What did The Battle of Hastings smell like?
July 24, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

The jasmine and leather notes of a Chanel perfume from 1927 help us understand the boldly androgynous women of the flapper era, just as the candied sweetness of the latest Victoria’s Secret fragrance tells us something about femininity today.

I should think it tells us more about what perfumers then and now thought about femininity.

Still, it's an interesting idea. Reconstructing ancient scents from their recipes -- I'd like to smell the results. Best results might come from reconstructing temple incense recipes, since incense has been widely used cross-culturally and the recipes are often well preserved. It would be interesting to know what God smelled like to different peoples.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:42 AM on July 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

I've read that certain countries have a "smell", like Russia supposedly smells like a combination of cucumber peels, diesel oil and some other things. That's how history records smell, through description - Emile Zola has amazing passages on the smell of 1860s Paris in his novel The Kill, basically like dieing flowers and musty carpet. Maybe we need historians trained in the art of fiction who can evocatively record smells.
posted by stbalbach at 9:48 AM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Hong Kong of my childhood is closely associated with the smell of its subway system, metallic but oddly pleasant. Haven't returned in many years, but very occasionally there is some object whose smell will trigger memories of that place, the bustling streets and the very tall, concrete buildings. Meanwhile NYC smells like rotting garbage.
posted by polymodus at 9:57 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Historically accurate smells will destroy Ren Faires.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:57 AM on July 24, 2011 [15 favorites]

Vietnam smells different from America, except where the sewer is malfunctioning. (That smells the same everywhere, I think. It's just more frequent in Vietnam.) The stores where there is air conditioning smell faintly acrid. The streets near markets smell of overripe tropical fruits and spoiled vegetables; other streets smell like durian and asphalt and dust. Places where they sold food smelled delicious, like basil and mint and pepper and beef.

We visited a village where fish sauce is made; the whole place smelled of it. It was inescapable and foul. (I say that as a person who loves fish sauce.)
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:05 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

So many perfumes have been reformulated, using different ingredients, that I can't imagine that the past, with all the banned substances, can ever be accurately portrayed in scents. Chanel from 1927 isn't going to smell remotely the same if made today, thanks to the IFRA.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:11 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mostly horse poop, I'd think.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:39 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Emperor Napoleon used a citrus cologne that left him reeking of orange peels. Josephine preferred a blend of vanilla, clove, and cinnamon. Sometimes Josephine didn't wash at all, because Napoleon liked her natural scent.

On the day John Dillinger was killed, it was hot. His shirt was redolent of perspiration and crime.

The Hindenburg disaster smelled of burning fuel.

Jesus had stinky feet.

On the day she died, Princess Diana wore a floral, amber fragrance; a sun-drenched voyage to Mediterranean countries. Pure, glowing and sensual.

The Gold Rush had the distinct odor of leather and wood.

Einstein used the same soap to bathe and shave. At the very moment he first glimpsed the critical notions of General Relativity, he smelled of myrrh and ginger, with medium notes of caraway seed and sandalwood.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:48 AM on July 24, 2011 [13 favorites]

lets us start with the last breath of Thomas Edison.
posted by clavdivs at 10:58 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The early 1990s smelled like Teen Spirit.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 11:10 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know who didn't use perfume? That's right, Hitler.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:31 AM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Jesus had stinky feet.

Not true! He had people washing them for him all the time.
posted by molecicco at 11:42 AM on July 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

Jesus had stinky feet.

Not true! He had people washing them for him all the time.

Definitely a Muslim custom which threatens America's social fabric.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:53 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know who didn't use perfume? That's right, Hitler.

He created his own fragrance.
posted by homunculus at 12:00 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

From everything I have read of the smells of the past, which included chamber pots emptied into the gutters, outhouses, rotting dead animals,horseshit everywhere, and people who washed once a year if that, I think some things are better left behind in the no-smell pages of history. As to perfume, it seems more and more people are allergic or just hate it. Better to leave that in the past too, like cigar smoke and spittoons.
posted by mermayd at 12:08 PM on July 24, 2011

Reminds me of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume, which you should definitely take a look at if you're into the power of smell in relation to emotions. (Also, leather and jasmine? Damn, that sounds good.)
posted by troublewithwolves at 12:38 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Smell ya later!
posted by curious nu at 12:45 PM on July 24, 2011

Perfume, while I am generally against it, I can appreciate the artistry that goes into creating a good one. A good perfume is good. But it's rare.

I am eminently FOR air fresheners. I like my space to smell like me. At the moment, that's cigarettes, fabric softener, new car, rain (these two thanks to lots and lots of California Scents air fresheners around my house), ginger, and coffee. I get comments whenever people visit my house. Usually (and I hope this isn't just selective memory) favorable.

I am completely and utterly and enthusiastically for ablations and footbaths becoming a widely accepted social practice. Can we can we can we please?
posted by saysthis at 1:26 PM on July 24, 2011

I suspect a lot of human history smells of BO, blood and feces, so count me out at that part.
posted by Mcable at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2011

Every large city I go to smells like roasting peppers to me. I finally figured out it's probably bus fumes.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:42 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Chanel from 1927 isn't going to smell remotely the same if made today, thanks to the IFRA.

Well, even absent IFRA the finance folk in almost any large perfume house are happy to change formulae on a dime. More than once in very short periods of time, even as I write. Serious perfume buyers can get very tetchy on this subject. Why the act is not fraud, I do not know.

IFRA, though- curious crew. A non-elected non-governmental industry group that effectively dictates EU laws on scent. Because of them, it is illegal to use, e.g., citrus oil, a staple ingredient for centuries, in body touching products (like perfume). Because, they say, it is phototoxic on albino guinea pigs (pdf file). Perhaps they are correct.

