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Culture & Religion

Savoring History Through Its Smells

Our sense of smell is the most powerful when it comes to evoking memories, so when smells vanish, we lose a whole dimension of the world. Now a new movement wants to change that. 

What’s the Latest Development?

If you think of a particularly powerful memory you have, there is likely a scent attached to it. Yet despite its primacy in our lives, our sense of smell is often overlooked when we record our history. Today, several organizations want to preserve the scents of today and revive the ones of yesterday. “A pioneer of this approach is Roman Kaiser, a Swiss fragrance chemist who developed a technology called ‘headspace’ in the 1970s that made it possible to capture and analyze the scent given off by flowers and other objects.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Kaiser’s headspace technology is used by New York perfumer Christopher Brosius to re-create less obvious smells, like the odor of an old fur coat or a well-worn paperback. While his purpose is artistic, some are looking to historical documents to recreate, for example, the scent of a Viking fish market. “Adding smells to our compendium of records and artifacts could stretch the visceral connection scent holds in new ways. And looking to the future, it offers us an unusual chance to transmit the legacy of everyday life.”


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