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  • Writer's pictureLu Xu

Bibliography | Knowing Through Sensing: How to Conduct Research in the History of Smell

The History of Science Library previously promoted research on the history of the senses, such as a multimedia bibliography on the study of sound and "Feeling Pain: Patients and Doctors in the 16th to 18th Centuries" exhibition information. Recently, the Odeuropa research group on olfactory studies publicly revealed numerous findings about olfaction and odors. Seizing this opportunity, this issue will focus on the history of olfaction and related resources, introducing how odors serve as a kind of archive and olfaction as a method in curation, research, and teaching.

Olfaction and the History of Science

Each breath we take samples the chemical components of our environment. Trace odor sources reach the olfactory epithelium, triggering a cascade of events in the brain. This perception, detection, and identification of odors help us extract spatial information and navigate toward odor sources. Indeed, odors have always been linked to human spatial memory and cognition. However, due to the ephemeral and challenging nature of preservation of smells, historians' focus on olfaction has long been overshadowed by visual and auditory studies.

In the field of the history of science, notable olfactory history research includes Alain Corbin's pioneering work "The Foul and the Fragrant," studying the history of how French scientists and officials in the 18th and 19th centuries standardized odors. Over the four decades since its publication, sensory history and broader interdisciplinary sensory studies have steadily progressed. Scholars like Constance Classen (general editor of Bloomsbury's six-volume "The Cultural History of the Senses," 2014) and David Howes (currently editor of Routledge's "Sensory Studies" series since 2015) have continued to invigorate olfactory history research. Jonathan Reinarz's 2014 "Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell" offers an excellent overview of this field. Post-COVID-19, with symptomatically induced olfactory loss, more research projects on the history of smell have emerged.

Olfaction as a Method in Curation, Teaching, and Research

Notably, the Odeuropa project represents a substantial interdisciplinary research and innovation endeavor. Comprising historians, computer scientists, chemists, perfumers, curators, and heritage policymakers, it aims to uncover and preserve European cultural history and olfactory heritage from the 1600s to the 1920s. Efforts include developing new methods to extract historical odor data from texts and images, facilitating novel forms of olfactory research, teaching, and public exhibitions. This year, the project's website progressively updated with tools for researching odor information, warranting introduction and recommendation.

Included here is a brief introduction to some of Odeuropa's website features:

1. Odeuropa Smell Explorer: A unique search engine suitable for anyone interested in the history of smell and its heritage. Data is extracted from over 30,000 images and 40,000 historical texts in six languages (English, Italian, French, Dutch, German, and Slovenian) from various European public domain resources. The Explorer is the first database to use smell as an entry point for querying cultural heritage odors, making it a valuable resource for those interested in the role of smell in European culture and how odors were historically described.

2. Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage: An online reference tool that compiles academic creativity and professional knowledge on olfaction as a cultural phenomenon. It aims to identify, consolidate, and promote awareness of the extensive role of smell in cultural heritage and history. It consists of entries (similar to Wikipedia, curated by experts, describing specific odors, olfactory landscapes, noses, and sensations related to smell, including citations, images, and linked data) and storylines (“Follow Your Nose,” allowing readers to explore the history of smell through a series of interconnected themes). Clicking on a story lets readers dive into new topics and locate themselves in past olfactory landscapes using an overview map.

3. Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit: A guide for museums and heritage institutions on handling odors. This toolkit provides cultural heritage professionals with a starting point for using smell as a storytelling technique, offering the tools needed to initiate their research. It describes the value of dealing with smell in GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) and provides specific examples. Additionally, the guide offers tips on building strong olfactory narratives, collaborating with perfumers to create traditional scents, selecting among different presentation techniques, and conducting risk assessments. The toolkit also includes many additional practical resources, such as downloadable templates and fillable worksheets. This downloadable “how-to” guide offers curators a powerful tool for interpreting collections in new ways.

