The past stinks: a brief history of smells and social spaces

Revolving Hat

The post below by William Tullett originally appeared in The Conversation.

A sunny afternoon in Paris. An intrepid TV presenter is making his way through the streets asking passersby to smell a bottle he has in his hand. When they smell it they react with disgust. One woman even spits on the floor as a marker of her distaste. What is in the bottle? It holds, we are told, the “pong de paris”, a composition designed to smell like an 18th-century Parisian street.

The interpretation of past scents that we are given on the television, perhaps influenced by Patrick Süskind’s pungent novel Perfume, is frequently dominated by offence.

It’s a view found not just on TV but in museums. In England, York’s Jorvik Viking Centre, Hampton Court Palace, and the Museum of Oxfordshire have all integrated smells into their exhibits.

The one smell that unites these attempts at re-odorising the past: toilets. Viking toilets, a Georgian water closet, and the highly urinous and faecal smell of a Victorian street, all included in the above examples, thread the needle of disgust from the medieval to the modern. The consequence of such depictions is to portray the past as an odorous prelude, with foul-smelling trades and poor sanitation, to the clean and pleasant land of modernity.

Suggesting that people who are not “us” stink has a long history. It is applied to our forebears just as often as is to other countries, peoples, or cultures. It is not accident that, “Filthy Cities” – an English television program, highlighted the stink of 18th-century France – even in the 18th century the English had associated the French, their absolutist Catholic enemies, with the stink of garlic.

The toilet-training narrative is a simple and seductive story about “our” conquest of stench. But the “pong de paris” misses the point. Too busy turning the past into a circus of disgust for modern noses, it fails to ask how it smelt to those who lived there. New historical work reveals a more complex story about past scents.

A careful examination of the records of urban government, sanitation, and medicine reveal that 18th-century English city-dwellers were not particularly bothered by unsanitary scents. This was partly because people adapted to the smells around them quickly, to the extent that they failed to notice their presence.

But, thanks to 18th-century scientific studies of air and gases, many Georgians also recognised that bad smells were not as dangerous as had previously been thought. In his home laboratory, the polymath Joseph Priestley experimented on mice, while others used scientific instruments to measure the purity of the air on streets and in bedrooms. The conclusion was simple: smell was not a reliable indicator of danger.

Scientist and social reformer Edwin Chadwick famously claimed in 1846 that “all smell… is disease”. But smell had a much more complex place in miasma theory – the idea that diseases were caused by poisonous airs – than has often been assumed. In fact, by the time cholera began to work its morbid magic in the 1830s, a larger number of medical writers held that smell was not a carrier of sickness-inducing atmospheres.

Smells tend to end up in the archive, recorded in the sources historians use, for one of two reasons: either they are unusual (normally offensive) or people decide to pay special attention to them. One scent that appeared in the diaries, letters, magazines, and literature of 18th-century England, however, was tobacco smoke. The 18 century saw the rise of new anxieties about personal space. A preoccupation with politeness in public places would prove a problem for pipe smokers.

Tobacco smokers
On the left a fashionable cigar smoker and on the right a rather less fashionable pipe-smoker, c.1805. Own collection

Getting sniffy about tobacco

Tobacco had become popular in England during the 17th century. But, by the mid-18th century, qualms began to be raised. Women were said to abhor the smell of tobacco smoke. A satirical poem told the story of a wife who had banned her husband from smoking, only to allow its resumption – she realised that going cold turkey had made him impotent.

New sociable venues proliferated in towns and cities, with the growth of provincial theatres, assembly rooms, and pleasure gardens. In these sociable spaces, a correspondent to The Monthly Magazine noted in 1798, “smoaking [sic] was a vulgar, beastly, unfashionable, vile thing” and “would not be suffered in any genteel part of the world”. Tobacco smoking was left to alehouses, smoking clubs and private masculine spaces.

Clouds of smoke invaded people’s personal space, subjecting them to atmospheres that were not of their own choosing. Instead, fashionable 18th-century nicotine addicts turned to snuff. Despite the grunting, hawking and spitting it encouraged, snuff could be consumed without enveloping those around you in a cloud of sour smoke.

The 18th century gave birth to modern debates about smoking and public space that are still with us today. The fact that the smell of tobacco smoke stains the archives of the period, metaphorically of course, is a testament to the new ideas of personal space that were developing within it.

Smelling Historical Transformations – How Turkish Cologne-Culture was Revived by Corona

This post by Caro Verbeek originally appeared on the Futurist Scents blog.

