Back to previous post: Vlad and his friend Boris make a video

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Electoral history, pattern-making, and meaning

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

October 25, 2008

Scents and sensibilities
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:21 AM * 136 comments

Our sense of smell hooks into our brains in a way that no other sense does: our reactions are immediate, associative, vivid. A scent can call back a memory long buried and forgotten, and we seek and favor those fragrances that please us, for themselves or what they evoke.

Three smells that speak to me:

Lavender has been one of my favorite scents since university, when I lived in a co-op with a lavender bush by the door. I used to sit on the doorstep in the sun and tuck stems into my Latin grammar, which still smells of the stuff to this day.

This week, my daughter stored up what I hope will be a powerful and delightful association with the fragrance. The house we’ve been staying in on vacation (in the south of France) has an enormous quantity of lavender bushes. My mother in law, my daughter and I harvested a bucketload of the flowers, all dried on the bush, which will be going into sachets for Christmas presents. Our hands, our clothing, and the entire house smelled of the stuff by the time we were finished. Our luggage will as well, though I plan to triple-bag our gleanings.

Leather is also, for me, a fond memory. When I lived in Edinburgh, I used to go to the specialist bookbinding tannery that lies in an outlying part of the city. It doesn’t tan the hides from raw (a process with its own distinctive smell), but imports them, treats them, dyes them, and sells them from great multicolored rolls in their warehouse. Few people go there in person; most order online, and are missing a treat. It is beautiful and vivid in there, and the staff are a delight to know.

What I discovered, patronizing Hewit’s, was that there are many distinct smells that all identify as “leather”. Each of the hides I have bought from them has its own fragrance, and the many scents blend to make that building one of the most pleasant-smelling ones I have ever been inside.

My children’s wet diapers held strong memories. Each of us, you know, has his or her own distinctive odor, and as a mother, I’m powerfully attuned to that of my children.

For me, though, wet diapers are about babyhood. Both of my kids are long since toilet trained, and I’ll never smell that particular fragrance again. But it reminds me of tender times with them at the changing mat, playing with their toes and singing Cheryl Crow (“A change will do you good”) or David Bowie (“Changes”).

I miss it.

What smells do you find vivid and powerful? Why?

Non-political thread, naturally.

Comments on Scents and sensibilities:
#1 ::: PixelFish ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:42 AM:

I love the smell of my Griffin and Sabine books. (Chronicle or whoever did a bangup job on the trilogy.) The pages smell AWESOME....Anyway, it makes me think of high school art class.

I also love the smell of campfire. I miss camping in Utah.

I love making my lemon risotto because the smell clings to my hands for hours....and it's almost as good as having the fresh lemon risotto.

I like mom and pop stores that smell like San Francisco (although, that means incense and good food, not the part of San Francisco that is 8th and Market, because that's the part that smells like urine.)

(Speaking of San Francisco, I smelled the WORST smell in the world there once: rotting pig entrails. On the corner of Jackson and Kearney. It was enough to make me walk down a different street to get to the House of Nan King for the next three months.)

#2 ::: Arachne ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:17 AM:

I loved the smell of new Magic the Gathering cards (or any cards made in a similar manner); it brings back memories of playing MtG into the late night at University.

I swear that snow has a smell. That invokes many strange memories.

#3 ::: dido ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:27 AM:

Oh yes, snow most definitely has a smell.

For me it's horses. The combination of sweat, hay and manure. Best smell in the world. I'm also fond of the laundromat smell, especially early in the morning.

#4 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:42 AM:

When I was young and didn't know anything, I would walk the dog past Hewits thinking "oh, thats the leather works", then when I knew more about tanning, I began to wonder why the place didn't stink and all the neighbours complain about it.

Eventually I went inside looking for some leather for re-enactment use, and its a lovely old building inside and the staff are indeed helpful and interesting. And it turned out they didn't do any tanning on site, which was a bit of a let down, but I'm sure the neighbours were glad.

