Melanie A. Kiechle. Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. 352 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74193-2.
Reviewed by Alexandra Kindell (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Cities of Smells
The title of this book intrigued me enough to goad me out of laziness and accept it for review, and I am glad to have read it. The nineteenth century is a fascinating place but one that is deceptively similar to ours. Familiar language, cultures, and issues lull us into thinking the America of 1848, 1868, or 1888 might be like 2018, but I am convinced that most Americans, should we be plopped down in one of those years of the past, would probably die a horrible death because, as David Lowenthal reminds us with his 1985 title, “the past is a foreign country.” The strangeness of that century includes a stink that can only be vaguely imagined yet prevailed for most Americans until the early to mid-twentieth century. People did not bathe, work, or organize cities as we do now, and it had to be a world of smells that tested even the most nose-blind citizen on some days. In Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America, Melanie A. Kiechle examines a host of factors involved with air quality from fresh air to offensive smells and shows how Americans responded to them based on common sense, reform ideals, scientific and medical perspectives, and greed.
Kiechle approaches the nation’s olfactory history with a chronologically driven topical approach. Starting with the antebellum era and steadily moving through time, she identifies the Civil War as a watershed moment that “changed urban governance and promoted physicians and scientists to positions of political power” (p. 18). Thus, prior to the war, lay Americans and doctors used common sense to ferret out the cause of stench and ways to get rid of it because they all believed stink made people ill. Individuals complained to city governments, used aromatic devices (from nosegays to cigars) to cover up smells, and cleaned their homes to undo the deleterious effects of industrialization and urbanization. Doctors and scientists sought reforms and fought pushback against their efforts. As a part of this, the author focuses on the context of the pre-germ theory era when people considered stink or bad air (miasma) a cause of disease. After the war, medical and scientific professionals had established themselves as experts, used the new germ theory to find the sources of disease, and took power of public health through various health boards and local courts. Smell became an indicator of what caused disease, not the actual source. By the postwar era, reformers gained power and regulations made real changes in the city for the benefit of its citizens. Kiechle’s title points to the fact that ordinary citizens and experts both served as “smell detectives,” a term used by a university chemist in 1878 to indicate those who followed their noses to the sources of urban dysfunctions. Much of the book, however, is about the interplay of the environment and public health and less about sleuthing sickly scents.
Readers interested in the nineteenth century should integrate this perspective of the “smellscape,” as Kiechle calls the landscape of smells throughout, into their understanding of the United States. The author’s perspective on scent and people’s responses give us insight into the lived experiences of nineteenth-century Americans as well as additional evidence for the evolution of cities and their governance; it is yet another case study of how middle-class Americans transformed virtual chaos into better organized urban systems. Lay readers who are intrigued by the grit and grime of the city might find the stories interesting, but a reader looking for a cohesive narrative will be troubled in the search. I would not recommend this for an undergraduate reading list.
Without strong knowledge of the time period, a reader could come away with some misconceptions about nineteenth-century life and history. For example, Kiechle’s approach and style allow her to go in-depth into the period’s sensory history, which also makes it seem as if this was a constant, nagging question on everyone’s minds. At the same time that folks were dealing with wafting scents from meatpackers or other “offensive” industries, they were also contending with recessions, tensions over slavery, the Indian Question, the Woman Question, the Mexican-American War, and more. Early on, the author does admit that “smells were not the only thing, and often not the primary thing, that urban residents thought, talked, and worried about,” yet in making her case for the importance of the events she studies, she loses sight of that (p. 16). Moreover, Kiechle uses examples of stench to contend for extensive legal, administrative, and institutional change throughout the book, based on a limited sample size. Her creativity in hunting down sources to document urban stink should be commended, but she had to rely on a small number of events in New York City, Chicago, and the Boston area on which to base some far-reaching conclusions. Sometimes the leaps are too big to ignore.
The primary focus of the book is urban America, especially the biggest and fastest growing cities of the century. Kiechle’s understanding of how industrialization and urbanization created problems for the cities’ inhabitants demonstrates her strengths. When the author, however, dives into rural America and the Civil War, some mistakes hurt those chapters. For example, in the end of her chapter on home sanitation, she rightly states that changes in ventilation of cookstoves brought peril. This fact comes at the expense of poor research about the adoption and use of cookstoves. While Andrew Jackson Downing and a few other authors mentioned in the text may have disliked the smell of cookstoves in contrast to hearth fires, the average rural woman gladly gave up the latter to cook standing up. Kiechle then goes on to discuss Solon Robinson and some farm groups incorrectly.
The digression into rural topics is short, but the Civil War chapter bothered me to the point of distraction. The analysis in this chapter suffers from the same ills of several other sections, a paucity of sources. Moreover, it seems to be a hasty addition made during the transformation from dissertation to first book; any scholar can feel the urgency of the author in the rushed construction of a chapter that does not fit the rest of the book. If the author wanted to discuss problems of sanitation during a war prior to 1860, why go overseas to the Crimean War when the United States lost more soldiers to disease than battle during the Mexican-American War? Kiechle’s discussion of war stench by examining battlefields (rotting corpses), camps (human filth), and hospitals (disinfectants) is fascinating and the fodder for a good discussion, but more time or additional sources would have helped. She mentions soldiers defecating between tents, among other unsanitary acts, as if this was done in each camp, yet units with soldiers’ wives following along would not have had this kind of activity. Sadly, by the end of the chapter, the connection between the war and the changes made within the smellscape of postwar urban America just does not hold. Americans pushed for reform prior to the war, were redirected during the war, and went back to the cities to continue the fight to end disease within a more densely populated, messy set of cities. The Civil War was not the watershed promised in the introduction but surely fit the editor’s or reviewers’ expectations for chronological coherence.
Despite its flaws, this book adds to the conversation about environmental history. Commodities (for example, salt or cod), monsters, and now smells add to the understanding of a past so different than ours that we need to look at it from different angles. Kiechle’s addition to sensory history provides many points to discuss about the people who made the smells that they did not like. Her discussion of reform and pushback prior to the Progressive Era could be well paired with Richard Zacks’s Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York (2012), or to compare the more environmental aspects of people and their landscapes, including miasmas, I suggest the superbly written The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land by Conevery Bolton Valenčius (2002).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
Alexandra Kindell. Review of Kiechle, Melanie A., Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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