Liberty Smells!

The Front Side of the ‘Liberty Smells’ card, designed by Sarah Muncy and Yael Gen, December 2022.

What is the smell of liberty? Take a sniff of your card and read the text below to find out more about how it was created and the stories that can be  articualted through smells.

The Sound of Liberty

The famous Liberty Bell of Philadelphia has become synonymous with both American independence and the history of political freedoms in the United States. When thinking about this object, most people would probably associate it with sound, not with smell. Originally cast in 1752 at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, the bell was transported to Philadelphia, casted with the lettering: “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof”.

However, from the early nineteenth century cracks slowly appeared in the bell’s copper and tin surface, rendering it a largely mute, inarticulate, symbol. On the 6th of June 1944, radio extended the bell’s croaky voice across the nation, as it was tapped seven times – once for each letter in the word ‘Liberty’ – during a broadcast to mark the allied invasion of Europe. The sound produced was eerie and distinctly un-bell-like.

Philadelphia Mayor Bernard Samuel rings the Liberty Bell during a radio broadcast on the 6th of June 1944. Source: The National Bell Festival website:

In 1999, a number of graduate students at Pennsylvania State University used acoustic modelling to reconstruct what the bell might have sounded like in the eighteenth century, before wear and tear took its (and, the bell’s) toll. Yet to modern ears this recording, whilst perhaps scientifically correct, sounds more like an uncanny, computerised, version of the dim tolling of a funeral bell than a joyful celebration of liberty. 

The Smell of Liberty

So much for the sound of liberty. What does liberty smell like?

Some readers might think this an odd question to ask. After all, how can an abstract concept have a scent? But others will recognise that political concepts like liberty are not just political concepts, floating above the material world. Liberty and attempts to gain or limit it have had a very physical, sensuous, history. The smell on the card in your hand tells two stories about the way in which liberty and smell are connected. 

The Smell of Liberty  you are sniffing has been created through a combination of historical interpretation, perfumer knowledge, the observation of heritage spaces and creative practices. The Odeuropa team drafted a so-called ‘perfumer brief’: a description of the cultural historical significance  of the smell, as well as an indication of the narratives and interpretations that the representation of the historical scent should aim to communicate.  This brief was supplied to the French olfactory scenographer Carole Calvez, who complimented the research with nose-on site visits – including a trip to a historical French bell-foundry.

Firstly, this scent evokes the construction of the liberty bell itself. 

Smells and Bells

Shop-front, Whitechapel Bell Foundry by Jim Osley, taken October 2013.

The Liberty Bell has a material history: from its initial founding at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, through its transportation to the U.S, and in the contexts in which it was displayed. 

But this artefact is also connected to endangered heritage:  the foundry at Whitechapel cast its final bell  in June 2017. This last item was donated to the Museum of London. The building itself – once a busy site of production- was sold, to be turned into a boutique hotel. This change is symptomatic of a broader turn from industry to services that has characterised the UK economy during the twenty-first century. The distinctive smell of the foundry will be lost: from the scent of molten metal to the air-conditioned fragrance of a hotel lobby. Benjamin Kipling, a bell-tuner who worked at Whitechapel, said that he would ‘never forget the atmosphere, the smell of it all’: ‘it all’ being the steaming molten bronze and the horse hair, manure, and clay used to mould the bells, a combination which has also been described as an ‘alchemical odour’. The scent in your hand is an attempt to evoke a space that has been lost and, in doing so, protect the olfactory heritage of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The logo of the ‘Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry’ campaign, produced by the papercut artist Robert Ryan.

This material history also connects to other olfactory stories. Calls for liberty – and the revolutions from which they spring – often lead to violent conflict. Throughout the American and French Revolutions – and indeed through the American Civil War and the World Wars of the twentieth century – bells were melted down and transmuted into cannons. The  smells of metal, manure, hair and clay thus became intermingled with the smell of gunpowder, and other battlefield scents like blood, sweat, horses, fear and mud.  In the 1860s a poem by F. Y. Rockett appealed to Confederate supporters to ‘Melt the Bells’, ending with a promise that the cannons would be melted back into bells again at the end of the war and used to celebrate and commemorate the lives lost. 

The same process of melting metals has occurred for statues. After Waterloo, French cannons and cannonballs were melted down in order to create a statue of the Duke of Wellington that sits outside London’s Royal Exchange. On the other hand, historical regimes – including the Vichy regime in 1940s  France – melted down statues of historical figures in order to use the materials for industrial-military production. Much like history itself, statues, bells, and cannons are constantly being remade – canonised, de-canonised, and re-canonised. 

This constant flow of metal back and forth between bells, rung to celebrate or commemorate peace, and the military equipment used to prosecute war, has been a long-running characteristic of European and American history: metal reshaped in the bell and cannon-foundry just as societies were reshaped in the cauldron of conflict. It is not far from the smell of horse manure and molten metal in the foundry or the musty smell of churches and belfries, to the battlefield stench of sweat, gunpowder, and death. 

Liberty Stinks?

As this suggests, liberty – and its consequences –  does not always smell great. The Liberty Bell has become a symbol of the values of freedom that the United States supposedly holds dear. But, in the case of smell, freedom is a tricky subject. What do we value more: the freedom to stink or the freedom from stink? In the smell on your card the relationship between molten, metallic, scents and the more earthy smell of horses and manure which evokes the casting and re-casting of bells is also designed to evoke the battle between metal-containing deodorants and the odours of bodies in modern-day Western culture. 

