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: Do you consider environmental history to be activist history?
Melanie: No, I don’t think environmental history has to be activist because what environmental historians are trying to understand is the history of our natural world, which is very much a human history even though it takes into account lots of non-human actors and things that are acted upon. That said, the field definitely has activist roots. Environmental history got started in the 1970s, which was when the environmental movement was gaining lots of traction. I think scholars have diverged from activists quite a bit since then. However, I do think the best environmental history has something to tell us about the problems that we’re dealing with today. One thing that I deal with and that I’m really interested in is how people understand and make sense of something that’s invisible. Everyone knew that stenches were there but couldn’t pinpoint the smells because they couldn’t see them. And I do think that if we’re able to understand the same way they were able to understand and also the limits of their understanding when they dealt with this problem of smell it could be helpful to us today as we deal with the problem of climate change, which again is big and it’s invisible. It’s one of those things we can’t pinpoint daily, even when we know it’s there and it’s happening.
Past is Present: So, do things change as you get toward the end of the nineteenth century? Are there any laws passed to guarantee the right to fresh air?
Melanie: No, I wouldn’t say that there are any laws passed specific to that. There are a lot of judicial decisions, though. It’s essentially the precursor to zoning laws, which designate certain places as industrial and certain spaces as residential. One of the reasons they were doing that was to try to separate foul-smelling industries from the places where people lived, but there was wind so that didn’t really work as well as they thought it would (this kind of spatial arrangement). City governments could only regulate what happened in the city but air currents carried smells across political boundaries and made stenches into regional problems. To address the regional aspect, state boards of health tried to create uniform regulations that would cover an entire state, but creating a regulation and enforcing a regulation are two different things. Even though a law gets written it doesn’t always get enforced.
Past is Present: Are those in a country environment complaining about smells of natural processes?
Melanie: So one of the things that I think is really interesting and that I focus on is how the intensity of certain processes changed the experience of the odor. You have a killing period and that’s traditional as part of the agrarian cycle, but the move to slaughterhouses is this huge change because it’s constant killing despite the temperature—and heat, as it affects decomposition, increases the smell. It’s also killing on this very large scale, and obviously the increased scale creates massive amounts of waste that smell. Industries were using those wastes. They were creating fertilizers, but the process of creating fertilizer was also incredible smelly. Slaughterhouses were usually set up where there was access to water. It was a place to dump your refuse. It was also a place to ship all your canned meat…But I think the people who established slaughterhouses were ambivalent about their exact location in the city. They wanted to have a cheap labor force so they needed to be close to immigrant neighborhoods as well as the water and, ideally, close to a market to sell their wares. But then as the slaughterhouses and attendant industries became bigger and their neighborhoods weren’t exclusively home to their employees, some people thought the slaughterhouses were a problem. In places like Boston (Brighton), there was a push to establish one area for slaughtering, and some people welcomed that change, but others, like the butchers, really resisted it and sought ways to get around it.
Past is Present: Did anyone in the nineteenth century come up with a way to measure smell?
Melanie: Thomas Edison wanted to create an odoroscope, which was going to identify odors. The idea of the scope is that it makes something visible. So he had a plan for it but he never built it. What remains is just random notes that he took. There was a whole cadre of chemists who went out to measure gases, and they tried to equate their measurements of the gases with the odors in order to establish who caused the odor by correlating the amount of gas with the source of smells. But those measurements were often questioned, and so it wasn’t as conclusive as the chemists wanted. That history of chemistry is kind of lost now–how chemists used all of their senses to understand and evaluate things. Certain gases have very particular odors, like sulfur. That’s very well understood now, but it was also understood then. But people in the nineteenth century could smell things that we no longer think of as having an odor, like carbon dioxide. They were very worried about carbon dioxide and called it carbonic acid gas. One of the things with ventilation was that if carbonic acid/carbon dioxide built up in a room, it would suffocate the inhabitants because they weren’t getting enough fresh air or “unvitiated air.” In explaining this, ventilation proponents talked about the smell of the room, and that’s how they identified that there was too much carbon dioxide. The other thing they said had a smell was ozone. Scientists today really don’t talk about ozone’s smell because we’re thinking about the ozone layer, which is related but different. Ozone is something that’s created by electricity, so they could smell it after a lightning storm and also when they generated it using a spark. So there’s a smell that’s also generated, and they understood that smell as the smell of ozone. And it’s not to say that they were right or that today we’re right, but those were some of the ways that they understood odors and gases.