About 6 weeks ago – shortly before the ‘intelligent lockdown’ – the familiar smells that characterize my neighborhood in the west of Amsterdam suddenly changed. Not in an unpleasant way, but quite dramatically. I followed my nose and wound up at the small grocery store where I usually do my shopping. A strong refreshing scent seemed to emanate from it, covering the entire block. I figured it was a citrus fruit of some sort, but it was extraordinarily strong.

Upon asking the shopkeeper he promptly replied: “It’s cologne from my home country Turkey. I use it to stay clean!”, and he showed me how he did it by applying some of the liquid lavishly on his hands directly from a big bottle. I wondered if this sudden change of habit, perceivable outside his shop, was connected to the outbreak of Corona. It was. The next day I read in a news item that the phenomenon I had noticed on a local scale, was taking place on an international level. Even the BBC recently picked it up. They merely focused on the economic impact though. But there is so much more to it.

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The zesty smell is so well-known and typical for the country, that a national representative – when asked by artist Gayil Nalls what the national scent of Turkey could be – said that:

“The scents of lavender and pine grow lavishly in Turkey. However, if you must choose the most applicable of fragrances, the lemon and rose are certainly the ones that are most popularly used. And of those, Turkey would be represented by lemon. It’s everywhere. The lemon cologne is sprayed on you, given to you, 100% of Turkish people have lemon cologne in their homes. Lemon is a very culturally important smell for us” (Birnur Fertekigil, Counselor and Staff, Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations, you can read more about the olfactory social sculpture World Sensorium and find out which scent was selected by your country here)

The BBC reported that the renewed purpose of cologne was novel, but its practical and medicinal use actually has a long tradition that actually wasn’t lost at all: “I associate lemon with being ill”, a Turkish museum expert had told me during a meeting just a few days prior to the lockdown. “Whenever I was sick as a child my mother gave me cologne”.

In fact, when the first cologne (by the Italian barber Gian Paolo de Feminis and Farina, not by 4711) was marketed in the city of Cologne, it was already promoted as a miracle water, a cure-all elixir, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ as literary historian Richard Stamelan explains:

“In an early attempt of self-promoting hyperbole, Feminis’s “miraculous” water was advertised as a remedy for problems the stomach, skin and even for women going into labour” (2006)

blog eau de cologne farina

The shift from the medicinal to the aesthetic use of eau de Cologne must have occurred in the 19th century:

“Although eau de Cologne was originally introduced to the public as a sort of “cure-all,” a regular “elixir of life,” it now takes its place, not as a pharmaceutical product, but among perfumery” (Septimus Piesse, 1857).

But while advertisements from the 20th century, there are plenty of examples of the medicinal use of eau de Cologe. Apparently it could kill lice as this example from the collection of the Rijksmuseum shows.

blog eau de cologne als medicijn

Eau de Cologne is the oldest still marketed scented product. The recent rise in sales shouldn’t just be explained as an economic phenomenon, but as a historical and cultural development. Its use is as versatile as it is intriguing, and it perceivably connects the present to the past, especially today.

Read more about the history of Turkish cologne here.

Ruik niet in ijdelheid! – de medische en religieuze rol van geur in de 17de eeuw

This post by Caro Verbeek originally appeared on the Futurist Scents blog.

Op het eerste gezicht is dit een heel curieuze voorstelling. Er gebeurt zoveel dat je bijna niet weet waar je moet kijken. Een man in luxe nachttenue snuffelt verlekkerd aan een bosje bloemen vanuit zijn hemelbed, terwijl een rijk uitgedoste figuur rechts van hem zich laaft aan rookpluimen. Een rondboog boven hem geeft een doorkijkje naar een meer verheven tafereel. Een geestelijke doet een brandoffer van een (ongedefinieerd) dier. Rechtsboven zwaait een man in pij een wierookvat richting een altaar.

allegorie reuk collaert

Guillaume Collaert, naar Nicolaas van der Horst, ‘Allegorie van de reuk’, ca. 1610 (voor 1630). 

We hebben hier te maken met een bijzondere uitvoering van een allegorie van de reuk door Guillaume Collaert naar Nicolaas van der Horst uit de vroege 17de eeuw. Waar vaak erotische, culinaire of andere banale aspecten van de reuk (zoals het verschonen van poepluiers) worden uitgelicht in voorstellingen van dit zintuig, nemen in deze prent religieuze en medische functies van geur de hoofdrol in.

Om dit te begrijpen heeft de lezer eerst achtergrondinformatie nodig over de dramatisch verschillende manier, waarop er over de reuk werd gedacht in de zeventiende eeuw.

