfaction at the centre of their metaphysics. Their calendar is based on the blooming of different flowers, each of which brings a different and unique scent. The seasons are named after these distinctive fragrances. When speaking, the Ongee refer to themselves by tapping lightly on their nose — a gesture which indicates both ‘me’ and ‘my smell’.

Smell is almost purely emotive and phenomenological to us. English has no way of approaching the nose in a complimentary way. Most colloquialisms for nose — schnozz, honker, snout — are derogatory. Idioms which praise the keenness of one’s other senses — ‘eyes like a hawk’, ‘having a good ear’ — find no workable analogue in smell. Our language around smell is highly moralistic, and lacks the rationalism around sight or hearing. We describe pleasant smells with words like ‘beautiful’, ‘lovely’ and ‘divine’, which confer a form of positive moral value. Conversely, we often ascribe negative descriptors to smells and scents — words like ‘foul’. A person that has done bad things but emerged with their reputation intact is said to have ‘come out smelling like roses’.

We can denigrate someone’s poor eyesight, their clumsiness, their deafness. But insulting their poor sense of smell feels like a weak insult. Outside the arts of perfumery and winemaking, a keen sense of smell wins you no particular accolades.

Yet the way we think about the world and its history is inextricably bound to smell.

Popular historical accounts often engage with smell as a way of painting a picture. When we think of the pre-modern past, we think of bad odours. We consider Victorian London, for example, as a seething metropolis built on numerous intersecting stenches: the reek of the underclass, the choking smells of industrialisation and its byproducts, the bloody stink of abattoirs, and so on. This is not an unusual way of thinking about pre-modern urban environments, and we tend to automatically associate that which came before us as being dirty, unhygienic and, therefore, smelly.

Jonathan Reinarz is a Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham with a specific interest in the history of smell, and the value of the senses in historical inquiry. He believes that through consideration of smell, and the specific ways people in the past oriented their existence around it, one can establish certain truths inaccessible through ‘seeing’. Our language of inquiry is oriented around seeing, and the rigorous methodologies of rationalism are still baked into our minds.

“The main preoccupation of people when they stumble across a particular person is they want to find a photograph,” says Reinarz. “They want to see what they look like. Then they go to a map and they start to think about how their particular area was organised, again visually. But actually, in a number of cases, it’s much more useful to plot different things on maps.”

“Not just smells. But when you look at a place like Birmingham, and you want to see where certain industries were located, you start to think about questions like — for example — why certain hospitals were complaining about smells.”

“When you start to notice these things, all new questions begin to emerge. Each time I was looking at a new issue by thinking about the senses, considering smell in particular, I would have new questions.”

Reinarz began to develop sensory maps of cities. He plotted how certain urban forms grow and develop around olfactory ‘landscapes’ which may not be immediately obvious to the modern observer. Cities naturally find themselves developing into polluted and less polluted zones for reasons that might evade more complex political analyses, but make perfect and immediate sense as sensory decisions.

“Industry develops, and the smoke that billows from the factory chimneys is offensive to people,” says Reinarz. “So you can see people gradually organise these places of work so that there’s a polluted zone and then there’s that healthier, airier region.”

“But the city is never adequately dealt with, so you see this contrast between cities and the countryside very early on. Even though you have agriculture in the countryside, it suddenly becomes associated with fresh air, whereas the city becomes polluted and dirty — this was very common from the 18th century.”

Our thoughts about modern metropolises and urban existence are coloured along similar lines, and influenced by our own mode of living as well as our presuppositions about concepts like class and morality. Smell has a clear moral dimension. We naturally think that good things smell good, and that bad things smell bad. This is somewhat innate, emerging from a survival instinct which encourages us to avoid the bacterial diseases that thrive around excrement and decay.

When we think about modern cities we are able to categorise certain areas according to sensory experience. The cities we are used to, such as the one we live in, has a more familiar array of smells we can access and categorise. New Yorkers are accustomed to the smell of accrued garbage that can often pile up on the city’s crowded streets in the hotter months, but tourists are more immediately confronted by it.

As Hamlet said: “There is nothing either fragrant or foul, good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“The Silent Highwayman” (1858)

Contemporary writers in London in the 19th century write about an event named the Great Stink. Unexpected hot weather intensified the smell of human faeces and industrial effluent in the River Thames, blanketing the city in a stinking miasma which was blamed for everything from minor illnesses to cholera outbreaks. At the time, the city’s rudimentary sewage system fed mostly into the Thames — meaning it smelt poorly at the best of times. But the unseasonable heat greatly exacerbated the odour.

Life in London during the Great Stink oriented around the stench. Satirists drew images of Death rowing down the Thames spreading smell and disease, and newspapers published crude sketches of London’s very own bespoke water god Father Thames as a filthy, bedraggled derelict extracting fetid garbage from the riverbed.

