J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Smelling the Revolution

Chemical & Engineering News recently reported on various ways chemists are investigating, systematizing, and recreating the smells of the past.

This effort includes analyzing the smells of decaying books and paper and identifying the chemicals involved in that process, as shown above.

Other chemists are on “quests to deconstruct and recreate the odors of the past”:
Besides the technical difficulties of assembling a large number of molecules in the proper proportions, historian Mark Smith at the University of South Carolina cautions that interpreting these odors may be more difficult still. In previous eras, the omnipresent stench of unwashed bodies, manure, rotting fish, and wood smoke formed a nearly unnoticed olfactory backdrop that would likely overwhelm modern noses. Even if scientists recreate this odor landscape down to the last molecule, a 21st-century American will have a different experience with each inhale than a ninth-century Viking or a 17th-century Parisian. What we smell today will have an entirely different meaning to what they smelled back then.

“You have to ask whether your act of smelling something is the same as it was for them,” Smith says. The effort of interpreting historic smells “tells us more about us than it does the past.”

One example of our changing odor landscapes is the famous potpourri found at Knole, a 600-year-old manor house in Kent, southeast of London. Recipes helped historians create an accurate reproduction that is now for sale in the house’s gift shop. But Bembibre says that the potpourri, whose recipe dates to the 1750s, doesn’t always appeal to modern noses. The combination of dried flowers from the Knole garden, including lavender, bay leaves, and geraniums, and spices like mace and cinnamon, are foreign to some modern visitors, who aren’t accustomed to this combination of scents.
The Knole potpourri recipe was written down by Lady Elizabeth Germain (1680-1769), who left most of her fortune to Lord George Sackville, a descendant of one of her late husband’s friends. That man then changed his name to Lord George Germain and used the money to solidify his political standing. In 1775 he became the Secretary of State who avidly prosecuted the American War. We might say, therefore, that the Knole potpourri is one authentic smell of the American Revolution.

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