Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Smell Museum: Creosote and Lifebuoy Soap

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.

Scholar Kathleen M. Vandenberg expounds on the meaning of the 1947 Lifebuoy ad (shown above) in a somewhat less brief and less entertaining fashion. Here the crux of her analysis:
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.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In the Money

What the Nose Knows has made the short list for the Royal Society’s 2009 Science Book Prize. The winner will be named at a ceremony in London on September 15.

Pink Flamingos: A Baltimore Smellscape by the Numbers

Reporter Chris Landis, writing in the Baltimore City Paper, tallies up every smell-related complaint and inquiry to the city’s 311 information number. He says that

over the past two years there have been almost 4,000 complaints about mysterious and not-so-mysterious odors stinking up our fair city.
There’s a nice graph accompanying his piece although by my count it shows 5,472 complaints, not “almost 4,000.” Either way, folks are calling in an average of 5 to 7 times a day about odors. Pretty stinky.

Sewage smells are by far the most numerous, followed by “unknown/other”, water, trash, cat, dog, feces, oil, and “something died.” Hmmmm . . . I think Connie and Raymond Marble have a lot of explaining to do.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Goons of Guerlain

French fashion empire sends its legal goons after 1000Fragrances blogger Octavian Coifan ostensibly because he violated a pre-launch embargo on an image of their new perfume bottle, but more likely because his unsparing snark got under their skin.

Goon gambit backfires as the perfume blogosphere rallies to defend Coifan’s freedom of speech. (Par parenthèse, avocats, it’s not like you can’t dig up Coifan’s now-deleted posts from the Google cache in about 15 seconds.) 

Meanwhile the knuckleheads at Guerlain end up generating even more unkind commentary about their products and business practices. Here’s a taste from The Non-Blonde:
Guerlain and its owner, LVMH, have been getting a lot of well-deserved flack for destroying the wonderful tradition of the once family-owned house. They’ve been churning one mass-market scent after another in tastelessly expensive packaging that seem aimed at a very specific crowd, from the Russian mob to oil nobility.

Monday, June 22, 2009

British Healthcare Going to the Dogs

Take your diabetic grandmother to the clinic and they’ll tell you she can be seen by the corgi in five weeks or by the Yorkshire terrier in eight. But it’s the National Health Service, so it’s free!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Love Means Never Knowing Other Guys’ BO

Romantic love is so out of fashion these days—frowned on by feminists and bypassed by hookup culture—that I was surprised to find it the object of a scientific smell study.

Researchers Johan Lundström, at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and Marilyn Jones-Gotman, at McGill University, looked at how romantic love alters a woman’s ability to identify male BO. Being psychologists, they start from a precise, if dispassionate, working definition of love:

heightened attention towards one’s partner, which in turn leads to heightened feelings of attachment, reward, and commitment.
Not much controversy there. The arguments start when scientists try to explain the biological and psychological mechanisms that produce this state. There are two contending hypotheses. Attention theory holds that romantic love is an increase in attention to one’s partner; deflection theory holds that the lover’s attention is deflected away from other potential partners. At the moment, neither theory has an overwhelming advantage: studies involving everything from oxytocin release to attraction ratings provide supporting evidence for both.

Lundström and Jones-Gotman took the novel step of testing attention and deflection theory using BO.

They recruited twenty young women who had been in a heterosexual relationship for the past 12 to 36 months. The lower limits rules out infatuations and the upper limit rules out the mature love that emerges in long-term relationships. (Yes, psychologists are all over the details . . .) The investigators measured how deep in love each volunteer was using Hatfield and Sprecher’s Passionate Love Scale. (Seriously. It consists of 30 statements such as “In the presence of my boyfriend, I yearn to touch and be touched.”)

Next, they collected BO from three groups of people: the young woman’s BF, her GF, and a non-romantic man friend. BO was collected with what First Nerve readers will recognize as a standard method: absorbent cotton pads sewn into the arms of T-shirts. The shirts were worn to sleep for seven nights, then placed in a deep freeze at -80˚ C.

Here’s the crucial part: each young woman had to identify her BF by sniffing three BO samples—one from him and two from other BFs randomly drawn from the freezer. Similarly, she had to pick her GF from among three GF samples, and her man friend from among three MF samples. 

As a group, the women could successfully identify their BF, their GF, and their MF by smell. They did so equally well across the groups.

However, a woman’s ability to identify her man friend’s BO varied negatively with her score on the Passionate Love Scale. In other words, the more in love she was, the less able she was to correctly pick out her MF’s BO from those of other men—just as deflection theory predicts.

