What did it smell like? I think that’s something many of us would like to know about the past. We can, with some hard work and luck, know what it felt like (clothes, furniture, household furnishings can be touched with an appointment in some museums). We can know what the food tasted like–and last weekend’s event at Coggeshall provided excellent examples of that, since we ate meals based on traditional receipts and made with vegetables and meat grown on the farm. Musicians play period music on period instruments, deportment books, plays, and letters give us insight into how things sounded.
But what did it smell like? That seems more elusive, but just as important. Smell is critical to forming memories, and recent research has highlighted links between odors/scents and the formation of memories, especially episodic and emotional memories, and summarized well here and here. So knowing what the past smelled like–and that is a crazy big generalization–would help us understand the way people experienced their lives and formed memories, like Proust and his madeleines.
But it’s easy, you say, the past smelled of horse dung, urine, and wood smoke, and to a degree it did. But yesterday, sitting on the hill of the John Brown House watching weather slowly come in from up the Bay, I thought of the smells of Providence. The lawn smelled of dry mowed grass, because it had been mowed in the sun on Monday. The wind smelled of fish and salt water as it whipped up off Narragansett Bay, and I thought of the smell of the shift, apron and shirt washed at the farm on Saturday, and realized we forget the smell of laundry.
When we unpack from an event, the house smells different: things reek of wood smoke, sweat, and black powder, and sometimes rain. The smoke smells a little different each time, depending on the wood we burn. But the things from the farm smelled really different, and it was the laundry. It smelled of fat.
Basic soap is made of fat rendered with wood ash and lye, though fancy soaps used olive oil instead of animal fat. So my laundry smelled of the soap that was used, just as it does today, but this soap had both a softer and a stronger odor. That is, there wasn’t the bite of chemical backlash you get with some detergents, but one shirt, one shift, and one apron, folded, created a marked island of scent in the corner of the room.
If I had been sitting in mowed grass on the slope of Power Street 213 years ago, I would have smelled my self (wood smoke, laundry soap, sweat), the grass, and the fishy wet wind from the Bay in addition to whatever was rotting in the midden or festering the street where the horses had been. Spices and oranges on the docks might add to the wind from the Bay, and I like to think that all together, in the 18th century, Providence smelled like possibility.