#5 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:51 AM:

I live just downwind of the world's largest collection of lilacs, so that's always been pleasant. I don't know much about horses, but cow pastures have that wonderful warm earthy smell. I also agree that snowfall is heavenly, and will add the smells after a thunderstorm and before a rainstorm.

But the wildest is the smell of VapoRub. (Is that camphor that makes it smell like that?) I seem to have no memory of the smell; I find it to be completely indescribable and it never triggers any memories other than the surprise that my brain is incapable of processing it.

#6 ::: Tracey S. Rosenberg ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:52 AM:

But what if I love the smell of politicians?

(In the morning, natch.)

#7 ::: Melody ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 07:28 AM:

Ritz crackers and fresh pine. Mom had Chunky Chicken Noodle soup and Ritz for lunch every day, so the smell of Ritz means staying home from school and Mom.

At the Presby church that I grew up, we'd put up two fresh pine trees and swags decorating the sanctuary at Christmas. I'm a non-churchgoing Deist now, but pine is still fellowship, worship and singing.

#8 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:39 AM:

Lilac is my wife's favorite scent, but for me the most evocative scent is boxwood. It especially signifies the garden at the middle school I attended. A large piece of the school building was fitted into a great old manor house which was in turn an addition-bigger-than-the-original to a colonial house (the porch side bore a strong resemblance to the back side of Mt. Vernon). In those days the place was not rolling in ill-earned upper middle money, and bringing the grounds under control was parent work. The old formal garden was a complete jungle, so my father and my brother and I and a whole bunch of other people attacked it over a few weekends. In the sea of blackberry and honeysuckle and I don't remember what else, there were these enormous boxwoods, four and five and six feet tall, bent into all sorts of baroque curves by the competition. The formal bones were revealed again, but the wildness could never be fully removed without shovel-pruning these fifty-plus year old shrubs. Since the garden was hardly used except for graduation ceremonies, it was for me a refuge. I was fortunate that the fellow I get my old roses from started a bunch of boxwoods for himself, so that now I have a foot-high hedge of them in a back corner of my yard.

#9 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:49 AM:

We moved into a house with a couple of roses out front. One was Peace - easy to recognize - and the other was a deep red, very fragrant rose I've never identified. Its scent was warm, berries and spice (and rose) and even its stems were scented in a spicy way.

#10 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:54 AM:

The distinctive scent of a new late 1960s-early 1970s Ballantine paperback book.

I will probably never smell this again, as no other publisher ever used that paper or glue or whatever generated it, and the scent faded from the books with age.

But when you're a kid who always has your nose in a book, and when that book is a paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings that you're reading for the first time, the association becomes indelible.

#11 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:58 AM:

The smell of an engine's exhaust brings back fond memories of my dad. He was a mechanic, doing the maintenance on the quarry's equipment, but for me it meant him working in his own garage, tinkering with the car, the snowblower, our skidoo. The memories are fond ones even though I was terrible at helping him.

#12 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:23 AM:

The smell of freshly plowed earth always brings a wave of nostalgia to me. Every spring my father and I would plow the fields prior to replanting them, and the smell always seemed so rich and vibrant.

Also, western style BBQ (like they make it in TN, not here in NC). There's a particular restaurant in Raleigh that cooks it that way, and whenever we go in there the smell always makes me smile. My father would grill various meats on an open fire using a variety of sauces and the smell was very similar to that.

The smell of hay in a barn, that dusty, warm grass smell makes me think of my farm days as well.

On a different note, the smell of Winston cigarettes triggers all sorts of unpleasant memories. My mother smoked them right up to when she was killed by a drunk driver, and they've still got a distinctive smell to me.

#13 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:29 AM:

I get teased for this, but I get nostalgic over... cow manure.

It's actually not JUST that- it's the whole Farm scent, including silage, grass...

My paternal grandparents were dairy farmers. They had to sell their place when I was 12. Now, whenever I drive past a farm, I roll down the window and sniff.

