Scents and Scent-ability

“Punning is a talent which no man affects to despise but he that is without it.”
― Jonathan Swift

“Puns are the highest form of literature.”
― Alfred Hitchcock

“This morning, Tegus welcomed me again with an arm clasp and cheek touch. I wasn’t startled this time, and I breathed in at his neck. How can I describe the scent of his skin? He smells something like cinnamon– brown and dry and sweet and warm. Ancestors, is it wrong for me to imagine laying my head on his chest and closing my eyes and breathing in his smell?”
― Shannon Hale, Book of a Thousand Days

You are no doubt wondering if this post is going to be about puns or smells. The answer is yes. I hope to learn and relate much about smells and scents and perfumes as used in Regency England. I find that smell is the area I have to consciously work on to add to my writing. So the more ideas I can gather on it, the more I can put in the book. But my sense of humor is such that I laughed about the title when I came up with it, and still grin when I read it. Parts of my brain did not mature.

The link to Smell Culture will give you definitions of perfume, cologne, and toilette water. But I want to know more along the lines of which scents were used to indicate something, if anything. Women of easy virtue, it seems, used perfume in vast quantities. But is that just a myth, or did they really do that?

Modern times in the US have brought about a culture where smell has a bad name. We wash, deodorize, and scent ourselves to the point where our pheromones give up the battle. Only very strong scents like fear and sweat can combat the scented camouflage we wear.

Do you know the meaning of the word “petrichor?’ if not, we’ll get back to it shortly. Do you associate a particular smell with your house? Your mate? Your pets? I grew up with dogs that had puppies pretty regularly, and I found the scent of puppy breath, and I mean little, unweaned pups, to be very nice. But is that because I had such happy memories associated with the birth of these fun and loyal pets?

Science is discovering that pheromones are the chemistry that attracts us to each other. When I first kissed the man who would be my husband, I knew I would spend my life with him or wanting him. Luckily he felt the same way about me, and we have been very happy together. Is it a coincidence that he always smells wonderful to me, or that we both like the perfume I wear? Probably not.

Anyone who has dogs or has been around canines, will know that they use scent marking for many communications. Territory, sexual opportunity, and submission to name a few. Prior to World War II, people were happier with natural scents and not so fastidious as Western culture today.

There’s a language of flowers, and a language of fans, there must be a language of scents, right? But nothing I can find says that this supposition is true. The perfumes of France achieved a huge popularity which made them expensive, and even with the war going on between France and England, the scents could be obtained easily. A noted family of perfumers emigrated to England before the war and began creating the stuff in London.

My heroines are usually not the rich sort, and expensive perfume seems too fussy by half for their tastes. Natural scents like almonds, roses, violets, cinnamon and vanilla would be their choices. I know a woman who uses an unscented mineral oil into which she puts drops of pure vanilla extract. The scent is delightful, but I’m not sure I want to smell like a sugar cookie all the time.

As an amateur historian from my days in the Society of Creative Anachronism, I know that people thought scent to be useful as a protection from diseases. Oranges studded with cloves and rolled in spices could be carried to sniff, so as to prevent catching plague and also to improve the overall scent of a society without indoor plumbing. The decline of strong perfumes made with animal bases follows the rise of better hygiene.

But back to my search for reasons behind the smell, and particularly if a barque of frailty (I so love Regency language! Prostitute just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Oh, there’s a pun in there!) used scent liberally to promote her profession. I have used the phrase, Smells like a French Whore House in here, a time or two. But never thought about the truth of it.

According to The Scent Report, Psychologist Havelock Ellis ( “highlights the discrediting of musk as a significant turning point in the history of sexuality. Until the late 18th century, he claims, women used perfume as a means of emphasising, rather than masking, their natural body odour. Animal perfumes such as musk had the same function as the corsets which were used to accentuate and exaggerate the female form. It seems that men, by contrast, have throughout history felt less need to advertise their masculinity with perfumes, or indeed any other devices.” I won’t mention tight jeans, big pick-up trucks, or huge woofers.

So there is no language of scent, except that if you use a lot of it, you will be suspected of covering up body odor and should be forced to shower immediately. As a frequent attendee at fan conventions, I think I would prefer someone who at least tried to cover up the odor if they don’t bathe regularly. I will never forget sitting behind a man who reeked of unwashedness, amazed no one around him hadn’t said anything to him, and unable to leave because my daughter was in the costume contest and would be on stage in a few minutes. Whew!

Come to think about it, being at conventions like that can put one in the mood to write about Regency England and earlier times. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.


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