The History of Smell

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Professor Jonathan Reinarz
Recorded: 07/05/2014
Broadcast: 17/06/2014

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: We’re here today with medical historian, Professor Jonathan Reinarz, who is Director of the History of Medicine Unit here at the University of Birmingham. Hi Jonathan. 

Jonathan: Hello there.  

Sam: So can you tell us a bit about what you do here at the university?

Jonathan: Well I’m based in the Medical School so my main teaching is with the medical students and as part of broadening their educations I teach them the history of medicine. Some of my colleagues teach them ethics, some medical sociology, but I focus on introducing them to new ways of thinking about the things that they’re doing today by taking a historical perspective. 

Sam: We’re here today to talk about your book, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell, which was out in February 2014. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and how it came about?

Jonathan: This is a project that’s been running alongside what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years really. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of medicine in here and doctors in the past did use smell as an important means of diagnosis and they also thought they’d warn people of pending epidemics, dangerous locations and environments, but really this was a topic that came out of my PhD thesis which was on the history of brewing.

Sam: So the book takes a historical perspective on smell. When’s the first record of smell?

Jonathan: I’ve organised this into six chapters and it begins with religion and smell because it’s pretty much the earliest. So I’d say those early references to smell are the ones where let’s say a religious ceremony involves sacrifice, or the burning of incense, whether it’s just a very small token like grass or part of a harvest, or a very elaborate ritual in say South America or in Europe, but in say the 4th Century or 5th Century AD. There’s chapters on the perfume trade, the way that the perfume trade developed from that ancient period that we hear so much about but really I wanted to summarise because this isn’t my own research in many cases; I was trying to pull together what has been written on say the trade of incense from Arabia and Somalia in this ancient period, but then I take it right up until the modern day where I can look at the global perfume industry, but there’s also chapters on race, gender, class and the way that we differentiate between people in society based on smells.  

Sam: And is there a clear way that fashion can define good smell and bad smell?

Jonathan: That’s a good question because I think in a nutshell, the whole history of smell is defined by the good and the bad. Or as Alain Croban, who is really a significant writer in this area has defined it, ‘the foul and the fragrant’. At first it makes you think of it in terms of a very straightforward difference. You probably have already ideas in your head of what is a good smell and what is a bad smell, but when you start to think about it, these changed historically depending on all sorts of other issues. So cultural ones for example that for Christian’s, the smells that were associated with your religion were very clearly good ones but then those that you might have encountered when you met other people from around the world who had different rituals, their smells were regarded as threatening or bad. And then of course this changes throughout history. Regardless of which people you look at, I imagine that this started the first time there’s a face to face encounter between two people from very different cultures, ‘they smell different from me; that’s a bad smell’, as much as I don’t value very much what people said about which smells were good or bad, they’re more lenses to examine bigger processes. 

Sam: So from a collection of past trends of smell, is there any way you can predict from them what the next big change in the perception of smell is going to be?

Jonathan: I think it’s funny that we are sort of being overwhelmed with smells from all over. People travel, we’re encountering so many different things, you know, you’re not just eating an English breakfast and a roast dinner on the weekends but you’re trying foods from different countries that in a way, people are always looking for something different and there’s just so much available to everyone today. I mean what’s very clear is that the next fashion was always on the horizon but it was something that the wealthy upper classes basically detected and then everybody who could afford it would follow in their path. Eventually in the last hundred years we got to a situation where perfume is essentially available to everyone. So the upper classes tend to change their scents very quickly and you see fashions start to charge very quickly with globalisation, new smells come in, the animal scents go out in the 18th Century and people start to define their sort of refined status by wearing the lighter floral fragrances and then along in the late 19th Century come the chemists in the perfume industry who create these entirely abstract fragrances. So you suddenly have this potential to create fragrances which aren’t there in nature. What do they mean? If they don’t smell like rose or iris or something that’s identifiable, when you have something like a Chanel No.5 which has 80 ingredients with maybe a few floral scents dominating, you start to get I guess the equivalent of abstract art in painting. You get these abstract compositions and this becomes interesting because some people obviously have their preferred scents and they make them very fashionable but they can mean all sorts of different things and some of these female scents become male scents, we have of course unisex scents. I think we will start seeing more men exploring women’s scents as well because I think we’ve seen this in the past. I think we’ve clearly opened things up in the perfume industry where people expect unisex scents and there’s some designers who are very playful with their advertising and you see some very challenging portrayals of scents for men, and for women, and I think this is something which will keep those trends going but they’re moving very quickly, especially since we have this new phenomenon since about the 1980s with celebrity perfumes. People start to define their identity based on their favourite celebrities, but celebrities we know changes very quickly. A few have long lives and they’re still around from the 80s and the 90s but if you look down the list of celebrity perfumes, there's a lot that people would find difficult to identify. I mean the names themselves, they’re there one day and they’re off the shelves the next and I think we’re going to see these abstract scents really changing in future, but we’re getting more and more used to the ones that are identifiable. 

Sam: So those are the trends for perfumes and commercial smell. What are the trends for historians?

Jonathan: That’s a good question because when you do the sort of survey that I’ve tried to undertake in this book you immediately see what’s been done and what hasn’t been done and I hope that a lot of people read Past Scents and identify an area that requires more research. We’ve obviously focused on the West quite a lot and that includes the fragrances of the West, you know, from Babylon to Revlon, we’ve looked at all the scents that we’re familiar with but there was a scent industry in South America, in Africa, other parts of the world. There was a scent industry that was bringing exotic fragrances to other countries. China had its roots, we had our links with the Arabian Peninsula but I think it would be worth exploring those other trades. And Sandalwood for example, from Hawaii to Melanesia, into China and India. But there's other religions. I mean I recognised there’s a lot of work that’s been done on smell and scent rituals in Christianity but a lot more work could be done. Buddhism for example, you have to simply enter a Buddhist temple to realise how important scent is in other religions. I like the case studies in this book that completely disrupt the way that we think about smell. Smell’s always been tied to the upper classes and its perfumes are a luxury and they gradually become available to everyone but when you read about who’s using their nose productively in society, it’s those middle class scent hunters of the age of Chadwick, of public health reform, but from the work that I’ve done you can see that ordinary people are using scent on an everyday basis within work. Cooks, tea samplers, the coffee industry relies on smell, lots of food production but also lots of people outside of food production from barrel makers, any sort of vessel that’s going to contain something to be shipped, you have to make sure those are sanitary and clean. You’re not going to hire a chemist to do this every time you perform tests. Sometimes it’s an ordinary sniff that will determine whether this is appropriate for use. So I hope lots of people start to do work in those areas. What’s fashionable in the history of the scent is to look beyond one’s scent. Now when you’re doing things in your everyday life, you’re smelling, you’re hearing, you’re looking.  So to focus on one particular sense the way I have in this book is a little bit unrealistic but there’s still so much to discover. 

Sam: Well only time will tell what scents will be on the horizon. Professor Jonathan Reinarz, thank you very much for joining us today. 

Jonathan: You’re welcome. Thanks for your time. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.