The Vermont Confectionery (mentioned in the Blue Benn thread.) is next to a dairy farm. Every year when my husband and I go there I sit in the parking lot for a bit and get all choked up for a bittersweet moment.

#14 ::: telesilla ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:33 AM:

Although I've moved on to much most sophisticated perfumes, the smell of Spiritual Sky raspberry essential oil takes me right back to Jr. High.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:33 AM:

Tobacco... Good memories and bad. Pipes remind me of my grandfather, and cigars of the few that my dad smoked. Those are good memories. Cigarettes are associated with my dad smoking them while driving, with the windows rolled up. That gave me headaches. It had never occurred to me to complain about it, and it never occurred to him that they could bother others.

#16 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:35 AM:

Re: #2
Of COURSE snow has a smell!

Other evocative scents, for me:

Oil of Olay- reminds me of my grandma Mead

Colgate toothpaste and Dial or Cashmere Bouquet soap- reminds me of my maternal granparents.

Rubbing alcohol and disinfectant- childhood hospital stays. (also the reason I no longer drink cola.)

Sawdust- My dad's cellar

Candle wax- birthdays, Jack-O-lanterns and Christmas luminaria.

Christmas trees

and there are more...

#17 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:36 AM:

Freshly mowed lawn... That was my job, and so was the scrubbing off of the clippings still sticking to the bottom of the mower. It made me feel like a grownup, or at least trusted to be careful near that blade.

#18 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:43 AM:

Oilfields - we drove through one on the way to the house of an aunt and uncle; it's one of the earliest smells I remember.

The smell of wet ground when it rains after a long dry spell.

#19 ::: toxicfur ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:47 AM:

Two-cycle engine exhaust reminds me of my grandfather, who taught me to water-ski, and who spent nearly every warm weekend on the Northeast Cape Fear River with my brothers and me.

The smell of tomato plants and dirt reminds me of gardening with my grandmother.

A certain combination of inexpensive perfume and cigarette smoke reminds me -- viscerally -- of my mom, who died last January. Occasionally, I get a whiff of that combination, and it threatens to undo me completely.

#20 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:17 AM:

Mm, smells good!

When I was a wee one, and the air took on a certain sweet smell, it was going to be a fine day and Dad would take me to the zoo. It was the smell of spring, of growing that was beginning to push back the snow and cold winter smell; it was the smell of life and promise. I love to smell it even to this day.

Autumn has a different, related sweetness to it. It's the decaying leaves and preparation for hibernation, and the hint of winter on the wind.

The smell of acrylic polymers remind me powerfully of my grandfather at his job. He and his brother owned a company that made dental prosthetics, and his desk was a work bench upon which he dealt with the trickier submissions. After he died in 1977, I didn't smell it for a long time. It showed up unexpectedly one day when a specialty farrier came to fix some hooves that had gotten damaged, and he used polyacrilamide to fill in some spots. We use it now in our research, and it still makes me think of him.

The smell of hay and straw brings back the years I worked with horses. A good whiff of straw, and I'm pitching manure again.

Oil of Olay belongs to my maternal grandmother, who used it daily to keep her skin smooth. It reminds me of her fierce hugs, her elegance even in casual clothing, and dinners at her house. She died just over eight years ago, and I miss her still, although we'd lost her before she died, to dementia.

Her pantry also had a distinctive smell, a mixture of Olay, shortening, flour, and spices. There is nothing else in the world like it, and I'll never smell it again since her house was sold.

My cats each have a different smell. When I was growing up, my cat had a strong woodsmoke scent, probably from sleeping in the woodpile whenever she could. It was based on cherrywood, but it was mixed with her natural aroma and was a wonderful perfume.

Then there was the time I smelled something that reminded me of rotting sauerkraut (not that sauerkraut could rot). For four days I asked my partner if she could smell it, and she did not, which drove me mad. I also smell things like doggie accidents, and burned matches (in a house with a 5-yr old, this was a warning sign). Sometimes I smell too many things and it becomes intensely uncomfortable.