Degree of Passionate Love had no effect on a woman’s ability to identify her BF’s BO—again as predicted by deflection theory. (Attention theory predicts that BF detection should increase with Passionate Love.) And finally, the effect was sexual preference-specific: Passionate Love did not alter the ability to identify same-sex friends by BO. 
The more in love with their boyfriend participants reported themselves to be, the worse they performed in identifying the body odor originating from an opposite-sex friend—a potential partner for these heterosexual women.
The results are a clear win for deflection theory. It appears that love dulls the wandering nostril.

The results also drive home a point I make in What the Nose Knows—smell is about the brain as much as it is about the nose. Cognition and emotion alter the way the brain filters raw odor perception from the nose. In this case, romantic love retunes our smell abilities in a remarkably subtle way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quick Sniffs

The FDA weighs in on Zicam and smell loss.

BK brings Flame to England. We published a sneak preview here.

Oversexed robots of the future hate human BO.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

You’ve Read the Novel, Now Smell the Perfume

Alison Flood at the Guardian’s Books Blog spots an interesting scent marketing gambit. 

The old-school perfumists at Floris of London have teamed up with historical romance novelist Marina Fiorato to produce a limited edition perfume named after her new book, The Madonna of the Almonds. They’ll sell you 100 ml for £75.

Here’s the blurb from Amazon UK. (the novel isn’t available yet in the USA).

Young widow Simonetta tries to rebuild her family in 16th century Saronno, Tuscany, following the death of her husband in one of the battles ravaging the land. In pursuit of a means to keep her estate together, she stumbles upon a new drink made by infusing almonds with alcohol. At the same time, she encounters Bernadino, the protege of Leonardo da Vinci. What follows is a glorious story of passion, betrayal, warfare and bravery.
Almonds, alcohol, Saronno—I guess we’re talking about the founding-myth of Amaretto.

Author Fiorato gushed about the experience of having her novel “done” by a perfumer at Floris who

had read the book really closely and had picked out just about every olfactory reference in there.
Ah yes, the kitchen-sink method of perfume formulation. (Hey, why didn’t Fiorato and her agent have Amaretti Di Saronno come up with a promotional cocktail?)

Ms. Flood at the Guardian wonders if this will spur other authors to seek perfume tie-ins. She mentions J.K. Rowling (“Unwashed teenage boy, perhaps, with a whiff of owl droppings.”) but I heard that Rowling’s licensing people discarded “Bossy Boots by Hermione” after the concept tanked in focus group.

UPDATE June 14, 2009

Last fall, MTV blogger Jennifer Vineyard reported that Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab had collaborated with graphic novelist Neil Gaiman to create scents matched to various of his comic books.

ISDP Springtime Edition

The weather’s warming up and so is ISDP activity. Shoo away the kids and the prudes and indulge yourself in this month’s roundup of foul odors that lead to a dead end.

On the evening of May 22 in Bakersfield, California, a Pizza Hut employee noticed “a foul odor” emanating from the restaurant’s dumpster enclosure. He took a closer look and found . . . a dead body. 

Three days later, in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, residents on Plum Street finally called police to complain about “a foul smell” they’d been noticing for weeks. The police found a badly decomposed body. Why the delay in reporting the stink? Well, the folks live at the end of Plum Street, only a stone’s throw from Lake Erie:

“Never crossed our minds that it would be a body,” a neighbor said. “Some animal or fish wash up on the lake maybe . . . but never dreamed it would be a body.”
According to the University of Kentucky’s independent paper The Kentucky Kernel, residents of a Lexington apartment building complained on May 28 of “a foul odor” coming from one of the units. Inside, a maintenance man discovered the body of the resident, 22-year-old Richard Mudd, a student at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He appears to have died of natural causes.

When 62-year old handyman John Fields was fixing a plumbing problem at a North Memphis, Tennessee, house on June 7, he went into the crawl space beneath the house. Nearby residents eventually noticed that Fields had disappeared, leaving his tools on the porch. The next day they tracked “a foul smell” to the space beneath the house, where they found his body.

The New York Daily News—a rich source of ISDP incidents—comes through with another. On June 8, according to reporters Kenny Porpora and Alison Gendar,
a building super on W. 204th St. called cops over a bad smell that was seeping out of a vacant sixth-floor apartment.
Police found a decomposing corpse wrapped in bags and stuffed in a closet. Two days later the remains were identified as those of 19-year-old Glendalis Pagan, who had vanished a week earlier after leaving her mother’s nearby apartment to get her nails done.

