Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nostalgic Odors

The artist Luis Camnitzer, in giving the keynote address at this weekend's symposium "Storytelling: Playful Interactions and Spaces of Imagination in Contemporary Visual Culture, happened to refer to a 1990s study that asked which odors provoke nostalgia.
He observed that, according to the study, Americans born in the 1930s and 1940s reported that such scents as those of roses, baking bread, and sea air prompted nostalgia, whereas for Americans born in the 1960s, odors of hairspray, nail polish, burnt rubber, and dirty socks prompt nostalgia instead. Camnitzer, who grew up in Uruguay, pointed out that people from outside the US experience nostalgia in association with other odors, and that for him these include those of freshly starched sheets and of meats roasted on the street by masons at work on local buildings.
While numerous aspects of Camnitzer's talk interested me, my imagination was particularly seized by this brief detour onto nostalgia-producing scents. I immediately had to think about what sort of odors provoke my own nostalgia.
I am relieved to say that apart from nail polish, none of the odors cited by the 1960s cohort are even slightly nostalgic for me. I admit that the scent of nail polish does instantly take me back to the age of 7, when I requested and somewhat to my surprise received nail polish for Christmas. But I doubt I would find this unpleasant odor agreeably nostalgic if I had used nail polish regularly in the intervening years. My use of nail polish after the age of 7 was pretty infrequent until I began graduate school, which took me to parts of the country warm enough to make me take off my socks during the summer. I think there has also been a fashion for polished toenails in that time, as I don't remember very many people wearing nail polish when I lived in Southern California and on the rare occasions that I wore nail polish, it was on my fingernails. (But those of us who play piano and most stringed instruments tend to keep our fingernails short and not wear nail polish on them.)
The other nostalgic odors I came up with were the likes of lilac blossoms, marigolds, honeysuckle, rain, fresh dirt, sawdust, tempera paint, and grass clippings. There are also a few odors that take me into the past without being at all pleasantly nostalgic, like that of the inside of an old coffee thermos (yuck) and certain baby shampoos (gross).
I've just thought of another nostalgic odor that isn't normally considered pleasant: the smell of brown coal. It takes me right back to Czechoslovakia before and somewhat after the Velvet Revolution. For me, this is pleasant; for Czechs, I imagine it is usually not.



Blogger Julia said...

The smell of dishwasher steam...a certain Jergen's soap...bananas ripening in the sun...diesel fumes mixed with sea air. Some of my favorites.

Brown coal is not my favorite either - sometimes I can't wait to get to Germany to smell the fresh air after a long winter!

October 12, 2008 1:03 AM  
Blogger Kristen said...

I was also struck by the "old socks" memory comment. I have also noticed that I don't seem to have as many olfactory memories as others--maybe because I have allergies and my sense of smell is not always in good working order? Or maybe my brain is just structured differently. Anyway, I was hard pressed to come up with particular scents that evoked nostalgia. Other emotions, yes, but not nostalgia.

October 12, 2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

I think part of the nostalgia aspect must relate to things having been smelled at a particular, pleasant time but not continuing to be part of one's daily life. At least, this is how it works for me. If I simply smell something regularly, it doesn't usually prompt nostalgia. So for me, this has to do with scents from childhood (mostly plants that don't grow in California or aren't common there) or that relate to places I only visit intermittently.

This doesn't explain why some people would get nostalgic about old socks or burnt rubber.

And I certainly associate certain smells with other emotions or not especially pleasant memories. Hairspray brings forth recollections of having to stand still, hold my breath, and close my eyes and still not being able to escape the suffocating smell. I've been relieved to find on recent visits to Chicago that it's no longer necessary to go through endless putrid factory smokes when driving in from the south. I can definitely remember their ghastly stench.

October 12, 2008 3:18 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

Factories are a lot less smelly now - there used to be a horrible paper plant smell entering Charleston that just made the last miles home from vacation headache inducing.

My smell list definitely has to do with good memories - dishwasher and Jergen's soap from a grandparent's house; bananas ripening from a favorite vacation; diesel fumes and the sea from a wonderful old boat of our family's. Maybe I just need more time to pass and I'll miss brown coal too?

October 12, 2008 11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the smell of brown coal from the early 90s when I was living and teaching in Hungary. And the smell of brown coal combined with fog. . .I love it ! Almost certainly, it wasn't/isn't good for one's health, but it is nostalgic.

October 13, 2008 10:12 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

I think that damp air intensifies our ability to perceive (and even enjoy) odors. I have no good opinion of diesel in general, but diesel in the rain prompts nostalgia. I think the smell of brown coal also requires damp air to hit me right.

Let's hope I don't begin to feel nostalgic for the smell of burning garbage and old rubber as smelled in Czech villages in the winter... that would be worse than brown coal.

October 13, 2008 3:58 PM  

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