On the one hand, the desire to be free from the smell of others has made western societies notoriously odourphobic. In 1888, the United States developed the first modern commercial mass-produced deodorant, sold under the brand name ‘Mum’. Ensuring freedom from other’s perspiration involved using print advertisements to teach Americans to internalise a disgust for, and vigilance against, body odour. In this culture of shame, women in particular were told that ‘unpopularity often begins with the first hint of underarm odour’ and that ‘perspiration odour ruins romance’

Today a poisonous mix of misogyny and racism fuels a mass-market for deodorants (often including metals such as zinc oxide and aluminium) of all types ranging from underarm applications to vaginal douches that particularly target African-American women and which can cause negative health outcomes for their users. Freedom from smell for some means entrapment in a commercially-promoted culture of shame for many.

An Advert for Mum deodorant from True Experience magazine in July 1934. Image courtesy of ‘Shelly’ on Flickr, CC-BY 2.0.

This desire to be free from body and other odours has also had negative environmental impacts. Nineteenth-century soap factories released their waste into rivers and buried foul-smelling deposits in the earth. In the late twentieth century chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols depleted the ozone layer. Today, the volatile organic compounds that replaced CFCs in deodorants are the cause of further air pollution.

On the other hand, the United States has historically been more liberal when it comes to allowing businesses to stink. Despite the Clear Air and Clean Water Acts, toxic pollution continues to be a real threat to populations, especially non-white communities, from the Flint Water disaster (in which lead was allowed to enter water sources in Flint, making it taste metallic and smell rotten) to the sulfurous emissions of paper and cardboard mills.

‘International Paper Mill and Georgetown, South Carolina, from the Air’, 1930-1945, courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Again and again throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we have witnessed the alchemical power of capitalism to rename a stink a sweet perfume and, in doing so, rebut attempts to regulate and close off the freedom of factories to pollute. Growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia in the 1950s, Henry Louis Gates Jr. described how the

“acrid, sulphurous odour of the… paper mill drifts along the valley, penetrating walls and clothing, furnishings and skin. No perfume can mask it. It is as much a part of the valley as is the river, and the people who live there are not overly disturbed by it. ‘Smells like money to me’, we were taught to say in its defence, even as children.”

As long as it makes money, capitalism is happy to call a base stench fragrant gold. When it comes to air and odour, life, liberty, and property, are often mutually exclusive rights for many of those living in the United States. 

Learning by smelling

The smell in your hand is intended to represent the materiality of the Liberty Bell and the complex relationship between the liberty to stink and liberty from stink in American culture, in the form of an olfactory essay. We hope that it raises awareness of the olfactory heritage around us, and the relationship between smell, power, and inequality in both the past and present.

Olfactory scenography ( a more neutral term than perfumery, a term with which the maker of this scent Carole Calvez herself does not necessarily identify) – is an art that mixes space, time, and smell to creative effect. It therefore has an amazing capacity for representing historical arguments and narratives. Carole Calvez described the a scent as a  combination of ‘metallic, smoky, oxidated, leathery, a bit animalic, mouldy, strong’ scents. To capturing the idea of freedom and liberty Calves involved a number of aldehydes, compounds that give the final result a sense of power, width, and size. 

The smokiness in the scent expresses the overwhelming olfactory impression of the French foundry that Calvez visited: ‘the bell foundry that day was so smokey and I will not ever forget that smell’. The smokiness also seeks to evoke the sense of lost heritage, as many foundries (including the Whitechapel foundry that crafted the Liberty Bell) are wound down and their buildings repurposed: it is the scent leftover from this moment of change. The Smell of Liberty intends to ‘communicate the smell of the foundry as if the foundry disappeared, revealing the monumental power of smell to act as a placeholder when the place itself has all but disappeared. 

This card is one part of a wider address to the nose, that calls for more open-minded and less purist notions of what it means to research and study the past. Smells and forms of smelling are not merely in the past, separated from us by a gulf of time, to be rationally and reasonably engaged with by scholars with an inflated sense of objectivity that protects them from the politics of the ‘present’

The rotten-egg stink of hydrogen sulphide that was emitted by algae in prehistoric extinction events has also been produced by nineteenth-century soap-factories, 1950s paper mills, and the pulping plants that continue to produce the massive amounts of cardboard required to fulfil demands for online shopping today. The same scent may yet be produced by warming oceans as we hasten our path to climate catastrophe. 

As Charles Babbage recognised: The air itself is one vast library…

Many of those olfactory deposits have not been decommissioned or left forgotten on the shelf. They are still circulating today. Some of these are scents we might value and wish to protect, like the smell of lost bell-foundries. Others, including the smells of industrial pollution, are continuing to perpetuate long-embedded forms of historical inequality. 

When it comes to smell, the past is present – it’s in the air we (are allowed to) breathe.

This text was originally presented with a scented card made for use at the American Historical Association’s annual conference in Philadelphia in January 2023. The Liberty Smells card was distributed as part of Odeuropa’s panel Knowing by Sensing—“Nose First” Methods for Research and Education of Olfactory Heritage and History, during a talk by Dr William Tullett, and in the form of a smell card.

The page was originally posted to the Odeuropa’s ‘City Sniffers’ application, which we have used for our event City Sniffers: a tour of Amsterdam’s eco history. The scented card that you are holding in your hand is the product of a separate collaboration between the Odeuropa Project, the olfactory scenographer Carole Calvez’s studio Iris & Morphée, and the American Historical Association. 


The storyline and image curation for this sensory storyline was produced by William Tullett. The smell was created by Carole Calvez at Iris and Morphée and the smell cards were printed by Olfapac. The creation of City Sniffers and this page was funded and coordinated by the Odeuropa Project.  

The creative direction of the Liberty Smells card was led by Sofia Collette Ehrich. The design of the card was supported by the American Historical Association and designed by Yael Gen and Sarah Muncy