Smell and the City

Urban smell enthusiasts

The stories and meanings of smells? Petrol, chip shops and Playdoh

I was recently sent a list of eleven different smells by a journalist and asked to comments on the meanings of these. Although this isn’t an exact science, each of the smells does have a story so I thought I would share them here on the blog, in case anyone found them of interest… you never know, you might some of your own favourite smell is listed on there!


Petrol – the smell of petrol is potentially toxic and we detect through both our nose and also out trigeminal nerve (the touch nerve in our face). When we are born, any smell that tickles our trigeminal nerve makes us pull a face of disgust thereby limiting the amount of the smell we breathe in, this is one of the few hard-wired smell (dis)presences we have when we are born, although as we grow we can of course learn to love it!


Freshly baked bread – this is one of people’s most favourite smells – it doesn’t matter what country you survey in, the smells of bread products of one form or another are always rated highly, after all what’s not to like about this smell, all the associations are good ones including the satiation of hunger, the warmth of the bread, memories of eating it with family and friends.


Chanel no 5. – This traditional perfume has a fascinating history being one of the very first for women that didn’t aim to simulate the smell of a flower, but instead allow wearers to ‘smell like a woman’. Most of the jasmine used in Chanel no. 5 is grown in the Grasse valley in Southern France and whilst visiting there a couple of years ago, I was extremely impressed to find jasmine growing in plenty throughout the old town centre, a perfumed fountain scenting the air and even a giant replica bottle of Chanel no.5 situated in the centre of a traffic-island fountain outside the town’s Palais de Congress!  

Takeaway Fish and Chips

Fish and Chip shop – Fish and chips is a firm traditional favourite not only our diet but also in our list of smells. Although many strong food smells emitted by take-aways are frequently found unpleasant by people depending upon their own dietary and cultural preferences, fish and chips seems to transcend the boundaries as we are reminded of trips to the seaside and our culinary heritage.


Roast Dinner – Similar to fish and chips, the smells of roast dinners again feature as a favourite on many people’s smell preference lists but interestingly are frequently associated with the roast dinners cooked by particular people or at particular places for example ‘Sunday dinner cooked by my mum’.

cut grass

 Just cut grass – This smell appears time and time again in favourite smells lists in the UK – we Brits simply love our freshly cut grass given the positive associations with our parks and gardens,  summer, picnics and childhood…. That is of course unless you are a hay-fever sufferer, in which case this smell might appear within one of your most disliked lists, it’s all a matter of perspective!


The sea – The sea and the seaside are loved by many as we are reminded of happy days building sandcastles, eating ice-cream and riding the donkeys in the sunshine with our families. This smell has particular meaning for those who grow up next to the sea and certainly towns and cities situated next to the sea have a very different ‘smellscape’ than those inland. Not everyone loves this smell though. Given the important association between smell and memory, reports from Tsunami survivors occasionally report the smell of the sea as instigating panic attacks following their traumatic experiences, frequently requiring specialist counselling in order to overcome this fear.


Fresh laundry – In the smell surveys I have run, I have found this smell to be particularly liked by young men along with that of the soap powder itself. It also appears as a favourite for older people, particularly when we talk about the smell of laundry dried outside on the washing line in the sunshine – that great smell of the fresh outdoors! In this latter case, the smell is associated with cleanliness, freshness and nature.


Recently photocopied paper – This smell is again one of those odours detected by our trigeminal nerve and therefore less likely to be liked by people, although there are some of us, including myself dare I say it, who really like this odour. The comforting warmth of the paper does play a role though, providing welcome respite from the cold.

playdough Playdoh – For those born post 1950s, the sweet almondy smell of the American product playdoh frequently features in nostalgic memories of growing up. In the UK, plastercine similarly instigates nostalgic memories although this smell has been around much longer, with the product having been invented in the late 1800s in Bath. Studeis have shown that examples of nostalgic smell preferences such as these change depending upon which decade you are born, for those born before the 1950s natural smells such as grass and hay prevail whereas the later you are born, the more your childhood favourites are likely to be influenced by synthetic product odours. As a child of the 1970s, some of my favourites include the smell of the orange plastic pump-bags I remember hanging on my coat-hook at school, or the smell of flip-flops, beach balls and sun-cream from sunny Spanish holidays.

pilebooksNew books – Books have very distinctive smells and are strongly influenced by age. Newer books smell of fresh print and paper – a heady odour with subtle trigeminal qualities, I love it! Older books however site as a firm favourite in people’s preferences as the aged paper and toxic inks provide a rich, vanilla and tobacco like odour that can be associated with old wooden libraries, leather chairs and warmth.



3 comments on “The stories and meanings of smells? Petrol, chip shops and Playdoh

  1. George
    April 16, 2014

    Fun read. Hope you don’t mind my filling in some insider info from the last forty years in the Fragrance industry. Playdo contained a Vanilla fragrance. It was a non-discoloring formula so it resembles an inexpensive vanilla candle. There was likely some Benzaldehyde which provides a cherry almond note you mention. Chanel 5 was a dominate fragrance category type so hundreds of variants were launched in personal and air care products. Perfumers always alluded to C5 fatty aldehydes and woody powdery notes that formed comfort softness early memories from milk.

  2. smellandthecity
    April 17, 2014

    Brilliant, thanks for the insights George!

  3. Jorge
    June 24, 2014

    More than a vanilla smell, I would describe Playdough smell (one of my favorite smells from childhood in the 70’s) as oily, like the air around a vegetable oil factory, and also sweet almondy but not as aggressive as a benzaldehyde almond, more in the way of acetophenone which is more powdery and longlasting, and there is also something that reminds of berries in it, probably in the form of some ionones in the composition. I think it is in fact a very easygoing honeysuckle type of perfume that at a very weak concentration and along with the smell of the components of dough gives this, gentle, sweet and iconic smell.

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This entry was posted on April 12, 2014 by in Smell and the City Project.
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