Past is Present: How does your work tie into the history of disease?
Melanie: In England, the reformer Edwin Chadwick said “all smell is disease.” He was referring to miasma, a kind of air that people in the nineteenth century thought caused illness. Part of miasma theory is that bad smells were a sign that miasmas were present, which is why the proliferation of all these stinks in cities was such a worrisome thing for so many people. Stenches and complaints about them were one of the causes of public health campaigns.
Past is Present: Did people think that different smells affected children or animals differently from the way it affected adults? Or different races differently?
Melanie: There’s definitely a racial component to how people thought about smell. Thomas Jefferson famously says in his Notes of the State of Virginia that God has created significant differences between the races that are real and physiological. One of the things Jefferson points to is that Africans have a “strong and disagreeable odor.” Those are his words. He kind of misses the fact that slaves were engaged in more exertion in their labor than he was. He and other slaveowners also thought that Africans didn’t notice the smell, that they were impervious to the same things that would make white people sick, so this is why they thought it was OK (it’s hard to get into this mindset) for slaves to live in areas that whites thought were sickly–in swamps and in marshes (like the rice paddies). All the rice islands–those are swampy lands. Plantation owners wouldn’t live there, particularly in the summer, because they knew it was a really sickly, dangerous environment. But they thought that that environment didn’t make their slaves sick. One of things I’m looking at right now is how this question of smell and body odor comes up during the Civil War and emancipation, because one of the things that people use to argue against the enlistment of black troops in the Union army and equality for blacks is the idea that they smell bad and so it’s dangerous or uncomfortable to share a space with them. And other people respond to say that no one objected to the body odor of their personal slaves or of those who served food in hotels. So at the same time people were making an argument that racial differences were real and existed and had a smell, other people argued that it was all a construction, or a convenient fiction.
Past is Present: So did abolitionists vs. slave owners have similar ideas about smell?
Melanie: I’m not sure because I’m not looking specifically at abolitionist writing. I’m kind of following smell wherever it crops up. You have to step back and see that people in nineteenth-century cities, like all people today, they all had a smell. One of the things that I think is really interesting is that, earlier in the nineteenth century, the way people smelled was just a way to identify where they worked, so someone who worked on the docks would smell of the dock. They called it the “dock smell”, which is fish and turpentine and tar–it’s all the stuff that they used. People who worked in slaughterhouses would smell of that, but by the end of the century the meaning of these odors change. The smells still identified where people worked, but now smell was a moral failing of immigrants and of the laboring population, even though the smells were caused by the same thing: the conditions of their labor. I’m not sure how that change in perception happened, but it’s something I’m looking into.
Past is Present: Are there anti-labor undertones to this?
Melanie: There’s nothing specifically anti-labor, but there’s a certain effort to develop a bourgeois sense. One of things that people turn to in order to do that is cleanliness, personal cleanliness and different patterns of hygiene. Kathleen Brown has written about that in Foul Bodies. I’m more interested in environmental odors, so I’m not looking as closely at hygiene practices as I am at how people describe and define environmental smells. So the smell of a slaughterhouse, for instance, is an environmental smell, but it encompasses a neighborhood and it’s not always noticeable until the people who work and live in that neighborhood cross into other neighborhoods where that smell isn’t a regular presence. And so I’m interested in how people understand and react to that. And one thing I see is that earlier in the century, there’s not a repugnant reaction. There’s just an identification of, “Oh, this is a slaughterhouse.” But by the time you get to the Progressive Era at the end of the nineteenth century, there are concerted efforts to clean up these smells and eliminate or at least contain them. This is true even of people who go into working class and immigrant neighborhoods with the best of intentions. Jane Addams, for instance, at Hull House: she’s sympathetic to the people who live in the neighborhood, but she’s still really taken aback by the smell. Smell is a visceral thing that you have a reaction to no matter how aware you are.
Past is Present: Does anyone say that clean, fresh air can’t exist? Can air smell like nothing or does it have to smell like something?
Melanie: No, they believed that fresh air existed and you would find it if you went to the seashore or the mountains. They had this idea that you could have neutral air, that you could have no odor within the air. And people talked about that, they wanted odor neutralizers. Charles Chandler, the president of NYC’s health board, tried to explain to people who were complaining that smells were always around. He argued that the health board had changed things by eliminating the worst smells, but it was like peeling an onion. New smells were always revealed.