#21 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:18 AM:

From my grade school years: the smell of an old-fashioned purple-mimeoed pop quiz, fresh off the roller -- every kid in the classroom would hold the paper up to their nose and take a deep breath, prior to starting work. (Is it any wonder we went on to experiment with mind-altering drugs?)

#22 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:35 AM:

Ginger @ 20... A good whiff of straw, and I'm pitching manure again.

Wouldn't you rather be spinning the straw into gold?

#23 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:04 AM:

Serge @ 22: That's Rumpelstiltskin -- I'm Rapunzel.

#24 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:17 AM:

Debra, 21: Ah, yes, the rexograph, we called it. That term may be a New Yorkism, but the apparatus was still in use in the mid-late 70s.

A couple of odors that have immediate associations are my grandfather's aftershave, and the distinct cleaning solution used in the corridors of my aunt's apartment building when she lived in Williamsburg.

Also, the "new car smell" stuff the car service that we usually used to get to my aunt's place always seemed to use, which I couldn't stand. I hope they don't make that stuff any more.

Before I started drinking coffee regularly, I liked the smell even though I insisted I didn't like coffee. When I did start drinking it regularly, for a brief period I found myself oddly craving a cigarette - this was especially odd since I've never smoked in my life! But my mother and grandmother did, quite often while having a cup of coffee, and the association of those smells probably triggered the desire in me. I never acted on it, and I didn't feel the urge again once I figured out the basis for it.

#25 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:23 AM:

Like Debra @21 - purple mimeo worksheets. mmmmmm...

Also Lilacs. Everywhere we lived mom made sure she planted a lilac bush.

Burnt cheese and chocolate chip cookies, sometimes (but not always) simultaneously depending on when the cheese-covered food was cooked.

The smell of water on hot concrete - this smells different in the west, where there's less humidity. I spent roughly half of my childhood in Utah and the other half in Illinois. When I moved to California a few years ago the scent from the pavement when the sprinklers were turned off was overwhelming. It was a smell I never remembered missing.

New picture book smell - whatever glossy inks and papers are used in kids picture books and the odd fancy adult (not porn) book with pictures makes a wonderful smell that hasn't changed much in over 30 years.

#26 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:29 AM:

I love the smell of fresh hay - a quintissential scent of summer. Horses smell good too, and even, yes, horse manure.

Evocative scents from my childhood:
"Brasso" brass polish used on the brass of our front doorstep.

Shoe polish and my father sitting at the table polishing all the shoes.

Hospital disinfectant and school holidays (when I had to go into work with one or other of my parents - my mother did a couple of mornings a week as an anaesthetist at the time.

And... dog poop - the old variety, from when most dogs were still fed meat and bones etc. - which triggers memories of summer seaside holidays, because that was the smell we always encountered along the path we took from the small hotel down to the beach.

#27 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:46 AM:

I have a very sensitive nose, and I can smell a lot of things others can't detect. I probably will have a lot to say about this once I think about it, but for now I'll just mention one:

When I discovered that my coven was having a little trouble settling down and getting ready for circle, I started a policy of preparing before entering the circle room, and at the entrance we "anointed the third eye" with tangerine oil (that is, we put a bit of the oil on each person's forehead). As time went by, the scent of the tangerine oil became associated with the semitrance of beginning circle, and the preparation became much easier.

One person did report trancing out when a coworker peeled a tangerine, but that effect wore off quickly! (And also, the mental state appropriate to the beginning of circle is calm and settled, but awake and alert; not a bad state to be in in a lot of situations, actually.)

#28 ::: zornhau ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:54 AM:

Woodsmoke and fresh cut grass takes me back to a my first battle reenactments, when it was still fresh and we were ignorant enough for the fighting to be satisfying, and then we'd carouse on into the English night, going from campfire to campfire, joking and swapping stories...

