An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America
- PUBLISHED: August 2019
- SUBJECT LISTING: History / Environmental History, History / American History
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 352 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 35 illus.
- SERIES: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
- ISBN: 9780295746104
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
What did nineteenth-century cities smell like? And how did odors matter in the formation of a modern environmental consciousness? Smell Detectives follows the nineteenth-century Americans who used their noses to make sense of the sanitary challenges caused by rapid urban and industrial growth. Melanie Kiechle examines nuisance complaints, medical writings, domestic advice, and myriad discussions of what constituted fresh air, and argues that nineteenth-century city dwellers, anxious about the air they breathed, attempted to create healthier cities by detecting and then mitigating the most menacing odors.
Medical theories in the nineteenth century assumed that foul odors caused disease and that overcrowded cities—filled with new and stronger stinks—were synonymous with disease and danger. But the sources of offending odors proved difficult to pinpoint. The creation of city health boards introduced new conflicts between complaining citizens and the officials in charge of the air. Smell Detectives looks at the relationship between the construction of scientific expertise, on the one hand, and “common sense”—the olfactory experiences of common people—on the other. Although the rise of germ theory revolutionized medical knowledge and ultimately undid this form of sensory knowing, Smell Detectives recovers how city residents used their sense of smell and their health concerns about foul odors to understand, adjust to, and fight against urban environmental changes.
Authors & Contributors
Melanie A. Kiechle is assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech.
Foreword / Paul S. Sutter
Introduction | What’s That Smell?
1. The Smells of Sick Cities
2. Navigating by Nose: Common Sense and Responses to Urban Odors
3. Smells like Home: Odors in the Domestic Environment
4. The Stenches of Civil War
5. Smelling Committees and Authority over City Air
6. Learning to Smell Again: Managing the Air between the Civil War and Germ Theory
7. Visualizing Vapors and Seeing Smells
8. Dirty Cities, Smelly Bodies: City Odors after Germ Theory
Conclusion: If You Smell Something, Say Something
Smell Detectives is a brilliant, entertaining book informed by careful archival research. Supplemented by fascinating illustrations, the book navigates a rich and eclectic archive that is frequently obscured when historians overemphasize the perspectives of health experts and government officials. . . . Kiechle's remarkable study opens up productive new questions and lines of inquiry.- Hsuan L. Hsu, Journal of Historical Geography
Kiechle’s addition to sensory history provides many points to discuss about the people who made the smells that they did not like.- Alexandra Kindell, H-Net Reviews (H-Socialisms)
This book is a highly creative and unusual glimpse into a realm of environmental history that is rarely accessible to modern observers.- Sean Munger, New Books Network podcast
An attractive edition . . . beautifully written, with a flair for the attention-grabbing turn of phrase that is compulsory in sensory studies. The work is also finely illustrated, offering prints from the nineteenth century that are at no occasion superfluous. As environmental history, Smell Detectives is an essential read, offering new contexts for a field in search of freshly radical tones to combat environmental degradation.- Andrew J. Kettler, University of Toronto, Journal of Social History
Smell Detectives draws insights from the rapidly developing literature in sensory history and applies them to the nineteenth-century urban environment. The results are illuminating and extend the field of environmental history in new and fascinating directions.- Michael Rawson, author of Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
Phew! The nineteenth century was smelly! From stockyards to battlefields, Smell Detectives shows us why stench mattered. Chemists, reformers, mothers, cartoonists, politicians, physicians, generals, bureaucrats, and industrialists struggled to trace and abate stink to keep Americans healthy. With grace and verve, Kiechle explains their reasoning and their legacy.- Conevery Bolton Valencius, Boston College
The manner in which individuals, governments, scientists, and various groups dealt and reacted to smells and fresh air issues provide great insight into our culture—what has value, what does not, what makes us sick, what keeps us well. Smell Detectives is a bottom-up history that is necessary to truly grasp the evolution of cities.- Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present