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  • Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America by Melanie A. Kiechle
  • Jonathan Reinarz
Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. By Melanie A. Kiechle (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2017) 334 pp. $34.95

This book opens with an episode in 2005, when New Yorkers panicked following the sudden and overpowering advent of a maple-syrup scent. No, Canadians had not invaded the United States, the source turned out to be far more innocuous. But according to Kiechle, the public’s responses to scent on such occasions connect us with an age when aromas announced the arrival of epidemics and sickness. Discussions in nineteenth-century newspapers similarly reveal the anxieties of local “smell detectives” and demonstrate why sensory scholars continue to take scent seriously. In particular, Kiechle’s study explores the way in which Americans experienced their world and attempted to explain it through olfaction throughout a century that witnessed the rise of germ theory, but apparently not a decline in the importance of smelling.

The book considers three types of smell detective. The first is the physician, such as John Hoskins Griscom, whose career as chief medical officer in New York (1842/3) Kiechle considers in her opening chapter, alongside Griscom’s medical colleagues in polluted Providence and swampy New Orleans, who undertook sanitary surveys to map their cities’ filthiest and freshest districts, especially during epidemics. While [End Page 158] water supplies gradually improved, pure air grew ever scarcer, according to medical professionals who gathered vital statistics and identified pestiferous zones during this era. It fact, many seemed to be fighting a losing battle, as sickness saturated the air that urban inhabitants breathed.

The second chapter deals with these citizens, who daily shielded their fragile health with nosegays, handkerchiefs, and cigars, among other essences. Influential citizens regularly identified and confronted nuisances, occasionally unleashing the full authority of government on the worst offenders. Where battles seemed futile, as they did in the largest conurbations, those who could afford to abscond to the cleaner air of the countryside did so. Chapter 3, which examines the olfactory warfare that ordinary citizens waged against stenches in the domestic sphere, deals with those who could not escape. In particular, it charts the way in which homes were purified, most often by women determined to protect families from familiar “hazards” and emerging dangers.

Although germ theory might seem to be the pivot around which this story rotates, the Civil War, which disrupted communities for years and amplified stenches to “frightening intensities” actually assumes that role (107), convincing Americans that odors were both dangerous and required regulation. Army camps were described as mobile cities, and, accordingly, more soldiers died of disease than battle wounds. Lessons about how to keep camps clean were subsequently transferred to cities in peacetime. Yet, industrial growth further contaminated urban environments, many towns seemingly manufacturing more miasma than merchandise, thus encouraging a rural ideal and sometimes the establishment of boards of health to tackle the impact of uncontrolled economic growth. The professional chemists who often guided these committees appeared better able to follow scents to their source than did untrained noses—but not always. As Keichle demonstrates using a case study from 1860s Chicago, chemists, like other officials of urban government, would have to battle for authority and occasionally even defer to the power of the public nose.

Chapter 6 returns to the American home, where members of the public—again, largely women—adopted methods of deodorization and reconceptualized miasma in ways that anticipated germ theory to some extent. In Chapter 7, Kiechle enters courtrooms where chemical evidence sometimes won victories for reformers, but visual evidence usually scored the most decisive points. Public reactions against smell were now substantiated by chemical reactions, such as that which turned the walls of homes in East Cambridge, Mass., black in 1873. The book’s strongest chapter argues that the power of such visual evidence was reinforced through the production of smell maps, animated odors reappearing in the pages of the illustrated press. Descriptions of smells became unnecessary once they could be seen. Nevertheless, novel ways of articulating smell did not necessarily aid reformers in cleansing industrial districts...


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pp. 158-160
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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