Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America

Melanie A Kiechle

University of Washington Press



Writing a history of smell is a novel means of exploring changing notions of urban environmental justice and public health. One potent example from Smell Detectives is the common belief in 19th-century America that foul smells were signs of miasma, or a bad air that caused disease. Concerns about urban smells became a proxy for anxieties about increasing industrialization and urbanization.

These anxieties weren’t always scientifically founded. For instance, Chicago authorities decided to reverse the course of the Chicago River away from the city’s water source, Lake Michigan, in an effort to dispel the smell of the waste. It was believed that the toxic smells led to poor health. Diverting the river’s course did result in a healthier city, as Chicagoans no longer needed to drink contaminated water. So the end result – a healthier city – was what public health officials had envisioned, even if cast-off pathogens rather than odors were the means to this improved health. The miasma theory was ultimately supplanted by germ theory, but this transition would require medical and lay knowledge of disinfection gained during the Civil War, the rise of health boards, and citizen calls for action.

In this period, crusaders for better-smelling cities had plenty of other successes. For example, urban parks were often seen as functional, a way to diffuse a city’s noxious air. Increasing greenery was a motivation borne of public health rather than aesthetics, and ended up having benefits beyond those initially imagined.

But smells were significant for social and cultural reasons that extended beyond a public health lens. Kiechle explains that “the act of smelling is biological, but the interpretation of and reaction to odors is socially shaped and the product of one’s cultural context” (page 7). Just one of the social dynamics that smell reveals in her study is the relationship between scientific expertise and the common sense of ordinary individuals, given the difficulty of quantifying smell and treating it objectively. Anyone with a working nose has a powerful tool for assessing urban environmental conditions and potentially turning this into protest, and Smell Detectives documents many cases of laypeople doing just that.

A key social relationship had to do with smells as a reflection of urban inequality. The media and the well-off portrayed working classes, immigrants, and ethnic minorities variously as victims or as sources of vile odors. The latter led to plans to move poorer and non-white residents out of city centers, or to spatially segregate cities so that those of higher incomes and ostensibly more delicate sensibilities wouldn’t have to contend with the smells of the poor. Zoning laws became a trend in the early 20th century, and effectively moved factories and other places of lower-paid employment out of affluent urban districts.

A concurrent trend was suburban flight. As the affluent and powerful moved away, their political capital to temper bad smells went with them. Thus, “the residents of industrial neighborhoods, many of whom lived in stenches about which they were unable to complain because of language barriers and minority status, were aware of the declining interest in the air of their neighborhoods” (page 245).

Of course, environmental racism persists in American cities. By connecting continuing debates to 19th-century notions of disgust, fragrant air, and healthful public space, Smell Detectives shows the power as well as the limitations of certain kinds of environmental consciousness.


Further reading:

Joshi, Deepa, Ben Fawcett and Fouzia Mannan (2011), “Health, hygiene and appropriate sanitation: experiences and perceptions of the urban poor”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 23, No 1, pages 91–111, available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956247811398602.

Stephens, Carolyn (2011), “Revisiting urban health and social inequalities: the devil is in the details and the solution is in all of us”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 23, No 1, pages 29–40, available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956247811398588.

Wing, Steve, Gary Grant, Merle Green and Chris Stewart (1996), “Community based collaboration for environmental justice: south-east Halifax environmental awakening”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 8, No 2, pages 129–140, available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/095624789600800214.


Book note prepared by Christine Ro

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