Ten eerste was er – tot de ontdekking van Pasteur – geen kennis over ziektekiemen of over moleculen. Dat betekent dat de lucht werd voorgesteld als een zogenaamd ‘fluidum’. Stond die lucht te lang stil, dan bestond de kans dat deze verziekt raakte en kon gaan stinken. Stank werd niet alleen gezien als manifestatie van ‘onelastische lucht’ zoals Alain Corbin ons leert (1), maar ook als de oorzaak van ziekte en de verspreiding ervan. Dit geloof staat bekend als de ‘miasma-theorie’ en het werd alom geaccepteerd en gepraktiseerd door zowel de armste sloeber als de meest geleerde dokter. Om de lucht weer gezond te maken, volstonden sterk ruikende en zoete geuren, zoals kaneel, boomharsen en andere planten (zie ook mijn blog over de geurende medicijnen uit deze apothekerskast van het Rijksmuseum). Mensen van lagere komaf moesten het doen met de geur van geiten, azijn en rozemarijn.

De figuur in bed is waarschijnlijk een hooggeplaatste figuur die als remedie tegen een onbekende ziekte aan bloemen ruikt. Dit was niet ongebruikelijk. We zien in de aantekeningen van de lijfarts van Willem van Oranje dat hij geregeld geurige medicamenten voorschreef. Toen de prins in 1574 leed aan ernstige buikloop (wat op zichzelf al de nodige geuren voor de geestesneus oproept die waardig zijn voor een allegorie), onderzocht Pieter van Foreestus eerst met al zijn zintuigen diens urine, voor hij bescheiden mededeelde dat de prins het beste wijn met kaneel  kon gaan drinken. Groene takken van loof in zijn kamer zouden de zieke lucht doen verfrissen (2). Na een paar dagen knapte de prins inderdaad op. Deze jongeman in zwart-wit ziet er blakend uit: hebben de geuren hun werk al gedaan?

collaert zieke

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met bloemruikende man.

In ‘onze’ prent wordt de lucht daarnaast begeurd – en dus gezond gemaakt – door een ‘brûle-parfum’ of een parfumbrander. De opstijgende pluimen gaan een mooie beeldrijm aan met de veren in de hoed van de edele. Onderin werd de hittebron geplaatst met luchtgaten voor voldoende zuurstof. Typische geurstoffen om hiervoor te gebruiken waren houtsoorten zoals ceder, en harsen zoals labdanum (cisteroos), mirre en wierook. De openingen bovenin zorgden ervoor dat de geur zich kon verspreiden.

 

allegorie reuk edelman  BK-1957-3 parfumbrander

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met brûle-parfum en rechts een rijkelijk gedecoreerde parfumbrander van Desiderio da Firenze uit ca. 1540, beide uit de collectie van het Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Behalve in de medische zorg, werd geur ingezet in religieuze praktijken, zoals bij het ‘bewieroken’ van heilige plaatsen. Linksboven in de allegorische prent van Collaert zwaait een figuur met een wierookvat. Hierin bevindt zich smeulende hars, waarschijnlijk van wierook. Deze vaak in de Bijbel genoemde substantie bestond uit de hars van de – mogelijk uit Ethiopië afkomstige – olibanum; een zoetruikende stof met licht peperige en citrische noten van de Boswellia die nog steeds in de katholieke kerk wordt gebruikt. Zoetgeurende lucht werd kennelijk niet alleen als gezond ervaren, maar ook als manifestatie van het goddelijke. De methode van het branden van harsen om de goden te eren, werd door de Romeinen ‘per fumum’ genoemd, waaruit ons woord voor het meer banale ‘parfum’ is afgeleid.

collaert wierookvat

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met reukoffer.

Ook een brandoffer was een manier om de neusgaten van God te bereiken. Direct na het bereiken van land, doet de oud-testamentische Noach bijvoorbeeld een offer van ‘rein vee’, hier verbeeld door Caspar Luyken. De rookpluimen vielen in goede aarde: “de geur van de offers behaagde de Heer”, staat vermeld in Genesis.

offer caspar luycken 2

Cranach, ‘Offer van Noach na de zondvloed’, 1712.

Het offer op de prent van Collaert is die van een dier dat zijn noodlot nederig lijkt te aanvaarden, terwijl een aantal honden (uiteraard ook verwijzingen naar de reuk) toekijken. Een biddende vrouw kijkt in hoopvolle verwachting toe. Mogelijk wordt gebeden voor het herstel van een zieke.

collaert reukoffer

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met brandoffer.

Natuurlijk waren gezondheid en religie nog niet zo duidelijk van elkaar gescheiden zoals ze dat nu zijn. In deze prent zijn beide functies verweven. De glimlach van de bloemruikende man en de luxe kledij van de mannen onderin de prent echter, lijken ook een waarschuwing te zijn. Gebruiken zij de geuren misschien vooral voor aardse genoegens? De voorstelling mag dan een allegorie van de reuk zijn, maar bevat in feite ook een vanitas-boodschap: ‘memento mori’, of ‘denk eraan dat gij zult sterven’. Ruik dus niet in ijdelheid, want de beste geuren zijn aan God voorbehouden.

