Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Smell of War: The Senses on Alert (part 2)

It was Shakespeare who wrote, ""Cry havoc!, and let loose the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men, groaning for burial."
In part 1 of my article on The Smell of War (HERE) I extrapolated the scents that plagued the combat fields of WWI and the fragrances which were created in that fateful era as solace and as memory.


Since chemical weaponry had been so notoriously used during WWI to great impact, as we have elaborated before, by the time WWII soldiers were fully engaged there were posters warning them about the smells they should avoid to protect themselves from terrible pulmonary harm and skin burning, an olfactory compass that directed them away from musty hay or green corn (for phosgene), geraniums (for lewisite), flypaper smell (for chlorpicrine), and garlic-horseradish-mustard (rather predictably for mustard gas).

Amidst the newer weapons of smelly compounds for WWII, one catches our attention by its intricate psychological concept behind it. Who Me? was a top secret sulfurous stench weapon developed by the American Office of Strategic Services in the 1940s to be used by the French Resistance against German officers. This stinky bomb smelled strongly of fecal matter, and was issued in pocket atomizers, sort of like modern pepper spray, intended to be unobtrusively sprayed on a German officer, humiliating him and, by extension, demoralizing the occupying German forces. Needless to say that the fact that the fecal smelling compounds were largely based on sulfur, a light molecule that easily leaked into the clothes and skin of the assailant, a fact which confirmed the swift failure of such putrid, but essentially harmless, weaponry as Who Me?.

Perfumery rose to the challenge of bypassing the foul and the fragrant, of vicious and frightening smells, to bring a respite after the war that would celebrate the return to normalcy. Boys raised on farms, coming to pee themselves out of terror for garlic or geraniums that would signal risk of death, would come home to find themselves greeted by fragrances that needed to soothe, but also to heal, which is not quite the same thing. Feeding the longing for serenity was a mission. Naming the new fragrances gave half the game away sometimes.

Air Nouveau by Houbigant was ushering the new era, full of optimism and willing to put to rest the angst that plagued Europe and the world for more than a decade with repercussions lasting beyond that time frame.

This is a small part of a longer article which I published on Fragrantica. You can read it in its entirety here.

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