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Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America

Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America


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What did nineteenth-century cities smell like? And how did odors matter in the formation of a modern environmental consciousness? Smell Detectives follows the nineteenth-century Americans who used their noses to make sense of the sanitary challenges caused by rapid urban and industrial growth. Melanie Kiechle examines nuisance complaints, medical writings, domestic advice, and myriad discussions of what constituted fresh air, and argues that nineteenth-century city dwellers, anxious about the air they breathed, attempted to create healthier cities by detecting and then mitigating the most menacing odors.

Medical theories in the nineteenth century assumed that foul odors caused disease and that overcrowded cities—filled with new and stronger stinks—were synonymous with disease and danger. But the sources of offending odors proved difficult to pinpoint. The creation of city health boards introduced new conflicts between complaining citizens and the officials in charge of the air. Smell Detectives looks at the relationship between the construction of scientific expertise, on the one hand, and “common sense”—the olfactory experiences of common people—on the other. Although the rise of germ theory revolutionized medical knowledge and ultimately undid this form of sensory knowing, Smell Detectives recovers how city residents used their sense of smell and their health concerns about foul odors to understand, adjust to, and fight against urban environmental changes.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780295746104
Publisher: University of Washington Press
Publication date: 08/12/2019
Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Melanie A. Kiechle is assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech.

Table of Contents

Foreword / Paul S. Sutter
Introduction | What’s That Smell?
1. The Smells of Sick Cities
2. Navigating by Nose: Common Sense and Responses to Urban Odors
3. Smells like Home: Odors in the Domestic Environment
4. The Stenches of Civil War
5. Smelling Committees and Authority over City Air
6. Learning to Smell Again: Managing the Air between the Civil War and Germ Theory
7. Visualizing Vapors and Seeing Smells
8. Dirty Cities, Smelly Bodies: City Odors after Germ Theory
Conclusion: If You Smell Something, Say Something

What People are Saying About This

Conevery Bolton Valencius

Phew! The nineteenth century was smelly! From stockyards to battlefields, Smell Detectives shows us why stench mattered. Chemists, reformers, mothers, cartoonists, politicians, physicians, generals, bureaucrats, and industrialists struggled to trace and abate stink to keep Americans healthy. With grace and verve, Kiechle explains their reasoning and their legacy.

Michael Rawson

Smell Detectives draws insights from the rapidly developing literature in sensory history and applies them to the nineteenth-century urban environment. The results are illuminating and extend the field of environmental history in new and fascinating directions.

Martin V. Melosi

The manner in which individuals, governments, scientists, and various groups dealt and reacted to smells and fresh air issues provide great insight into our culture—what has value, what does not, what makes us sick, what keeps us well. Smell Detectives is a bottom-up history that is necessary to truly grasp the evolution of cities.


What did 19th century cities smell like? Starting from this simple question, Smell Detectives takes readers on a tour of the development of major American cities that recounts how environments and life changed dramatically as a result of rapid urban and industrial growth. Through a careful reading of odor complaints, medical writings, discussions of fresh air, and the deployment of fragrant agents, Melanie Kiechle argues that nineteenth-century city dwellers worried about environmental change, documented environmental degradation, and shared an environmental consciousness that was distinctly urban in its embrace of industries and attempts to make cities healthier. At a time when medical theories taught that foul odors caused disease, but industries and overcrowding created new and stronger stinks, many thought that cities were synonymous with disease and danger. This understanding shaped strong reactions to the “instant cities” of camps, battlefields and prisons created by the Civil War, and led to stronger governance of urban health and stenches after the war. The creation of health boards, which antebellum Americans had desired, introduced a new conflict between officials in charge of the air and citizens who complained. Smell Detectives argues that, before the introduction of germ theory, beliefs in miasma and the sense of smell created a strong impetus to improve the urban environment and remove foul odors. When germ theory revolutionized medical knowledge, it contributed to a devaluation of the sense of smell for health boards and urban governance, but did not remove odors from cities or from Americans' interactions with environment.

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