#29 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:03 PM:

I find most floral fragrances to be unpleasant; the main exception is lilacs, which I adore. (Matthew @5, I envy you!) Our across-the-street neighbors in Michigan had a huge hedge of lilac bushes -- not just the standard light purple, but also white and (my favorite) dark purple -- and didn't mind if people came over and snipped a few bunches to take home. So that smell will always be associated with my late childhood and early teen years.

Woodsmoke is another favorite. This associates to a lot of things, but the strongest is the "firewood parties" held by the president of the Nashville Science Fiction Club. He lives on a heavily-wooded property, and has to clear a fair amount of deadfall; and anything like an ice storm or tornado produces prodigious amounts of downed wood. Rather than let it go to waste, on weekend nights when the weather is suitable, he invites everyone over for a bonfire. It's BYOB/food/chairs, and we all just sit around and chew the fat for hours. Any time I'm back in Nashville over a Saturday night, I check to see if there's going to be a party.

And I have to leave now, so more later.

#30 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:07 PM:

Lilacs and lily of the valley both mean spring to me. There is a lilac bush on the south side of my house, and lily of the valley all along the north side.

The smell of the ocean used to mean summer, but that was many years ago, when I lived in Maryland. Ironically, now it means winter, because that's when I visit my mother in Florida.

I haven't smelled ditto fluid in so long I don't know what it would remind me of - tests in school (bad) or the first fanzine I pubbed (good).

Chocolate chip cookies, mmmmmm. Perhaps it's time to bake this afternoon.

#31 ::: Fiona ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:29 PM:

What a wonderful think to think about--the scents of each season from my childhood.

Lilly of the valley is the smell of spring.

Fresh-cut grass is summer.

Vinegar and dill, from pickle-making, and burning leaves for fall.

Pine--a fresh Christmas tree is winter to me.

#32 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:30 PM:

#21 -- that's "Ditto" (brand name; or "spirit duplicator" for the generic). The purple, and the smell, are quite distinctive. Although other color masters were also available, leading to interesting multi-colored line-drawing artwork. I owned a ditto machine for a while, and published many many Minneapa-zines on it.

(Mimeo is essentially an easy-to-use silkscreen process, forcing ink through a screen and then through the gaps in the wax stencil and onto the paper. The ink used is most commonly a plain black, and changing a machine from one color to another is a major and extremely messy operation.)

I don't find smells especially evocative of things, myself. I have fond memories of the methanol-soaked-paper ditto smell, for example, but they don't attach to specific moments at all.

Also, the smell is better if the stack of paper has had an hour or so to dry out a bit; it's kinda raw immediately after it comes out of the machine, it seems to mellow over time.

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:33 PM:

Oh, yeah, purple ditto sheets. (The technical term is 'hectograph', IIRC. Done with a master on gelatin, maximum about 30 copies. Then you melted the gelatin and started over. Mimeo used stencils made on sheets slightly less sturdy than carbon paper, and black ink, usually.)

#34 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:47 PM:

Purple ditto! We called it 'mimeo'. I haven't smelled that in many, many years, but I expect it would instantly take me back to my school days.

Fresh-cut evergreens means Christmas to me.

My favorite scent is cinnamon, but it doesn't have any specific associations, except that of good things to eat.

#35 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:48 PM:

And I love the smell of baking bread. Mmmmmmm.

#36 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:00 PM:

Ginger @ 23... That's Rumpelstiltskin -- I'm Rapunzel.

I didn't figure for the type who'd wait for someone to rescue her, when you could simply have hacked away your tresses and used them to climb down the tower. Hmmm... When was this photo taken?

#37 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:02 PM:

Dippity-Doo hair gel. That was the first one I used, when I was 13-14, and it brings back early MTV.

