San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

May 14th, 2008
The smell of history: It stinks

The Devil’s Clack Dish: A column
Scene Editor

It is always amusing to read articles claiming to know about the halcyon days of the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, forgetting to mention that those days stank of, respectively; human grime and marijuana; sweaty polyester and marijuana; and Halston (cocaine has no particular odor.)

We tend to forget the olfactory experience when we look at the past, unless we lived through it. Concerts from the 1990s will always remind me of the smell of clove cigarettes mixed with the fragrance of patchouli and shots of Jagermeister. I suppose, sometimes, those gigs even smelled a little like Teen Spirit.

When you are watching television or movies, it’s easy to assume that whatever you are looking at smells a lot like your aromatherapy candles or popcorn. But downtown New York doesn’t smell like “peace vanilla and lavender” and World War II didn’t smell like popcorn. The olfactory experience doesn’t seem all that necessary to our viewing pleasure, even though it is well known that our sense of smell most immediately evokes our memories.

For example, if you saw any of the myriad French Revolution films over the past few years (Sofia Coppola’s with Kirsten Dunst or The Affair of the Necklace with Adrian Brody or any of the re-workings of A Tale of Two Cities), you might be surprised to learn that Madame de Maintenon said Louis XIV “stank like a carcass.” Many historical observers at the time noted that the staircase at Versailles smelled of urine because even the courtiers of the era relieved themselves there. (Alert: Bad pun coming.) If the royalty smelled that bad, you can imagine that the peasants were revolting. Peasants are often like that. Shakespeare mentions in Julius Caesar that the Roman general reeled back when the masses cheered for him and threw off their “stinking caps.”

Napoleon had such an acute sense of smell that he was constantly splashing cologne on himself and traveled to every battle with many bottles of cologne (if you want to smell like Napoleon, Roger and Gallet’s (est. 1862) Extra Vielle is probably close). Bonaparte couldn’t even stand the smell of fresh paint and was observed rearing back from odiferous servants. He once wrote to Josephine to refrain from bathing because he loved her natural odor so much. It’s unclear whether she did this or not. It is said that the rooms she occupied in Versailles are so heavy with the smell of the musk perfume she used that one can still smell it today.

Some moviemakers have tried to capitalize on our sense of smell. Who can forget that awful “scratch and sniff” card that John Waters made to go along with his movie, Polyester? There were ten odors on the card, some of which were flowers, glue, gas and feces. In 1960, Hans Laube and Michael Todd Jr., created the process of releasing odors into the air of the theatre. Dubbed “Smellovision,” it was triggered by the soundtrack of the film made especially for its use, The Scent of Mystery (a comedy/mystery). Apparently the smells muddled together after a full viewing of the film and theater-goers complained of the hissing noise on their chairs from the mechanism that released the scent. (Bad pun alert, again.) The Smellovision idea stunk.

The invention of perfumes, soaps and colognes for mass consumption can pretty much be traced to inventive humans wanting us to live together in harmony without having to smell one another. Indeed, there are still perfumers who make the colognes that helped to groom our country’s leaders, or, at least, help them smell good. Caswell-Massey (est. 1756) still makes Number 6 (favored by George Washington), Jockey Club (John F. Kennedy’s fave), Almond Cold Cream soap (Ike Eisenhower’s choice), and Tricorn (a favorite of John Barrymore).

Creed (est.1760) still makes Royal English Leather, a fragrance favorite of George III, and Green Irish Tweed, the choice of Pierce Brosnan and George Clooney. They also created Tabarome for Winston Churchill, a scent that also became a favorite of Humphrey Bogart.

Today, our world smells a little better, thanks to grooming, soap and perfume. However, merely smelling better does not imply being better. We should not, as the German historian, Heinrich Von Treitsche accused of the English, confuse soap with civilization. My Grandpa was a kind and interesting man who always smelled of grease and oil and Lava hand soap. Hitler scrupulously brushed his teeth after every meal, shaved twice a day and confessed that he was a vegetarian to improve his body odor. Sometimes those who are very well groomed smell a little fishy (bad pun, no alert, ha)!

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One thought on “The smell of history: It stinks

  1. Interesting comments and they definitely right true. I’m not sure that I want real scents when I go to the movie – smelling popcorn and overpriced candy is AOK in those cases

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