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  • Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America by Melanie Kiechle
  • Andrew J. Kettler
Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. By Melanie Kiechle (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2017. xviii plus 331 pp. $34.95).

Melanie Kiechle's Smell Detectives discovers the olfactory history of nineteenth century urban America through a reading of scientific, medical, and popular understandings of miasma theory and the olfactory components of decaying materials that were believed to cause disease. Her environmentalist monograph focuses upon how sanitary professionals arose to articulate olfactory detection as a means to counter the effluvia emanating from the back alleys of the Market Revolution. Kiechle's work concentrates upon Chicago and New York City, examining how American populations understood the existential threat of powerful odors.

Smell Detectives develops environmental history by exploring the professionalization of olfactory ideas about public health. Following in the historiographical path of Andrew Hurley's Common Fields (1997), Conevery Bolton Valencius' Health of the Country (2002), and Martin Melosi's The Sanitary City (2008), Kiechle explores how citizens of the nineteenth century understood their environments by smelling fetid air. For sensory studies, Kiechle specifically expands on questions of olfactory consciousness explored by Alain Corbin, Mark Smith's work regarding the odors of the Civil War, Mark Jenner's understanding of sensory identity, Constance Classen's inquiries on the odor of the other, and Adam Mack's sensory reading of early Chicago.

As an edition in the celebrated Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series from Washington University Press, Kiechle offers a monograph deeply grounded in archival sources, heavily quoted, and absent philosophical wanderings. To legitimize the work of sensory history, sometimes still regarded as fatuous, a forward from Paul Butter situates Smell Detectives within the context of environmental historiography and the ecological messages of the Fresh Air Fund. Kiechle correspondingly defines connections to modern environmental concerns by attending to the curious maple smells of New York City in 2005, chemical odors in Onondaga, New York in 2013, the licorice stench of Charleston, West Virginia in 2014, and in the putrid water pipes of Flint, Michigan in 2015.

Kiechle starts her analysis by discussing the application of miasma theory to smells that New York City faced during the Antebellum Era. She describes [End Page 1404] medical geographer John Hoskins Griscom as an early smell detective through his inquiries into diverse odors that invaded New York noses during the 1840s. Miasma theory held that fresh air could remove disease causing smells, leading to the push for city parks from developers like Andrew Jackson Downing. Chapter two studies a less legitimate group of smell detectives, urban citizens who encountered pungency in the tenements where they lived. These individuals communicated anecdotes regarding olfactory chemistry and botany that demonstrate the binding intellectual link between odor and disease among common citizens. Kiechle follows with a gendered analysis of smells within the domestic economy. Household essayists, like Catharine Beecher, were often concerned with what plants could be used in flower boxes to combat pungent miasma. Authors who explored these middle-class discourses on odor increased their output after toilets became common elements within modernizing American homes.

In chapter four, Kiechle argues that the Civil War was a moment that shifted these discourses of odor through the shared experience of foul smells on the battlefield, which acquainted all classes with the common experience of pungency. This collective familiarity instigated vast importance to the United States Sanitary Commission, which had recently combated odors in the instant cities that emerged near Western railroads. The following chapter defines how an increasing number of olfactory professionals emerged after the Civil War to explore miasma theory as a way to pronounce public health alarms. Focusing mostly on Chicago, this chapter discovers how sanitary reformers were increasingly granted social legitimacy, enough so that large scale reform initiatives, like the smelling committee of Frederick Mahla, were valid goals of public policy.

Kiechle then explores a growing distance between these professionals and commoners, especially as miasma theory was increasingly displaced in academic circles by an understanding that infection emerged from germs. Smell Detectives continues by analyzing synesthetic contours of odor and sight through a reading of...


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