“All smell is disease,” wrote a sanitarian in 1844. Before germ theory, foul odours – known as “miasma” – were believed to cause illness. In a detailed study, Smell Detectives documents how public officials and urban housewives recognised and dealt with the stink of burgeoning American cities and their 19th-century tenements, sewers, and abattoirs. By the 1870s, people began to grasp that odours were a by-product of diseases and the conditions causing them. Kiechle recounts an intriguing tale of a tap-water crisis in a Michigan town when officials denied any problem despite the awful odour coming from pipes. Maybe society would be better served by trusting the message of smell again.
Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America, Melanie A. Kiechle, University of Washington Press, 2017, 331 pages, $34.95 (hardcover)
This review has been published in Nez, the olfactory magazine – #06 – Mind and Body. This issue is available on www.nez-editions.us for North America and on the Auparfum Ship for other countries.