#38 ::: j austin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:21 PM:

I'm a little surprised no one has said Play-doh, since that one comes up all the time in scent studies.
Perfumes kill me, as do the people who can't smell the potpourri we sell at work, and have to open the bag and shove their nose all the way in for a full minute to decide if they like it. I have for sure known three people with anosmia in my life though, and I can't imagine what that would be like.

Campho-Phenique, because my grandfather put it on every scrape, cut and bruise I got. Yeeowch! WD40, because he sprayed it on his knuckles, swearing up and down it helped his arthritis.

Oil field smells, because of my dad. We lived overseas when I was a kid, but those smells never changed.

I love spicy smells like clove and citrus, and though I don't like coffee, I love the smell. The smell that always makes me smile, though, is fritos or corn chips, because that's how the pads on my dog's feet smell. I was on an airplane one time when the lady in front of me opened up a bag, and I got all depressed. *Smells like paws*

#39 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:23 PM:

PJEvans -- no, hectograph is a different process that uses the same masters as ditto -- the gelatine acts to dissolve the analine dyes in the master and slowly release it. The maximum number of copies varied pretty widely, but the name indicates that it was expected to produce 100 copies (hecto = 100).

Nobody's mentioned rosemary yet, or baking bread (that I noticed). Or frying bacon. All strong, emotionally evocative smells for me.

#40 ::: Sylvia Sotomayor ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:27 PM:


I love the smell of the desert, especially when it is hot. The heat releases so many of the different volatiles. It's wonderful.

I like the smells of inland Southern California - even the freeways. I visited Boulder, CO once on business and someone there asked me how I liked it there with all the clean air. I replied that it was nice the first day, but then I got homesick and stood behind a bus for a while. :)

Also, during my first full-time job, I joked about liking the smell of those big fat black permanent markers. Even sniffed one deliberately to prove it. No doubt that explains a lot about me today. :)

#41 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:42 PM:

To me the most evocative smells are very bad to some folks, and absolutely horrid to others. The first "grown-up" cheese I ever tried was a Dutch cheese called Esrom. I will happily admit that I picked it because Esrom is Morse spelled backwards. On opening it, I was absolutely assaulted by this astonishing, powerful aroma. ('This is for eating?' I thought) To this day, a lovely stinky cheese flings me right back to that day.

Now I'm smart enough to accompany such a dish with a nice wine (something with a bit of terroir, after all if your cheese is gonna stink, your wine shouldn't take that sitting down!)

#42 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:53 PM:

Bread baking (closely followed by spice cookies baking, but bread takes the lead). The summer I was thirteen I baked bread to order three days a week--up at 5am to start the first batch of milk scalding while I brushed my teeth. It was grueling, and by the end of the summer I had made almost no money, but oh, the smell of yeast in the morning.

Midday sun on fresh mown grass. Smells like summer and a long day of reading in the hammock, or climbing over the mountain with my friends from high school.

The smell of a freshly showered male in a freshly laundered dress shirt. My husband (of course), but my fondness for this scent predates meeting him. And no, a t-shirt is okay, but it's not quite the same.

#43 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:57 PM:

Ligustrum (privet) flowers: a heady, almost cloying scent that never fails to conjure up timeless summer days spent chasing butterflies.

Gasoline: I spent the first three years of my life in a small house next to the maintenance garage of Occidental College, where my father was chief engineer. There are no memories associated with the smell, just a diffuse pleasure.

Geranium flowers: my maternal grandmother's garden was full of them. Oddly, the smell also evokes the Doré engravings for the Divine Comedy, as there was an old translation of that work at their house to which I repaired with horrified fascination almost every time I visited there.

#44 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 02:04 PM:

The smell of a steam radiator with layers of old paint on it -- that slightly dusty, hot metal smell. I'd never had a steam radiator until moving away to college. I loved my dorm (which was a residential college and a residential community, full of friends and welcoming), I loved the sense of independence and freedom that came with living on my own for the first time. I loved the feeling of waking up in the morning and knowing I had time to spend as I chose, without someone else policing what I was doing all the time. The smell of a steam radiator always makes me feel comforted and calm and free -- my own home, my own life, things under control.

