“I’m sleuthing,” Croissant said. And you’re interfering. What do you know about smells that are vicious?
“Nothing,” said Waffle. “My house smells delicious.
from The Case of the Stinky Stench
written by Josh Funk
illustrated by Brendan Kearney
Union Square Kids, 2017
The musty smell of an old house always ratchets me back to my grandparents’ house. They didn’t have many toys, but kept a big box of wooden blocks, the kind with letters and numbers on them, in the back of the coat closet. We’d visit on Sunday afternoons and after dinner and conversation around the dining room table, we kids would be excused to our own devises.
Sometimes we’d play hide and seek. This was the real deal in a three-story house with two sets of stairs and a toilet in the attic. Sometimes Babba would chase us through her garden, laid out with 2 x 4s dividing the rows and a tall peach tree standing sentry off to one side.
I don’t remember individual scents throughout the house. I’m sure the peach tree smelled like a delicious summer day. I love the smell of ripe peaches, but that smell leaves me where I am.
When we pulled out the blocks, though, the scent was strong. Not unpleasant, but a unique smell like old books mixed with Grandpy’s cherry pipe tobacco and a little musty around the edges.
The sense of smell is tightly connected to our emotions. I’ll say why, but first a small diversion, to compare.
When we hear, sound waves vibrate the tiny bones in our middle ears. They in turn stimulate tiny hairs connected to the auditory nerve where electrical impulses are identified as a particular sound. We identify a guitar or thunder or a cat looking for affection.
Light enters our eyes and travels to our brain through the optic nerve. Our brain interprets the lightwaves as electrical impulses and translates them for us. We know which baby is ours before she even makes a sound. We know which coat is ours before we need to touch it to make sure.
But the sense of smell works differently. When the olfactory receptors in our noses are stimulated, they send smell information signals to the rest of our brain through olfactory nerves in our noses. Olfactory nerve fibers travel to the olfactory bulb, an area in the upper part of our nose.
And here’s the difference. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the part of our brain that deals with emotion and memory.
So while a photo of Babba in her garden or in her house or even in mine evokes strong memories, a musty old smell sends me right back to her front hall where we played.
“Young Girl” by the Union Gap and “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding make me feel nostalgic for that warm, spring day when my boyfriend put the top down and drove me to Lake Milton where his family had a small weekend house. His mom made Spanish rice, something my mom never made.
Those memories are like scenes that I watch.
But a familiar smell brings all the emotions with it.
The Museum Ulm in southern Germany is offering “olfactory tourism.” It is becoming “a thing” as other museums work with perfumers to create scents depicted in their paintings on exhibit. At Mauritshuis in The Hague, Rembrandt’s painting “Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell)” the scent of smelling salts that Rembrandt included in his painting was carefully recreated by perfumers from the International Flavors and Fragrances Institute (IFF). They researched the availability of particular spices, flowers, and other aromatics to ensure their created scent is authentic to the 1600s when Rembrandt was working.
Last year (2022) the Louvre began olfactory tours that paired scent with its still life collection. Inspired by Jan Brueghel’s paintings of “The Five Senses,” the Museo del Prado opened its own scent exhibit.
By adding the dimension of an overlooked sensory detail like scent, museum experiences may become more memorable.
Hotels have been using “scentscapes” for years. Hired professionals create an exclusive scent that’s used in their shampoos and body washes and sprayed throughout the lobbies, spas, and even rooms.
Many years ago when I was selling my house, my realtor suggested I bake chocolate chip cookies before my open house, of course allowing plenty of time to clean up.
I don’t remember if that worked. The house was on the market for a pretty long time! And now, while my house sometimes smells like chicken soup or bread, the scent of chocolate chip cookies always conjures up a feeling that change is in the air!
-—stay curious! (and breathe deep)
I’m re-reading an older title by Elizabeth Berg, The Story of Arthur Truluv. I love the characters. I’m laughing and crying my way to the end. I think part of the reason they are so alive to me is that Lucille is a baker and the book evokes the smell of lots baked goods. I’ll miss those characters when I close the covers, but good news! Two other books, A Night of Miracles and The Confession Club, feature the same characters. And surprise! Here comes a prequel, Earth’s the Right Place for Love will be released on March 21, 2023. My copy’s on reserve at the library.