Smell and the City

Urban smell enthusiasts

Shock, stench and filth: smell and historians of the urban environment

Cartoon from The Wasp of May 26, 1882, promoting the then-common racist myth that diseases were rampant in Chinatown.

I attended a fascinating talk last week, delivered by Director of the History of Medicine Unit at the University of Birmingham, Dr Jonathan Reinarz. Dr Reinarz, is a medical historian and has a book due to be published later this year entitled ‘Past Scents: Historical Perspectives of Smell’ (Northern Illinois University Press). One of the later chapters in the book examines historical urban smellscapes specifically, and it was this topic that Reinarz focussed in the talk, held at the University of Liverpool’s Department of History.

Drawing from his own research examining historical accounts of urban odours and the content of key existing publications on historical odours such as Corbin’s ‘Foul and the Fragrant’, Classen et. al’s ‘Aroma’, and Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’, Reinarz led the audience on a descriptive tour of the historical olfactory environments of a range of cities; from the ‘Intolerable odours’ of nineteenth Century Paris and ‘The monstrous City’ of London, through to Coleridge’s ‘Eau de Cologne’ (1828) and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Reinarz described the work of the sanitarians and observed an increasing deodorisation of the urban environment over time. He also talked of the way that smell was used in reinforcing racial stereotypes in the United States and United Kingdom with immigrants being asked to make themselves available for ‘sanitary salvation’ as part of what was considered at the time to be part of a process of civilization.

In relation to ’Smell and the City’, Reinarz’s observations and findings were interesting with respect to a number of issues. Although the case studies included those known and previously documented smellscapes of London and Paris, Reinarz highlighted new perspectives on these and also outlined in detail the historical smell environments of other cities where less has been written before (e.g. Sao Paulo, Calcutta etc.) He also drew some interesting observations relating to sensory cartography, talking of ‘olfactory landmarks’ in cities, which I have similarly found in contemporary cities of today and which I describe as ‘smellmarks’ a term originally coined by Porteous (1990, p27), as the olfactory equivalent of a landmark. Schafer (1994) famously also uses a similar term ‘soundmark’ in his work on urban soundscapes.

Additionally, I was very interested in Reinarz’s observations regarding Chinatowns, and in the questions session after the presentation, I highlighted the presence of odours emitted from nail bars and hair salons in many of the International areas and Chinatowns around the world where I have undertaken research (something that I myself am also writing on at the moment). One final perspective that Reinarz and I exchanged ideas and comments on at the end of the session was the idea that olfactory control strategies in cities are more sophisticated than
deodorisation alone. Reinarz’s research from the specific perspective of sanitisation of the city highlights a focus upon strategies of deodorisation, however within other aspects of city life, be it in entertainment and leisure districts, restaurants and markets, parks and greenspaces, other strategies of odour management are clearly at play (see those urban odour management strategies identified in my research, as highlighted in the ‘Fragrant Cities’ post).

In summary, Reinarz’s book should be well worth a read, providing new accounts of historical urban smellscapes with observations that are of interest and relevance to research into contemporary urban smell experiences and perceptions.

In addition to his publication on smell, Dr Reinarz is also currently working on An Oxford Companion to the Senses.

Blog update written by Victoria Henshaw


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This entry was posted on May 21, 2012 by in Smell and the City Project and tagged , , .
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