A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections and events at the RIHS

Smelling Providence

Providence from Across the Cove, 1818. RIHS 1905.2.1

What did the past smell like? I think that’s something many of us would like to know about the past. We can, with some hard work and luck, know what it felt like (clothes, furniture, and household items can be found in antique stores or seen by appointment in some museums). We can know what the food tasted like buy recreating recipes (last weekend at Coggeshall Farm Museum provided excellent examples of period eating, since dinners and teas were based on traditional receipts and made with vegetables and meat grown on the farm). Musicians play period music on period instruments, deportment books, plays, and letters read aloud give us insight into how the sounds of the past.

But what did it smell like? That seems more elusive, but just as important. Smell is critical to forming memories, and recent research has highlighted links between odors/scents and the formation of memories, especially episodic and emotional memories, and summarized well here and here. So knowing what the past smelled like–and each of us would have to be more specific about where and when–would help us understand the way people experienced their lives and formed memories, like Proust and his madeleines.

But it’s easy, you say, Providence, indeed everywhere, in the past smelled of horse dung, urine, and wood smoke, and to a degree most places did. You can even order the scent George Washington wore, if you want an idea of what he smelled like, or wanted to smell like.

But Tuesday, sitting on the hill of the John Brown House watching weather blow in from the Bay, I thought of the smells of Providence. The lawn smelled of dry mowed grass, because it had been mowed in the sun on Monday. The wind smelled of fish and salt water as it whipped up off Narragansett Bay, and I thought of the smell of the shift, apron and shirt washed with the Coggeshall Farm laundry at their Harvest Fair on Saturday, and realized we forget the smell of laundry.

When my family unpacks from a living history event, the house smells different: our clothes and the tent reek of wood smoke, sweat, and black powder, and sometimes rain. The smoke smells a little different each time, depending on the wood we burned. But the things from the Farm smelled very different, and it was the laundry. It smelled of not just of wind and sun and being dried on a line, it smelled of fat.

Basic soap is made of fat rendered with wood ash and lye, though fancy soaps used olive oil instead of animal fat. The laundry smelled of the soap that was used, just as it does today, but this soap had both a softer and a stronger odor. That is, there wasn’t the bite of chemical backlash you get with some detergents, but one shirt, one shift, and one apron, folded, created a marked island of scent in the corner of the room.

If I had been sitting in mowed grass on the slope of Power Street 213 years ago, I would have smelled myself (wood smoke, laundry soap, sweat), the grass, and the fishy wet wind from the Bay in addition to whatever was rotting in the trash or festering in the street where horses had been. Spices and oranges on the docks might add to the wind from the Bay, reminding me of the ships coming and going. I like to think that all together, in the 18th century, Providence smelled like possibility.

~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections

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This entry was posted on 21 September 2012 by in History and tagged , .

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