Our senses serve as gateways to the past. More than any other, the sense of smell is linked directly to our emotions and our deepest memories. A whiff of a scent from childhood triggers instant nostalgia — an herb from Grandmother’s garden, newly sharpened pencils, Mom’s perfume. Yet many once common scents from recent history are rapidly disappearing, some more pleasant than others — mothballs, burning leaf piles in the fall, typewriter ribbons, and cigarette smoke in public places.
Human history is filled with smells that will likely never be reclaimed. A modern person will never know the scent of a New York City street in the 1930s, the smells of a busy shopping day in Ancient Rome, or the odiferous atmosphere of Versailles in the 1600s. One compelling reason to avoid time travel is the fact that modern sensibilities would be overwhelmed by smell! Many western 19th century cities are described as smelling like a combination of horse manure, body odor, unrefrigerated fish, and raw sewage — ample excuse to remain comfortably in our own sanitized century.
For historians, however, now is a particularly interesting time to work in the field of smell. One of the many things the pandemic made people reconsider is our ability to discern smells. The COVID-19 virus caused symptomatic smell loss to people across the globe, creating a heightened awareness of the olfactory sense.
Carolina Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina Mark M. Smith, Ph.D., is a widely published scholar of sensory history, which he has described as stressing the role of the senses in shaping people’s experiences in the past and showing how they understood their worlds and why. Sensory history, which includes smell, is an endeavor to apply all five senses to our understanding of the past. Beyond just sight, which is the primary way people view and report upon events, sensory history explores how hearing, olfaction, taste, and tactility also shaped the ways people experienced and remembered certain occasions.
Throughout history, wars have been events that bombard each of the five senses, including the sense of smell. Dr. Smith writes about the Civil War in his book, The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege, describing “the violent smells, starting with the powerful, nostril-stinging odor of gunpowder.” He writes that the smells at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 were “exceptional.”
The scale of the battle, the roughly 6 million pounds of human and horse flesh, bone, and offal coating the hot fields and soaking into the Pennsylvania soil, the numbing smell of 22,000 wounded people — all of this made it olfactorily unprecedented. According to accounts, the reek lasted until October, nearing the time of the first frost. …
Years after the battle, when the veterans met again on those same fields, they found something missing. When 50,000 veterans converged on Gettysburg in 1912, the atmosphere was clean. “The sanitary arrangements are perfect, no foul smells, no flies.”
As Dr. Smith writes, “Unlike the eye and mouth, which were ‘well defended’ — eyes could blink and mouths could shut — the nose cannot ‘close the gates.’ Smells are transgressive, punching their way inside. … The nose and its sense of smell is always engaged, always in and of the world, constantly and instantly delivering unfiltered information to the brain.”
Recent progress in the scientific study of smell has revealed that our sense of smell involves judgment and interpretation, meaning a scent in a different context can alter how we perceive the same sensory stimuli. As we apply the new scientific research about smell to our knowledge of history, we have the exciting opportunity to expand further our understanding of the lives and times of those who came before us.