"Scents" of smell

Book cover: Reading Smell in Eighteenth Century Fiction

As one of the five senses humans possess, smell is relied upon to fully inform us of our environment. We process odors every day – so why is it so difficult to explain certain smells to others? Emily Friedman, associate professor of English, says that describing a scent to someone can be challenging because there are different contexts and historical elements that might keep us from sharing a similar olfactory experience with another person. Friedman explored some of these issues in her book, Reading Smell in Eighteenth-Century Fiction

The idea of exploring how smell is described in text occurred when Friedman was visiting a colleague’s home a few years ago.

“Dr. Rupa Mishra, in the Department of History, is a collector of vintage perfume and we were talking about how hard it is to describe something that you haven’t smelled before. I became really interested in that idea of what that means across time and place, and also what it means across history,” Friedman said.  

Friedman discovered that the history of describing aroma could be injected into just about any subject she explored, like theater, for example. 

"What I found was that theater was much smellier both in its language, and in the fact that there are candles made out of tallow {which is rendered from beef or mutton fat} used on stage for lighting," Friedman said. 

Another aspect of exploring the topic of smell arose from one of Friedman’s previous institutions. She received a master’s degree from the University of York, which she describes as a medieval city with lots of museums. The most famous of the museums, Jorvik, was the first museum to pump in scents for visitors to get the full experience of an exhibit. 


"It’s a wonderful, cool little city," Friedman said of York. "It’s one of the oldest and most continually occupied cities in the UK, so the Vikings lived there, the Romans lived there, basically everybody has put their own stamp on it. But there are no Vikings around to tell us if the smells being used are authentic, and so it became this question of, ‘what does it mean to recover historical scents?’ And from that I questioned how we use smell imagery, for lack of a better word. We use smell languages in our texts to convey certain kinds of feelings. If I say that somebody smells like cheese, or if I say they smell like flowers, it means something in our context, and would that be the same going back in time? And what are the smelly touchstones that we’ve forgotten?" 

Friedman began to take these questions and develop them into wide-scale research and focused case studies of some of the most common uses of olfactory language in eighteenth-century British prose fiction. 

"This was not at all the book I thought I was going to write on any level. I thought that the book would be this pleasant-smelling history of perfume. But I found myself becoming really interested in the topic and in the circles of people who work on this stuff." 

Instead of a history book on perfume, Friedman's book contains chapters on ammonia, body odor, tobacco, sulfur, and no smell at all. "It's been very strange. There’s a conference called ‘Sniffapolooza’ and I get the strangest kinds of media requests, like from Men’s Health Australia, Cosmo, things like that," Friedman said. 

Friedman talked about scents across cultures and how something like "baby smell" would be powder or baby shampoo in the U.S., but in other countries, it's entirely different. 

"Orange blossom is what babies are cleansed with in France. And in Cuba, violet water is used to clean babies," Friedman said. 

When asked if there is a smell that everyone could relate to and has the same aroma across cultures –Friedman had a unique answer.

"I think one of the things that people are absolutely aware of as a universal scent is the smell of death. Decay is pretty much a universal smell," Friedman said.  

Friedman said she enjoyed focusing on a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention and that she still has enough interesting research to publish another book. 

In addition to the olfactory research, Friedman is also working with students to investigate and describe books in many archives, including material that’s been lost in the archives and special collections in the Ralph Brown Draughon Library. 

“Since I teach in the Mell Classroom building (a new addition to the Ralph Brown Draughon Library), I’m able to bring special collections books into the classroom, as long as we take meticulous care of them. Each of my students is going to adopt a book in special collections and learn everything there is to know about it.”

One of the ideas behind each student adopting a book is to teach them how to describe a physical book, and maybe even the smell of it, according to Friedman. In her classes, students might take a book held in Special Collections and research the history of its readers, make a new edition, or even remix the book to inspire a new work of art.

"The thing I found while I was working on my book and teaching this stuff in my classroom was that students love getting their hands on the authentic books. They want that feel of history. That’s something unique that the liberal arts can provide. While other colleges do other things really well, liberal arts can get students into the past in different kinds of ways." 

For more information about Dr. Emily Friedman, please visit her faculty bio. 

Written by Vicky Santos, director of news and media in the College of Liberal Arts.

Last Updated: June 11, 2018