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  • Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America by Melanie Kiechle
  • Nicolas Kenny (bio)
Melanie Kiechle
Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America
Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2017.
xviii + 331 pages, 35 illustrations.
ISBN: 978-0-2957-4193-2, $34.95 HB

Melanie Kiechle’s thoroughly researched and highly evocative journey through the olfac-tory landscape of American cities in the nineteenth century is a welcome contribution to a rapidly growing body of scholarship interrogating the past through the perspective of the senses.1 Long classified with taste and touch as one of the lower senses— intuitive and animalistic, unlike the supposedly more rational and objective senses of sight, and to some extent, sound— smell has captured growing attention as scholars have sought to problematize this sensory ranking inherited from the Enlightenment.2 As Kiechle notes in her introduction, “nineteenth-century Americans took smell seriously,” thus requiring historians to pay equally serious attention to it (7), and to enrich their narratives by searching for the meeting point between lay and scientific conceptions of environmental realities (10). Indeed, smell was a perpetual concern throughout the period, says Kiechle, exploring what life was like in a time and in places characterized by powerful, frequent, and ever intensifying stench. Marshaling an impressive body of evidence, Smell Detectives reveals not just the fears and anxieties about odors that permeated representations of cities in all quarters, but more broadly, the way understandings of smell itself shifted as city dwellers sought to navigate and make sense of their changing environment during this period of unprecedented, and very stinky, urbanization.

Borrowing the term from Charles Frederick Chandler, president of the New York City Board of Health from 1873 to 1883, Kiechle defines smell detectives as “anyone who followed her nose” in trying to locate the origins of and attribute meaning to the smells enveloping cities. While smells might have paled in comparison to other urgent political issues of the day, Kiechle’s unearthing of complaints, debates, legal proceedings, journalistic investigations, and scientific research shows how “they were a continuous concern that shaped the lives of Americans and the physical, governmental, and social development of American cities” (16). As such, virtually anyone could be, and was, a smell detective, so pervasive were repugnant odors in crowded industrial cities where sanitary measures were initially nonexistent, then slow to be adopted. Indeed, the range of voices the author [End Page 110] draws on is vast, and throughout the work we hear from physicians, sanitarians, scientists, politicians, domestic advice writers, and a wide array of what we might call ordinary citizens, women and men of various class, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.

At stake in these conversations and throughout the century, Kiechle convincingly argues, were competing understandings of the legitimacy of these detectives’ differing olfactory observations in identifying the cause and assessing the dangers of the smells that so haunted American cities. When Chandler coined his term, he was in fact denying the capacity of ordinary citizens to arrive at accurate understandings of these phenomena through their noses. In doing so, he sought to reinforce the social and cultural authority of a growing class of scientists and physicians attempting to leverage their expertise into political authority. This process, suggests Kiechle, ultimately resulted in a decreasing reliance on the sense of smell in gauging the salubriousness of the environment and in making decisions about how cities should be organized.

It is in these nineteenth-century developments that the author situates the relative absence of smell from public discourse in contemporary American society, though not without pointing to occasional flare-ups where mysterious smells continue to elicit serious concerns. This shift occurred slowly, accompanying but not always directly correlating to scientific developments, the most transformative of which was the advancement of germ theory. In advocating for politics and the law to account for scientific evidence in purifying the city, experts initially shared in, but later found themselves running up against, what Kiechle playfully calls “common sense,” the lived experience of urbanites whose noses told them their environs were unpleasant and by extension unsafe, and whose interpretations of the cause of these smells, and what should be...


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pp. 110-112
Launched on MUSE
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