4. Odeuropa Heritage Smell Library: How can one reconnect with the odors of the past? One of the Odeuropa project's motivations is to investigate the olfactory

representation of traditional smells, studying the historical odor components that were or are significant to specific (European) cultures. To achieve this, the project collaborates with perfumers and fragrance designers to collect, describe, reconstruct, and preserve past odors. Samples for the Heritage Smell Library are entrusted to Osmothèque, Conservatoire International des Parfums. Visitors can reconnect with these culturally significant odors, and heritage institutions can utilize these reconstructions in their exhibitions. Selected fragrances will be included in the (limited edition) IFF x Odeuropa Historical Scent Collection.

In addition to these tools, the Odeuropa project is developing many new research tools, such as olfactory knowledge graphs and interactive notebooks. The main focus of this issue, and the inspiration for writing it, is an online, open teaching module designed in collaboration between the Odeuropa team and The Amsterdam Historical Review - "Knowing by Sensing: How to Teach the History of Smell." This module was launched in October 2023 on the website of The American Historical Review and is freely available.

"Knowing by Sensing" contains a series of seven short videos, designed by Odeuropa team members based on their teaching experiences in classrooms and museums. The order of the modules can be arranged according to individual interests. Inger Leemans, a professor of cultural history and head of Odeuropa, explains why it's important to bring olfaction into the classroom: learning is a whole-body experience, and olfactory teaching offers students new, embodied, more creative, and inclusive learning opportunities. It also provides new perspectives on historical issues. An example illustrates how olfaction, in conjunction with visual, gustatory, and tactile multisensory modes, can help us understand ancient rituals and the multiple connections between different research subjects.

This article also includes a "Further Reading" section, excerpted below:

The World of Smell / Smell History

- Matthew Cobb, "Smell: A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford University Press, 2020).

- Harold McGee, "Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells" (Penguin Press, 2020).

- Annick Le Guérer, "Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell" (Chatto and Windus, 1993).

- Ann-Sophie Barwich, "Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind" (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Smell History

- Mark Smith, editor, "Smell and History: A Reader" (West Virginia University Press, 2019).

- Jonathan Reinarz, "Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell" (University of Illinois Press, 2014).

- William Tullett, "Smell and the Past: Noses, Archives, Narratives" (Bloomsbury, 2023).

- Alain Corbin, "The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination" (Harvard University Press, 1986).

- David Howes, Constance Classen, and Anthony Synnott, "Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell" (Routledge, 1994).

- Holly Dugan, "The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sensibility in Early Modern England" (John Hopkins University Press, 2011).

- William Tullett, "Smell in Eighteenth-Century England: A Social Sense" (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Sensory Education and Exploration

- Anna Harris, "A Sensory Education" (Routledge, 2020); open-access version available.

- Victoria Henshaw, Kate McLean, Dominic Medway, Chris Perkins, and Gary Warnaby, editors, "Designing with Smell: Practices, Techniques, and Challenges" (Routledge, 2018).

- Conversation on “Enhancing Virtual Intimacy and Sensory Engagement in Art and Education,” led by Caro Verbeek (2021).

- Caro Verbeek, “Knowing by Sensing: a Course on Smelling, Tasting and Hearing for Academics,” Futurist Scents (blog), November 2, 2020.

Smell Walking and Mapping

- Kate McLean’s website, Sensory Maps, includes a range of smell maps and details about smell walking.

- Kate McLean and Chris Perkins, “Smell Walking and Mapping,” in Mundane Methods: Innovative Ways to Research the Everyday, edited by S. M. Hall and H. Holmes (Manchester University Press, 2020).

Smell and Museums

- Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone, editors, "Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell,

Memory, and Space" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

- Constance Classen, "The Museum of the Senses: Experiencing Art and Collections" (Bloomsbury, 2017).

- Mathilde Castel, editor, "Les dispositifs olfactifs au musée" (Nez recherche, 2019).

- Caro Verbeek, “Presenting Volatile Heritage: Two Case Studies on Olfactory Reconstructions in the Museum,” Future Anterior 13, no. 2 (2017): 33–42.

