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Kiechle quite rightly proclaims that she is helping to pioneer a new branch of history: sensory history. Sensory history focuses on how stimuli affect people’s senses. It is a form of cultural history, in that it explores the everyday influences on the lives of ordinary people and their responses to those stimuli. In the process, sensory history helps us understand better the culture and environment of the period studied.
Kiechle has started with the most difficult sense to study—that of smell. By their nature, most smells are evanescent, and everyday smells tend not to be mentioned or recorded. Even unpleasant smells, unless they become extreme, are rarely discussed.
Kiechle also points out that we have fewer words to describe smells than we do for our other sensory perceptions. In addition, smells are very difficult to measure and almost impossible to preserve. Therefore, to detect and track down a bad smell, time is of the essence. Public involvement is required at the time and in the vicinity of the smell.
For a historian to track down smells from two centuries past is a daunting job. Kiechle, however, has done a great job researching how and what people smelled and how they reacted to those smells. She has used sources such as official complaints, letters to the editor and court records to reveal the general, public reaction to stenches—what, at the time, was men’s domain. She has also ingeniously used depictions of everyday life in novels and home advice manuals to illustrate how women coped with smells in the home.
At the start of the period covered by the book, the prevailing wisdom, called miasma theory, was that foul odors actually caused diseases. Therefore, smells could be more than annoyances; they could be life-threatening. People responded to these smells by wearing nosegays or smoking cigars to try to mask the odors and by building parks and using ventilation to try to clean the air.
The Civil War, with its stenches of both battlefields and military encampments, brought urban smells to masses of people not previously exposed to them. This exposure, combined with the intensity of the smells, helped bring discussion of the dangers of smells, and the means to mitigate them, more into the open.
After the Civil War, rapid industrialization brought new and stronger smells, as well as the concentration of foul odors in industrial neighborhoods. Dealing with these new threats elicited the efforts of experts, and these experts struggled to get the authority to regulate smell producers.
The last half of the 19th century also saw the general acceptance of germ theory—that diseases are caused by microbes, not smells. That acceptance accelerated the importance of experts, and it also led to smells being more of a social, rather than a health, concern. Given improvements in transportation, the upper and middle classes were able to move away from smell producers and still commute to work. The neighborhoods around the industrial production of foul odors were left to the poor and racial and ethnic minorities. Kiechle calls this smell segregation.
The increasing importance of experts diminished everyday public involvement in combatting odors, a trend that Kiechle decries. While experts may be needed to identify the specifics of smells, on-the-spot sensing of odors is just as vital today as it was in the 18th century.
Therefore, cooperation between the public and the experts, rather than antagonism, is needed. Lack of public involvement can lead to odors being missed. Lack of respect for expertise can lead to science deniers, a phenomenon all too common these days.
Kiechle has done an admirable job both in breaking new ground in the study of history and in explaining the everyday worlds of the 19th century, much of which still pertains today.