What Did History Smell Like?

I’ve sometimes dreamed of having a holodeck-like classroom in which the walls were massive screens that could be changed to make it seem like we were suddenly sitting in the middle of the same physical environment we were discussing. To teach the French Revolution while sitting in the middle of Paris’ Place de la Concorde, the British Agricultural Revolution in a field in the Fens. To immerse ourselves visually in order to get a bit closer to that “imaginative understanding” of the past that historians seek. (Surely this is one reason I so enjoyed teaching about World War I in Europe.)

Now, what if we could add another sensory input? Take it away, Atlantic correspondent John Metcalfe, visiting a pungent new exhibit at the SPUR Urban Center Gallery in San Francisco:

Paris in 1607
I know, it’s over a century too early, but a contemporary illustration of what early modern Paris looked like – Wikimedia

What did Paris smell like in the mid-18th century? Try skunked red wine, wet cats, and gingivitis-tinged sputum, all bubbling in an open sewer on a record-setting summer’s day.

I can say this with some authority as I recently jammed my schnoz into “Paris 1738,” a scent that recreates the fetid odors of the olden city. France’s Christophe Laudamiel made the unusual odor as a tribute to the novel Perfume, whose murderous antihero was born in a fish market amid the stench of overflowing gutters and unwashed bodies. Now, thanks to a nose-tingling exhibit in downtown San Francisco, anybody can smell how the City of Love may have once reeked – and thank their lucky nostrils they live in an era with hot showers and shampoo.

Taking advantage of the talents of “rock-star perfumers,” Urban Olfactory features scents as diverse as the French countryside, the New Jersey Turnpike, 14th century and 21st century Dutch towns, and a Canadian prime minister. (Seriously.) The exhibit’s curators, David Gissen and Irene Chang, “hope their show will provoke visitors into considering how a place’s smells change over time, and in fact sometimes push that very change forward.” For example, Gissen points to the role of smell in provoking urban planning in industrial societies. (SPUR is an urban planning nonprofit that originated in an early 20th century anti-tenement movement.)

Amazingly, this isn’t the first time that I’ve posted about someone trying to answer the question, “What did history smell like?” Two years ago yesterday (Valentine’s Day? really?) in a post on the British historical amusement park known as “Dickens World,” I quoted one critic’s description: “It promised to be an ‘authentic’ re-creation of the London of Charles Dickens’s novels, complete with soot, pickpockets, cobblestones, gas lamps, animatronic Dickens characters and strategically placed chemical ‘smell pots’ that would, when heated, emit odors of offal and rotting cabbage.”


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