Fortunately for EUropeans, we inhabit the age of living better through chemistry which can produce artificial chemical compounds that fall under the patents held by certain large companies. Which is useful in a world where you cannot patent a recipe. And where certain large companies make huge profits on cheap perfume that others cannot copy. The results are not always good, so the crap you smell these days - and rightly object to - well, it didn't used to be that way.

Happily for non EUropeans, other countries whose officials take a more lax view of, say, citrus oil, are willing to step up, and there are any number of craft perfumers (like craft brewers) taking to the smell waves in America and that ancient land of scent, the Middle East.

Worth a post on its own, really.

(Surprised no one has mentioned Odorama.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:49 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

This FPP stinks.

(in a good way!)
posted by Chipmazing at 2:09 PM on July 24, 2011

If you record the smell of a fart, are you doing it for posteriority?
posted by MuffinMan at 2:37 PM on July 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

Some historic perfumes, such as Queen of Hungary water (invented by a dead ancestress of mine), the rose water and musk in olive oil used by ancient Greek athletes, Russian musk, patchouli, for example ought to be revived.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:53 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing about smell is that we, as humans, readily adapt to it. I imagine that most people have had the experience where you haven't left your house for three days (including not taking the trash out) and then your friend comes over and gags on the stench and you're all, but it smells perfectly fine to me!

The days before plumbing were a lot like that. There was shit (human and animal) lying around all over the place, and it reeked. But that was simply what the world smelled like, so people were used to that being the way their world smelled. I think that's the most important context that we should be keeping in mind as we explore the past olfactorily.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 4:55 PM on July 24, 2011

A couple of smell memories:

In Pittsburgh in the early 60s, steel mills still used Bessemer converters. When one of those babies was working--a spectacle called a "blow"--the smell was indescribable, fire and metal and smoke. My grandfather said, "that's the smell of prosperity." (Bessemers were last used in the late 60s and Pittsburgh doesn't smell like steel anymore.)

Another smell, perhaps less worth preserving: Ground Zero a few months after 9/11. The air had a strange, gritty, chemical quality. You could taste it. Very disturbing.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:55 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love this idea. Scent is a powerful memory trigger for me. Every so often I smell something and I spend the next hour searching my mind for what the scent was referencing. Sometimes I remember, but usually I'm left in a sort of scent-based nostalgia stupor. I approve.
posted by danherwig at 7:46 PM on July 24, 2011

posted by Lipstick Thespian at 8:23 PM on July 24, 2011

a perfume called Kiss Me Tender, a delicate perfume of almond-like heliotrope that was inspired by a perfume base from the 19th century.

Ahh. I love perfume. Not the commercial ones generally, although there are exceptions, like Magie Noire, but the artisanal ones, such as by L'Artisan Parfumeur. Premier Figuier - Ripe figs drenched in Mediterranean sunlight or Annick Goutal.

Historical fragrances

And, oh, the delectable descriptions of the perfumes, they give me deep thrills: > A fresh swept of bergamot in harmony with a delicate tea aroma. Voluptuous roses from
Bulgaria and Morocco, jasmine from Egypt, creates its heart of spicy notes enhanced with Guatemala Cardamom. Suddenly, Oha luxuriates in the captivating powdery notes notes of vanilla, iris, tonka bean and
exotic woods lifted by a note of white musk. Base Notes of Vanilla, Iris, Tonka Bean, Exotic Woods,
White Musk , Middle Notes of Bulgarain Rose, Morrocan, Rose, Jasmine, Cardamom, Top Notes of Bergamot, Tea. Olfactory Family: Floral Chypre

Thanks for the post, rageagainsttherobots.
posted by nickyskye at 9:42 PM on July 24, 2011

Perfume can be absolutely lovely, in extremely tiny amounts. More than a tiny amount, and it's an offence against humanity and should involve Den Hague.

The ability of fragrance to take me back in time is extreme. I am usually able to go in to details of what it is invoking. I will go so far as to feel sun on my skin, if it's that kind of memory (the aroma of sun-baked creosote-treated wood does that especially, whether railroad ties or the trestle work of a wooden rollercoaster. Add stale piss, and it's my youth in NYC).
posted by Goofyy at 1:03 AM on July 25, 2011

I caught an episode of show on the History Channel (not even sure what it was) where the presenter was trying to advance the point that the poor hygiene of Paris just prior to the revolution is part of what fueled it -- the living-in-filth was one of the things people got fed up with.

As part of his effort to drive home just how unclean things were, he went to a perfumery and worked with them to create a blend of the different odors people would have smelled at all times during that period -- sewage from chamberpots, dung from horses, blood and offal from butchers, lye and other chemicals from the tanners, B.O. from people who didn't have the means to bathe, all concentrated in a walled city...every single person who took a whiff instantly started retching.

I almost wanted him to do that for other periods in history just to see.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2011

Recently spoke to a woman bookbinding hobbyist who, working on a c. 1750 medical text, was assailed with the smells of the fire, tallow candles, soot etc: it would have been heavily used for say a few decades, then never used again as out of date, and all those smells were the same molecules that entered the paper as it was read by the fireside in the eighteenth century...only she would get to smell it though...
posted by maiamaia at 2:38 PM on July 25, 2011

Do tallow candles smell like donuts?
posted by Sys Rq at 3:56 PM on July 25, 2011

If you record the smell of a fart, are you doing it for posteriority?

Nah. Mostly just for shits and giggles.
posted by stenseng at 11:22 AM on July 26, 2011

nickyskye--Annick Goutal is owned by Starwood Capital. L'Artisan Parfumeur is still privately owned. Perfume companies that aren't commercial don't tend to really last.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:34 PM on July 26, 2011

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