The smell was gradually eliminated thanks to the intervention of the state: civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed a far more complex sewage system to redirect the foul-smelling effluence away from the Thames. Bazalgette’s original system of pipes and canals still exists in augmented form under London. His obituarist wrote glowingly of his public health project, writing that “when the New Zealander comes to London a thousand years hence, the magnificent solidity and the faultless symmetry of the great granite blocks which form the wall of the Thames-embankment will still remain.”

Reinarz mentions the Great Stink as an example of the cyclical nature of smell in cities. “It’s easy to find examples of stinking cities,” he says. “If you look at London, you will find a time that it stunk. You will find the Great Stink of 1855. But if you start in the 18th century and you track it through newspapers and the writers of the time, you find cycles. That’s more interesting to me. These places didn’t always smell, but they smelled at particular times.”

We are likely to assume that cities in the developing world naturally ‘smell’ more, due to an undeveloped delineation between areas of industry, agriculture, waste disposal and living. The transition from decentralised, agricultural and industrial economies to modern service economies comes with the sense that we must purge urban and semi-urban areas of their foul smells. In India, modernising governments have attempted to tackle the issue of public defecation in rural areas, where it has historically not been considered as much of a social taboo as it has elsewhere.

Yet those who live in undeveloped areas might associate odours with prosperity and development, in much the same way as farmers would associate the smell of agriculture — manure, fertiliser, animal musks — with the same. Scents are culturally bound, and have natural associations which are alien to those from a different background.

“There was a colleague of mine from a few years ago,” says Reinarz. “She was doing city walks with people, where they would map smells. I went on some of these walks. When it comes to smells, we noticed universals. But that’s because we were from a particular town, and we had our own specific ideas and preferences.”

“When I went to China and entered a market where fermented tofu was being sold, I thought it was the foulest scent I had ever smelled. But no one else seemed in the least bit bothered. As towns and cities become more globalised and international, that culturally located universal sense of smell becomes diluted.”

Multiculturalism and globalisation have created cities with numerous, conflicting scents — making the delineated, planned cities where industry and residential smells are kept separate more clouded. Our sense of universals — good smells and bad smells — are less and less culturally specific as we experience them in varying contexts within our own urban spaces.

Our olfactory sensibilities manifests also through class. Lower-class jobs tend to be those in which the worker is exposed to various odours — garbagemen, sewage workers, farmers. Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, a popular reality show, finds its visceral thrill in exploring ‘disgusting’ jobs that its audience would generally consider below them. The thrill of the program comes from seeing Rowe, the host, exposed to all manner of repellant sensory experiences, many of which are anchored in extremely bad odours.

George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that the true secret of class distinctions in the West is summed up by four simple words: “the lower classes smell”. Alain Corbin, the French historian, studied the sociopolitical environment of 18th century France, and found that many contemporary writers were convinced that different classes and social groups had their own distinctive odours. Jews, blacks, Cossacks, the white poor and sex workers were often talked about in terms of their smell, as if this was a clear, reliable indicator of one’s position in the natural order of things.

The cyclicality of smell in cities belies undercurrents of social and political change. The banishment of foreign smells and foul odours under the guise of hygiene is a key point of gentrification movements and redevelopment. Reinarz says that a real estate developer once told him that one can come to certain understandings about housing prices in a city by mapping out the location of florists as compared to fried chicken shops.

Masking our own personal odours is a multi-billion dollar industry. Since time immemorial, elites have been able to distinguish themselves from the lower classes through the use of perfumes and scents. The seeming ubiquity of vanilla in perfumery is a recent and rapidly globalised innovation — perfumers only began to widely embrace it in the 1990s. It was associated with comforting memories of youth, infancy and purity, and stood opposed to the overpowering personal scents of the 1980s zeitgeist, which often so aggressively filled the air in high-end restaurants that patrons could not taste their food. The simple, pure scent of vanillin, pervasive in almost all welcoming indoor environments, has become an increasingly universal ‘language’ of goodness.

Interestingly, many modern men’s colognes hew toward earthy smells which evoke craftsmanship and idealised vision of manual labour: tart scents of wood, leather, cinnamon and leaves. Whereas perfumers once worked to conceal these odours, to distinguish men from the lower classes who actually worked with these things, they have become a kind of new, inverse class signifier.

In the era of radically self-centred personal identity and increasing cultural cross-pollination, our palette of acceptable smell has become much wider, and the moral universals have begun to erode.

A Canadian anthropologist, Anthony Synnott, asked his students which if their five senses they would be most willing to lose. Nearly eighty percent of them said they would willingly give up smell. Some said that it had little practical use outside of smelling when their toast was burning. Others said that so much of what they smelled was deeply unpleasant, and that they would be more than willing to give it up.

Perhaps our individual lives would not lose much of their character or spirit were we to lose our sense of smell. But smell matters. It holds together many of our first, unconscious assumptions about the world. It alerts us to difference, whether subconscious or overt. We build our cities around it.

Our language may be clumsy and inefficient at capturing the subtleties of scent, but it is always there, and it is always there first.