Past is Present: Is there a global sense of where air is more purified?
Melanie: Well, seashores and mountaintops, the places people traditionally went to improve their health. When scientists started measuring ozone, they identified an inverse correlation between ozone and disease. When there were epidemics, there was almost no ozone. In the places that everyone knew were the healthiest, like the seashores and the mountaintops, ozone was abundant. So they decided essentially that ozone was the freshness in fresh air and necessary for health. In Hygeia, the British sanitarian Benjamin Ward Richardson’s vision of a health utopia, Richardson wanted an ozone generator that would pipe ozone throughout the city. He thought that if you could generate ozone in the city you could make it healthy, that you could purify the air that we breathe. People also thought that ozone could eliminate the problem of sewer gas, which they feared would rise from the sewers into homes and kill people. There was a doctor in Nashville who suggested stringing copper wire through the sewer to make a spark to generate ozone, but people also thought that sewer gas was flammable so that seemed like a bad idea! I’m not sure if it would have generated ozone or just set the sewer ablaze. So there were many different ideas about how to get ozone into the city, but it was only one notion of how to purify the air. That said, people did create, patent, and sell ozone generators for home use. You can still get them on Amazon. Ozone, like charcoal, is an oxidizing agent, so whatever it encounters it absorbs, kills. But ozone’s actually not a good thing for you to breathe in large quantities. Ozone is used a lot today in industrial purification processes. It’s used in water purification. It’s used a lot in food preparation–in bags of spinach ozone is used to arrest decomposition. So it has a lot of industrial uses. But the ozone generator in your home is an interesting thing. People are using them to deodorize dog beds. I just hope the dogs aren’t in the room!
Past is Present: Going back to the Civil War, there must be complaints about the smell of mass graveyards, too.
Melanie: So, this is one of the things I’m working on at the American Antiquarian Society. The Civil War is the first industrialized war, so the same issues of scale that are happening with industries in the cities happen in the Civil War because you have to think of how many people die and are left on the battlefield, whether you’re talking about First Manassas or Gettysburg. The other thing that happens during the Civil War is the size of the armies creates what people called “instant cities” that had all the same problems cities had overnight, because all of these people who were concentrated in makeshift locations and where did they go with the waste? One of the things I’m working on here is how the experience of civil war changed peoples’ attitudes toward odors and brought the conversation of smell out of public health and into the public in a very different way. You have people who complain after armies come through. They’re complaining about lots of things, not just the smell, but the smell is a big part of how people react because they know things are changing. The other part of smell that’s very tricky is that smells are very hard to articulate. We have very few words in the English language, so it doesn’t come up as often as sounds do, or sights. Here [at the American Antiquarian Society] we all are interested in visual culture. But when smell does come up, something has happened that made a person feel obligated to comment on the smells. What I’m working on today is going through manuscripts and diaries and looking for places where people talk about smell. A lot of diaries are just an accounting of days, so there’s not a lot of reflection. But the ones that have more reflection often do [have more about smell], particularly the first time that someone encountered a battlefield because of the scale. There are a lot of comments about how the smell is unbearable, and in the next line people will talk about getting sick. It’s not the biggest topic of conversation, but it is a topic. I was just reading someone whose first battle was the First Manassas, and he got there and he describes the scene and he says that the smell was absolutely unbearable and that even though he had read about war and read about battles before, this experience of being there, seeing it, smelling it, brought war to life and made it real in a way that authors’ words never could and never can.
Past is Present: What words did people use to describe fresh air?
Melanie: Obviously pure. Invigorating. Sweet. They say it’s a life force, given by Providence. What does it feel like if you breathe deeply, or if you can’t? In some of the travel that I’ve done, I went to Peru. Their auto emissions aren’t regulated, so I walked outside the airport in Lima and had a physical reaction. It wasn’t something I was thinking about, but suddenly my body did not want to inhale the air. Was that what foul odors were like in the nineteenth century? I don’t even know, I don’t even know if I can describe what happened to me, but I’d love to find someone in the nineteenth century who described what it was like to breathe fresh air, and what it meant to him or her.
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 part of a chapter I’m writing. But my ideal 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.