Finally, it's time for the ISDP Emily Littella Moment:

CBS-4 reporter Lisa Cilli tells how two South Florida Water Management District workers found a suspicious bundle lying near an entrance ramp to the Sawgrass Expressway in Coral Springs. The bundle was wrapped in a garbage bag and sealed with duct tape; even more alarmingly, it gave off “a foul odor.” Police were called in. Crime scene investigators cordoned off the area, erected a tent, and went to work. They discovered that the package contained a box of rotting fish.

Never mind!

UPDATE June 13, 2009

Another Emily Littella Moment, this one from the June 1 police report in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, posted on

Officers received multiple complaints about a foul odor on Eveline Street. Police determined a man doing amateur taxidermy has a beetle crib in his house. Deer heads are placed in the crib and beetles eat the flesh from the bone to whiten the skull.

Never mind!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Step Right Up, Folks. Don't be Shy!

In What the Nose Knows, I describe the recent mania for viewings/smellings of the so-called Indonesian Corpse Flower, a name botanical garden publicists find more congenial than Giant Misshapen Penis—which is the literal meaning of the plant’s formal name, Amorphophallus titanum. The rapid-growing, six- to nine-foot tall flowering stalks of this tropical tuber generate heat and a smell uncannily like that of rotting flesh. All the better to attract as pollinators the blowflies and other insects that feed or lay eggs on carcasses.

Once relegated to the back rooms of a few major conservatories, A. titanum has been shoved into the spotlight as botanical garden directors cash in on the public’s morbid curiosity; it’s the vegetable version of the repulsive “Bodies” exhibit.

If you feel like seeing the Lobster Boy of the aromatic sideshow, get yourself to St. Louis or Pasadena. And hurry, the penis plant shrivels within a day or two and then the carnival moves on.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Smell? What Smell? The Moral Authority of Michael Bloomberg

On May 5, George Morales left his apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, borrowed a friend’s Chevy Ventura minivan, and drove off to Long Island. That was the last his family saw of the 58-year-old handyman, who was diabetic and suffered from a heart condition.

Morales was found on June 3, in the back seat of the van which was parked on 34th Avenue in Queens, beneath an overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He was dead. A window on the van was slightly open, assaulting passersby with the stench of bodily decomposition.

But New York City traffic officers, who ticketed the illegally parked van on a weekly basis, apparently smelled nothing wrong. Nope. Nothing to smell here. Just stick another summons on the windshield and move along. Morales’s lifeless body was noticed only when a city marshal was preparing to tow the vehicle.

Anyone who watches the local news in New York is familiar with the disgraceful practices of the city’s traffic cops. They pile ticket after ticket on obviously abandoned cars. They ticket civilian cars while ignoring illegally parked city and official vehicles on the same block. Thousands of tickets are printed from handheld computers on the very first minute of violation—aggravating people who return to their car a few seconds later.

Organizations take their cue from the top. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, the number of parking tickets handed out in New York has climbed by 42%. Here’s Gothamist on the game being played:
During the last fiscal year, the city raked in $624 million in parking fines, which is more than the city spends to run the entire Department of Transportation. Officials, maintaining a straight face, insist the parking enforcement is not driven by revenue goals.
Something stinks here and poor Mr. Morales’s corpse is the least of it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Green Aria - A Scent Opera: Bravo!

I inhaled something remarkable the other night: a scent opera.

Not since Hans Laube and Mike Todd, Jr. brought Smell-O-Vision to the Warner Theater in January, 1960, has Manhattan seen—or smelled—anything like it. A capacity crowd of about 150 people filled the Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Guggenheim Museum on Monday evening for the fifth and final performance of Green Aria. The audience tended toward the young and artsy; it was also stylish: one fellow wore a cape, another a tuxedo, and there were a few women in glamorous dresses. There were also enough gray heads present to confirm that this was, indeed, Serious Opera (just like the Met!).

The event began with the inevitable Panel Discussion, consisting of Stewart Matthew, the major domo of the production. It was his idea to create a sound-and-scent performance piece and over five long years he assembled the team that made it happen. With his shaved head and heavy black glasses, Matthew resembles Letterman’s band leader, Paul Shaffer. Also on stage were the composers—Nico Muhley, who scored The Reader, and Valgeir Sigurdsson. The young, giggling Muhley looks like Brendan Fraser, while the quiet Sigurdsson looks exactly like a shaggy, Icelandic, avant garde composer from central casting. The final “discussant” was the perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, sporting a pair of sparkly purple sneakers which balanced the more subdued tones currently on display in his mohawk.

