Just why is that we don’t think about our sense of smell much anymore? Despite its direct link to our brain’s emotional hub, why is its use in today’s Western society mostly confined within the limited realms of bottles that line department store counters and vessels filled with wax?
Why do we not instead still think to lightly scent our curtains or cushions, allowing hints of fragrance to permeate our awareness with movement or a light breeze? Why is not more common to burn beautifully aromatic woods such as juniper, filling our homes with natural aromas as we once did, during a time when aromatic fires were even built on the streets of London to counter the more unpleasant odours? On that note, we love the fruit hardwoods that Ignis Firewood retails, which do fill the home with beautifully scented warmth.
I’d like to know where the perfumed public fountains have gone. The scented hand fans that awaited you at the opera. The seemingly ornamental pendants, brooches and rings that were actually pieces of meticulous engineering, storing within them a scented secret, a memory, or a source of rejuvenation or courage at just the right moment during the day.
I’m curious as to why we create grand hotels, private members clubs, homes and yachts that pay heed to every design element imaginable except that which has the extraordinary power to stop us in our tracks.
Up until the late nineteenth century, the inclusion of fragrance in day-to-day life was an intrinsic part of society. Whether one was poor or rich, it was used widely in medicine (with some wise and some highly questionable applications) and in personal and civic hygiene to mask otherwise unwanted smells. Perhaps more importantly however, it was used for pleasure and for diversion. Granting momentary access to a higher state of being.
At one end of the scale, at a banquet given in Naples in 1476, a miniature fountain spraying orange-flower water adorned the table, while on an occasion when Queen Elizabeth entertained a delegation of French ambassadors, ‘two cannons were shot off, the one with sweet powder, and the other with sweet water, verie odoriferous and pleasant.’ For those unable to afford such decadent amusements however, dried lavender stems could just as readily provide an enjoyable incense.
So what changed?
There were several factors that led to the devaluing of fragrance in society.
The hot summer of 1858 intensified the urban stench in London to a point so unbearable that it was suggested Parliament be moved out of the city. Instead, the great work of urban waste disposal began. Later in the century, the discovery was made that it was not smells that spread disease as had been commonly accepted, but in fact germs.
A revolution in civic cleanliness was accompanied by a revolution in personal cleanliness, with bathing becoming both acceptable and desirable (previously it had been thought to endanger one’s health.) This, combined with fragrance no longer being attributed to any protective qualities by the medical profession, led to a decline in the widespread use of fragrance. Scent began to be relegated to the cosmetics counter, at which point increasing olfactory differences between men and women became part of a general cultural insistence that the sexes appear in all ways to be different.
Traditionally the same fragrances had been used by both men and women, but by the late nineteenth century, certain scents – sweet, floral blends in particular – were deemed exclusively feminine, while woodsy scents were an acceptable alternative for men if indeed a cologne should be worn at all.
Most critically, it wasn’t just perfume that became feminized, but the whole sense of smell through a re-evaluation of the senses. Beginning with the Enlightenment, sight became the pre-eminent means and metaphor for discovery and knowledge. Sight came to be associated with men – with explorers, scientists, politicians and industrialists – who dominated the world. Smell however, was now considered the sense of intuition and sentiment, which was associated with women. Worse still, smell was associated with ‘savagery’ and even madness. The emotional potency of scent threatened the detached, logical thinking of this age. Sight was therefore chosen by the intellectual elite of the time to be the optimal sense of reason, rational and progress. Scent on the other hand was relegated to the bottom of the sensory pile.
Accordingly, we now have something of an olfactory illiteracy in the modern West. We assume smell to play a marginal role, but a recent surge in sensory research that seeks to address the imbalance in research between sight and our other senses, is highlighting that this simply is not the case.
Smell is crucial for many things, including mating, detecting danger and familiarising ourselves with our surroundings, but it also it affords us some of the most beautiful pleasures in life. The smell of our loved ones, the ocean, the Christmas tree and dusty decorations with a pull of nostalgia that this brings… The charming perfumed objects and artefacts of a time gone by that exuded magic and elicited delight. Scent grants us an extraordinary pause button on our busy lives to enjoy a moment that uplifts, reminds, empowers, makes us laugh and feel contentment or even sadness. And in our rational, ordered world, that makes it very valuable indeed.
We are therefore championing a re-re-evaluation of the senses to give each of them the respect and attention that they deserve, both individually and together, as we take note of the rich, multi-sensory experiences that fill our daily lives and explore ways to bridge the old and the new.