Our cultural history is constantly evaporating. Familiar smells go extinct when scented products are discontinued, leaving it to memoirists and historians to preserve them the best they can on the printed page.
Dorothy Richmond of Tulare, California recently made a personal contribution to olfactory preservation. She belongs to the Down Memory Lane writers group, which meets Thursday mornings in the Senior Center. In an essay of hers published in the Tulare Advance-Register, she recalls some highly specific smells from her childhood in the nearby Central Valley farm town of Corcoran.
There were very distinct smells all around the Rogers compound. Onions and potatoes in the root cellar, leather and horse liniment in the tack room, chicken mash and burlap in the feed shed, and creosote and Lifebuoy soap in the bath house. These are the smells I associate with my childhood in Corcoran. The house was on the corner of Sherman and Van Dorsten, and was still there last time I drove by.The house may be there but the smells are long gone.
Unilever’s Lifebuoy Soap was launched in the UK in 1894 and was successful worldwide as a brand with disinfectant and hygienic qualities. Just the thing for a dirty farm hand. It’s no longer distributed in the U.S. and no longer manufactured in the U.K. Even if you can scare up a bar of it in Southeast Asia, it won’t smell the same:
Lifebuoy soap’s characteristic medicated, carbolic smell has been replaced with a more enjoyable and contemporary ‘health’ fragrance.The reason Lifebuoy is paired with creosote in Ms. Richmond’s memory is that her father built the farm’s bathhouse from creosote-soaked railroad ties. The phenolic aroma common to the soap and ties proved to be quite memorable.
Lifebuoy earned a niche in the pop culture pantheon in 1933 when its advertisers coined the phrase “body odor.” The term “BO” immediately entered the American lexicon. Bill Bryson gives a brief, entertaining account of the episode in Made in America.
Obviously, and significantly, this advertisement functions by playing on consumers’ anxieties, for anxieties, twentieth-century advertisers had realized, were the “American consumer’s Achilles’ heel” (Bryson 239). An understanding of how appeals to anxiety function can be most clearly illuminated by a Burkean perspective, and specifically by a reading informed by Burke’s concept of identification. Identification is necessary insofar as there is division; looking at the ad from a Burkean perspective thus requires the critic to not only point out the ways in which it invites consumers to share its values, attitudes, and belief systems, but also to recognize the hierarchies established implicitly by the ad—hierarchies which make salient the differences which invite the identification in the first place. This critic must understand, as Kirk explains, that identification is not only the means by which separated individuals invite cooperation; it is the structure that orders rhetoric, the “hierarchical structure in which the entire process of rhetorical conflict is organized” (414). The exact nature and dynamic of this structuring will be discussed when this essay turns to a consideration of the ways in which a Burkean perspective invites further Girardian analysis.A Burkean perspective on implicitly established hierarchies of rhetorical conflict? Puuuleeeze! Academic theorists never cease to amaze me. Dr. Vandenberg should hop a bus and get herself down to the Tulare Senior Center next Thursday for some pointers on expository writing.