Melanie Kiechle is assistant professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and is presently an American Antiquarian Society-National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Society. Her current project is entitled “Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century America” and she recently sat down with us to discuss her work and research at AAS.
Past is Present: Can you describe your current project for us?
Melanie Kiechle: I’m working on a book manuscript that I’m currently calling “Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Urban America, 1840-1900.” The book is about smells and smelling in the nineteenth-century, during the period when industries and cities were rapidly expanding. It’s part environmental history, explaining how these expansions changed the air and the physical environment; part urban and public health history, exploring the rise of institutionalized public health around fears of miasmas and bad smells; and part history of science, because chemists were deeply involved in creating, identifying, and reducing stenches. But mostly I’m thinking of this project as a cultural history of fresh air and foul odors. I’m working on recovering both how the smells of cities changed, and how people’s perceptions of odors as good or bad, as healthful or dangerous, were changing at the same time. At its most basic level, my book will be about what it was like to live in these cities while they changed so dramatically, and how people reckoned with changes that they thought were positive, such as an expanding economy and more jobs, but simultaneously negative because they created stenches and threatened health.
Past is Present: What historians do you admire? What scholars inspired you to go into this work?
Melanie: It’s ever-changing, because when I started the project, I didn’t know it was going to be environmental. I was just interested in smell and sensory history. Some of the things I first read that really inspired me are great books about smell. For my current project, Alain Corbin, David Barnes, and Mark M. Smith definitely. So, Alain Corbin, who’s a French historian, has a book called The Foul and the Fragrant, which is the classic work if you want to think about the history of smell. I don’t agree with all of it, but it was a brilliant starting point. He’s looking at the development of the bourgeoisie, so as you develop personal space, you notice that smell more because it infringes on your personal space. But he also does history of science and explains how people understood air within that period. David Barnes writes about the great stink of Paris, and picks up where Corbin left off. So that was a starting point, but there are lots of historians who have done great work. Mark M. Smith is an American historian who works on the history of the senses, and he’s been pushing people to think about the senses. When I first got started I was really inspired by his work and all the possibilities it opened up. As a historian in general, I’m inspired by those who tell good stories about the past, including (but not limited to!) William Cronon, Richard White, Jill Lepore, John Demos, James Goodman, Natalie Zemon Davis, James Cook, Ann Fabian, Jackson Lears. I could probably go on, but I’ll stop there.
Past is Present: I’m particularly wondering why you say fresh air is a right.
Melanie: Oh, I say that it’s a right because that’s how nineteenth-century Americans described it. They actually talk about pure air as an “inherent right,” which is the same phrase that people used to talk about liberty. So it seems to me like that’s pretty loaded language…Today we talk about environmental rights and whether the environment has any rights. I think it’s a striking and early use of that kind of idea. The place where this phrase comes up most is in legal proceedings in nuisance cases when people fight against the industries that produced bad smells. Lawyers and plaintiffs claim that they have an inherent right to breathe fresh air or pure air. But the idea of a right to air also comes up in journalism. In newspapers and magazines I’ve read about “the rights of the nose” which is the idea that people shouldn’t have to breathe things that smell bad.
Past is Present: What does it mean to be an AAS fellow? What would be your ideal find?
Melanie: Right now I would really like to find a disagreement about whether you can have your windows opened or closed in the city, which is a very particular thing for a chapter I’m writing. But the ideal thing for me to find would be someone describing what it’s like to breathe fresh air and what it’s like to breathe city air. How did that feel? That would be a revelatory document that would give us a much deeper sense of what it was like to live in these places and to want fresh air but to always have air that smells like something no matter what that smell was.
Read the whole interview here!