Odeuropa Team's Research on the History of Smell Published by the AHR Historical Laboratory:

- "Smell, History and Heritage": A scholars' dialogue on olfactory history, introducing new histories of smell and discussing how olfactory history can enrich and change our understanding of the past.

- "Whiffstory: Using Multidisciplinary Methods to Represent the Olfactory Past": Explores interdisciplinary methods of restoring past smells, such as analyzing the compounds of historical odors, using historical recipe books, and telling multisensory stories in museums through olfactory landscapes.

- "Making Whiffstory": Narrates Odeuropa's reconstruction of the scent of gloves worn by 17th-century Dutch noblewomen, including the first peer-reviewed scratch-and-sniff card in "The American Historical Review," allowing readers to directly experience the recreated odor.

- "More Than the Name of the Rose": A guide on using AI methods to enable computers to read, view, and organize historical smells in digital heritage collections.

For more information on the history of smell, the PastScent Bibliography on Odeuropa's website is recommended. It contains over 700 entries, multidisciplinary and multilingual, continuously updated by PastScent members. This list is also maintained on Zotero, where references can be viewed and exported. This open resource can be cited as follows:

William Tullett and PastScent, ‘PastScent Bibliography of Smell History and Heritage’, [].

Odor as an Archive

The Atlantic's 2017 article "Can an Archive Capture the Scents of an Entire Era?" introduces the research by Bembibre and her advisor, chemist Matija Strlič, at University College London's Institute for Sustainable Heritage on "the smell of old books." Odor as an emerging record format challenges existing assumptions about archival standards and practices, as well as the socio-cultural assumptions and stereotypes that inform these archival practices. Characterizing and recording odors is a challenge. Bembibre's study began by placing sensors in the particularly fragrant library of St. Paul's Cathedral, determining many odor-causing molecules through gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and having seven subjects describe the odor. Similar experiments included having museum visitors smell odors reset according to historical literature. Participants' descriptions always varied, from coffee to leather to mold, with coffee and chocolate being the most common - which makes sense, as coffee, chocolate, and paper are all plant products. When cellulose in paper decomposes, it releases many of the same compounds found in roasted coffee or cocoa beans. Researchers created a chart showing the words listed by subjects and the molecules possibly responsible for them, termed an "odor wheel."

There are many experiments and attempts to reconfigure odor formulas, but unless we travel back in time, we will never know exactly what past odors were like. Sensory perception involves not just neurological processes but is also influenced by historical and cultural contingencies.

However, these studies still hold value beyond curiosity: embedded in texts and visual records, this sensory evidence can help researchers understand shifts in attitudes toward odors at specific historical moments and the significance of these odors. This is illustrated by several interesting excerpts mentioned in a JSTOR Daily issue, "What Does History Smell Like?": from the second to the eighteenth century, before the rise of germ theory in Europe, medical literature considered odors to directly affect those who inhaled them; in the 1860s, including Charles Dickens among British novelists evoked social and class distinctions through detailed descriptions of the smells of juniper, geranium, soap, and various churches in London, a point echoed in modern film creations like "Parasite"; and the aroma of coffee, now an indispensable part of urban olfactory landscapes, might have been considered an "evil smell" in 1657.

Works like "The Foul and the Fragrant" and subsequent sensory history research are not only explorations of how people in the past used their senses to understand the world and different cognitive frameworks for sensory functions, but also explorations of the possibilities of historical writing beyond a visually oriented approach.

Related Past Issues


[2] Odeuropa Smell Explorer:

[3] Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage:

[5] Osmothèque, Conservatoire International des parfums:

[6] IFF x Odeuropa Historical Scent Collection:

[7] Knowing by Sensing: How to Teach the History of Smell:

[8] Smell, History and Heritage:

[9] Whiffstory: Using Multidisciplinary Methods to Represent the Olfactory Past:

[11] More Than the Name of the Rose:

[14] Can an Archive Capture the Scents of an Entire Era?:


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