Redolent Remedies – Sniffing out an Antique Apothecary Cabinet at the Rijksmuseum

This post by Caro Verbeek originally appeared on the Futurist Scents blog.

 

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Anonymous, Collector’s Cabinet, c. 1675 – c. 1685, Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum houses many luxurious and lavishly decorated pieces of furniture. But the most mysterious specimen must be this 18th century ‘collector’s cabinet‘. It houses a miniature apothecary’s shop, and  dozens of hidden drawers. And surprisingly: the contents aren’t just intact, some still give of smell. The cabinet was possibly meant as a tool to enhance sensory skills in order to recognise plants, seeds, roots, gums and resins by their colour, shape, texture, and scent.

Smell and medicine have been closely intertwined for centuries. Before Pasteur’s discovery that some illnesses are caused by microscopic organisms, people generally believed that stench was responsible for outbreaks of diseases like the Plague. This widespread conviction was known as ‘miasma-theory’.

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Not only were miasmas considered harmful, many strong smelling and fragrant plants were thought to have beneficial effects (also see my post on the fragrant treatments of William of Orange and his wife).

As a consequence, doctors and pharmacists were able to recognise both diseases and medicine by sniffing, so with a ‘diagnostic nose’.

Conservation specialist Henk van Keulen (Cultural Heritage Agency, Netherlands) tried to determine the contents of the most fragrant drawer (which contains gums and resins) by means of gas chromatography (GC), but since chemists that work on art, aren’t trained to read gas chromatograms for fragrant substances, the results needed validation. And what better way to do that than by using our own ‘natural equipment’?

blog Fred Tabak smelling resins apothecary simplicia cabinet   blog Fred Tabak ruikend sniffing

IFF perfumer Fred Tabak sniffing 18th century resins at the Rijksmuseum (2012).

Gaby Joustra, Caro Verbeek and Mirjam Schipper during a historical sniffing session at the Rijksmuseum (2012).

Because (trained) human noses can be just as – or sometimes even more – precise than machines, I suggested to Paul van Duin (head of furniture conservation at the Rijksmuseum) to invite several perfumers to sniff out the apothecary cabinet and compare results. What followed was a 4 hour intensive sniffing session full of wondrous conversations and scents.

Blog drawer simplicia apothecary cabinet

One of the secret drawers filled with gums and resins.

Most resins and gums stored in the cabinet (benzoe, labdanum, galbanum, myrrh and frankincense) are still used in perfumery. Perfume history is actually rooted in medical history, so most of the time, the noses had no problems determining what they were dealing with. In many cases the outcomes were identical. When the GC indicated ‘myrrh’, all three perfumers confirmed this finding. One of the perfumers:

“It smells like laurel and liquorice, so indeed it’s myrrh”

In other instances the human nose and the GC pointed in different directions. Whereas the machine (or rather the professional reading the gas chromatogram) wasn’t able to provide any answers in a particular case the perfumers did have ideas, but there wasn’t consensus:

Perfumer 1: “It smells like styrax with a mineral earthy undertone. With a ‘littlepepper indicating elemi”. Perfumer 2: “But it is also dry and sweet”.

In a third type of case, machine and nose contradicted each other. One of the substances for example, was unanimously diagnosed as myrrh by the perfumers, while the GC indicated ‘elemi’. One of the perfumers:

“Elemi has more of a peppery, nutmeglike note. The sweetness makes it similar to ambery myrrh”

It was intriguing to compare the dramatically different methodologies. Paul van Duin:

“It was amazing to compare the outcomes of two completely different approaches and to be able to validate results. I am very thankful to you [author] and the perfumers”

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Paul van Duin (head of furniture restoration Rijksmuseum) studying the drawer filled with gums and resins.

Mirjam Schipper recalled afterwards:

“Afterwards we talked a lot about the experience. It was a beautiful occasion to expand my knowledge of smell, but also of olfactory experiences in the past. Learning about smell should be part of our general education and I belief scent experts and museum professionals can learn a lot from each other”

All in all this is a strong case for multi-disciplinary collaborations in museums that want to preserve and analyse artefacts with an olfactory dimension.


 

If you want to read more about the Collector’s Cabinet please consult:

Paul van Duin, Collector’s Cabinet with Miniature Apothecary’s Shop, 2017

 

Caro Verbeek is a scent curator and sensory museologist. As a historian she uses the senses as methodological tools. Previously she worked at the Rijksmuseum as a curator of prints and drawings for 6 years.