We learned from the panel that Matthew’s “libretto” consisted of a timing grid listing the various smells and their odor descriptions. Muhley and Sigurdsson composed to this grid after smelling the actual samples created by Laudamiel. In some cases, creating a musical signature for a given scent was easy; in others, the composers struggled to find the right sound.

The technology for the evening was classic Smell-O-Vision: scented airstreams delivered via tubes to each seat in the house. The scents emerged from a flexible metal gooseneck, which you could adjust to suit: some people went with a full-face blast, others adopted a more demure cross-nostril approach. Laudamiel, who initially assessed his creations sitting a couple of feet from the nozzle of a prototype “odor organ,” was surprised at how different they smelled when tested under more realistic conditions. After traveling through many feet of tubing the components emerged from the nozzle out of phase. Laudamiel altered the ingredients and their proportions to achieve a coherent, synchronous delivery that smelled as intended.

The actual performance began with dimmed lights and an introduction of the eighteen odor “characters,” whose names were projected on a screen as we experienced their sound-and-scent signatures. With names like Absolute Zero, Meretricious Green, and Shiny Steel, the characters were concepts more than persons. The smells were strange and abstract—deliberately so. Laudamiel wanted the audience to focus on the interplay of scent and sound, and not get side-tracked with guessing the smells or puzzling out their mental associations. Most odors were intellectualized variants of perfumery’s “green”. Meretricious Green resembled tobacco leaf wrapper; Funky Green Imposter had an edamame note; another (I forget which) had the ersatz fruitiness of a Jolly Rancher.

After this prelude the house lights were doused, leaving the audience to their ears and noses for the next twenty minutes. Dubbed a “Scent Opera in Four Movements” (I know, I know, operas have scenes and acts, not movements), the libretto was even more conceptual than the scents. In the second movement, for example, 
Earthly materials are forged to give rise to Base Metal which is soon modernized into flamboyance that hardens in Shiny Steel.
And so on. The narrative was less a story than an excuse for smells to reappear in various sequences and combinations. And in any case, it was impossible to tell when one movement left off and the next began.

The experience, however, was totally compelling. The smells continuously evolved from the nozzle at an easy pace—smelling them took no effort, no special sniffing or hyperventilating. You sat and listened and the smells happened, one after another. Gradually you began to connect each one with its leitmotif—metallic piano notes cued the arrival of Shiny Steel, for example. Soon the characters interacted, and the score and the scents became correspondingly complex.

Some of the smells were off-putting—I saw a few heads in the audience snap back on delivery of one particularly unpleasant vinyl note. (Weirdly, five minutes into the piece my stomach began to growl, even though I’d had dinner a couple of hours earlier. I wasn’t the only one to experience this.)

As Laudamiel promised, none of the scents were familiar—or comforting for that matter. Their abstractness gave the performance a surreal tone—while concentrating on them I began to imagine a lunar landscape illuminated by greenish flourescent bulbs. Still, the sensory connections between odors and musical themes were easily perceived. In retrospect, familiar scents would have made for a different and distracting experience, a mental treasure hunt instead of pure synaesthesia. (To my mind, this was the problem with Aldous Huxley’s description of the odor organ concert in Brave New World—the scents in the Herbal Capriccio made no artistic sense.) 

At the conclusion of the piece, on-screen credits rolled as each character made a brief, scented “curtain call.” The audience was smiling and the mood was happy. It’s worth noting that despite a half hour of continuous scent delivery, there was no lingering background scent in the theater—a complete vindication of the Laube/Todd Smell-O-Vision style of technology. (AromaRama, as readers of my book know, was a less successful technology that dispersed scent through a theater’s air conditioning ducts, often leaving a cloud of smell behind.)

Scented theatrical performance has been around for a long time. Eugene Rimmel created a “perfume fountain” for musical numbers in London’s Alhambra theater in the 1860s. Stage directors of the realist school have been using smells on stage since the early 1900s. And people have been experimenting with scented movies since the earliest days of Hollywood. What’s clear from Green Aria is that an elegant scent technology in the hands of truly creative people can deliver an original, and beautiful, sensory performance that enlivens the mind as well as the senses.

P.S. Credit where credit is due: Firmenich (and not IFF, Laudamiel’s former employer), provided the scents. Engineering firm Fläkt Woods created the odor organ scent delivery system.

P.P.S. Kudos also to Thierry Mugler Parfums, the opera’s official sponsor, whose support made the entire production possible.