What Did The Past Smell Like?
Scent is perhaps our most evocative sense. How many of our earliest memories revolve around the scent of food being prepared by a parent, the smell of oil and chemicals in the garage or the aroma of the flowers in our yards as we romped as children? Scent can immediately transport us back to our earliest days, before we even had the words to describe our experiences.
As we learn more and more about the past through developments in modern science and research, a new world opens up to us where we can recreate the past and with it a much better understanding of the real life experiences of our ancestors.
While great time and attention has been given to recreating the manner in which people dressed, ate and spoke, the notion of “historical smells” has been a bit overlooked.
The difficulty is that descriptions of past scents are people’s stated impressions. Labels express conceptualizations. They are not the same as perceptions. They also may not tell us specifically what materials were present. As horticulturalists know, a rose by any other name consists of hundreds of different volatiles and miscellaneous fragrant notes. The smells of Bulgarian roses are not the same as the roses in Kew Garden London.
Descriptions of odor also vary between cultures. A 2016 study showed that even French and Franco-Canadians today may not agree in their experience and evaluation of the same odor: For the French, for example, wintergreen was rated much less pleasantly than for French-Canadians. “In France, wintergreen is used more in medicinal products than in Canada, where it is found more in candy,” a press release for the study stated. “Anise was rated similarly in two cultures but was described more often as ‘licorice’ in Quebec and as ‘anise’ in France.” This sort of discrepancy between two cultural notions of the same scent can make quantifying historical scents difficult.
Unlike other areas of historical research and preservation dealing with tangible or easily recreated artifacts such as clothing, art or music, delving into the historical record of fragrance can mean navigating a wealth of “opinions and impressions” where two different sources may describe the same odor in very different terms.
In the hope of developing a more scientifically rigorous approach to the study of scent, a new project has been launched this year called Odeuropa. Odeuropa opens up a new sensory experience of history. The researchers will create a catalog of past scents by digging through 250,000 images and thousands of texts (in seven languages), ranging from medical descriptions of smells in textbooks to labels of fragrances in novels or magazines. Machine learning will help to cross-analyze the plethora of descriptions, contexts, and occurrence of odor names (such as tobacco, lavender, and probably horse manure). This catalog serves as the conceptual basis for perfumers and chemists to create fragrant molecules fitting 120 of these descriptors.
As we move farther away from our historical cultures into a more homogenized and mass-produced world, the scents of history can become not only an important link with our own past, but with that of our ancestors. Many of the scents that we take for granted are not the smells that our ancestors experienced. Examples of this are common food items like orange juice or vanilla extract – in our contemporary world, synthetic versions of these scents dominate, to the point that many people associate the artificial version of a fragrance to be the “authentic” version of that odor. Gaining a greater understanding of the nature of historical fragrances and perfumes could unlock a whole new world of perfumery rooted in the past.
If you are interested in learning more, you can watch the introductory video for the Odeuropa project here.