"To put smells in a historical context is to add a whole dimension to how we understand the world. Boston’s Back Bay, for instance, has at different times been filled with the smells of a saltwater marsh, a cesspool, horses, and car exhaust. Some smells vanish, new ones arise, and some shift in a way that tells a cultural story. The jasmine and leather notes of a Chanel perfume from 1927 help us understand the boldly androgynous women of the flapper era, just as the candied sweetness of the latest Victoria’s Secret fragrance tells us something about femininity today."
Christophe Laudamiel, a renowened French perfumer who has a daring approach to fragrance and was responsible for the re-enactment of the smelly scenes of the novel Das Parfum (which materialised into a collector's coffret for Thierry Mugler), is taking advantage of recent breakthroughs in historical exploration for his curating the US-based "library of scents", such as having McHugh of Harvard Universiaty turning on his list of detailed formulas of perfumes and incense encountered in Sanskrit texts; often to intriguing results, as the wealthy Brahmins who took notes on those scents described them in positive and occasionally in negative light. For instance, one of the fragrances Laudamiel has reconstructed contains notes of clarified butter, milk, mango blossoms, honey and sandalwood, while another reeks of rotting flesh, smoke, alcohol and garlic!
Perhaps the greatest challenge lies not in recreation however, but in context: How the people of the time experienced those smells, rather than how they smell to us today, as evidenced by the somewhat lacking recreation of smells in the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, which takes visitors into the experience of smelling a fish market or a Viking latrine. The challenge of integrating the historical experience into smell recreations is what lies ahead.
data/quotes from Courtney Humphries "A whiff of History" in Boston.com. Read it in its entirety here.
photo of arc in Artemis temple in Jerash, Jordan via wikimedia commons