Senses and History, Part 5: Smell

As a writer, you have probably heard that the sense of smell is the least used in writing fiction. We use words, so vision is well represented. We write dialogue, we write personal connections, so hearing and touch are all good. Taste could probably be used a bit more, outside of bedroom scenes. But smell is in itself a somewhat negative word. Writers tend to ignore it. This blog is helpful for all the underused senses.

If I say Axe Body Spray, you probably zoom back to junior high school when young boys used it in place of actual hygiene. Many celebrities push their own perfume, and who can forget Daffodil Daydream from a recent Marvel movie? This has apparently triggered some bath and home products of that scent.


We also know smog, movie popcorn, barbecue lighter fluid, candle store miasma, and science fiction convention attendees body funk. That last also applies to homeless people, but they aren’t unique to modern smells.

In Regency England, flowers were in use as home air fresheners. The poor smelled of cabbage and a lack of cleanliness. Dogs and cats defecated in city streets or country barns. Horse sweat and leather were the smells most associated with men, along with cigars and snuff. Women longed for French perfumes and settled for rose water and vinaigrette.

It’s hard to write an accurate Regency romance in this area. Laundry and bathing were more difficult to accomplish, even with servants. Speaking of the help, they would smell of beeswax and silver polish, of soaps and sweat, in the house. Outside they would smell of horse, of mown lawns, and of the lack of opportunity to bath. Even the man of the house and his sons would smell unwashed, have bad teeth, and if they drank enough, smell like a distillery on a good day.


Our friends in Rome were stinkier by far than the rest of us. Their shops were under their homes if they were middle class. The rich lived next door, not in a separate rich gated community. Dead animals were disposed of in the street, while the biggest structures in the biggest cities, the amphitheaters, produced the majority of dead animals and people, for entertainment. Because the smell of bloodshed was not as popular as watching it, the Coliseum had a system of jets that delivered wine boiled with saffron and other spices to deodorize the place after each show.

The Romans were fond of their baths, but that did not mean it was a daily ritual. Nor that it was healthy to bath with the whole community, no matter what open sores or diseases they carried. The only way to deal with the putrid and invasive smells of the Roman cities was through the use of perfumes and incense.

Here are 10 smells through history that are notable:


One scent, however, was known in Rome, known in the English countryside, and known in modern times: Wood smoke. In Rome, wood fires lit the ovens. In London, coal was more often used, but in the countryside, wood fires were used when needed. And today, a wood fire is a sign of being well off financially in urban settings.


Wish I had found this on the day I published Sight. Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Sunday to look at health for writers.


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