Chantilly Lace, because it's the perfume my mother generally wears.

Roses remind me of my grandmother; she loves her rosebushes. She always used to take bouquets of her roses to place in front of the statues of Mary and Joseph in the back of our church, and she'd bring me with her.

The smell of evergreens is Christmas to me; we always had a real tree when I was growing up. I walked through a dense spruce forest hiking from Mt. Mitchell to Mt. Craig last October, and it might as well have been Christmas.

Woodsmoke on a cold day is always comforting. Somewhere there's warmth, families around a fireplace.

It seems like most of my best-loved smells are about making a home and a family (in the sense of "people you can truly trust and love"; I consider my college friends a family in that sense).

Snow and ice certainly have a smell; I associate it with excitement, since snow and ice storms mean a break in routine here in the South. The world is transformed into something else. Especially with an ice storm, where it looks like everything is encased in perfectly transparent glass -- each individual leaf, blade of grass, pine needle.

#45 ::: j austin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 02:15 PM:

Caroline@44; We'd get ice-storms in Texas when I was little, too. The roses were still blooming sometimes, and to me, it was enchanting. I used to very carefully pull a few of the leaves off, and try to peel the leaf off the bottom so I had a perfect imprint of it in the ice. I had a pile of them in the freezer once, but I have no idea what I thought I was going to do with my hoard of fairy jewels.

#46 ::: Tam ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 02:38 PM:

I spent my gap year in South Korea and learned to cook kimchee chige from the folks I stayed with. The smell of Kimchee always reminds me of Mrs. Kim's kitchen.

My husband hates the smell. I keep a little pot of it in the fridge anyway.

#47 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:12 PM:

I was just realizing the other day that roses have a distinct and -- though not unpleasant, given time and distance -- hardly romantic connotation for me, since the first time I ever smelled them was at my maternal grandfather's funeral, and they've been linked with death for me ever since.

Different kinds of coffee smells mean different things to me -- one kind of drip coffee smell is my paternal grandparents' house, growing up; another is church-social coffee, which was the first I ever drank. Different coffee shops, too -- one coffee shop's smell takes me back to my first "real" job, my first summer in college, because we worked from there a lot, and another's reminds me of the ex who first introduced me to it. Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea (chamomile and peppermint, primarily) always reminds me of a particularly nice visit we had to my paternal grandparents' right after visiting the Celestial Seasonings factory in Boulder, Colorado.

Cities have smells, too, and different parts of cities at different times of year. The smell of cold fall air and wood smoke near where I live now reminds me of the same ex; the blend of wet and tangy steam-smell, car exhaust, dry leaves, and crisp fall air around MIT's campus reminds me of my first fall there, and the wet smell of earth and Cambridge concrete in the spring always takes me back to my visit to the college the spring of my senior year of high school.

Debra @21, Chris @24 -- I haven't smelled mimeo in ages, but I'm sure it would take me back to my elementary school days, at a tiny small-townn southeastern Iowa school in the early 90's. It's such a distinctive smell. There's a particular kind of warm and musty old-book smell that reminds me of the tiny small-town libraries I grew up in, too, that I miss dearly.

One I long for but have never been able to recapture except in whiffs out of the corner of my nose, as it were, when I'm out walking in spring -- the wet green growing smell of earth and new growth in the spring that reminds me of gardening with my dad in Minnesota. "Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, all it takes is a rake and hoe and a piece of fertile ground..."

#48 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:27 PM:

Based on this entry, you might be interested in The Scent of desire by Rachel Herz, an academic expert in the sense of smell.

I read it recently: it's quick and totally fascinating.

Among other revelations (and it was a library book, so my pardon inaccuracies as this is coming from memory)...

The amygdala, considered the locus of human emotion in the brain, is not only closely linked to olfactory processing centers, but may have evolved out of them. And emotion may fulfill the same function in humans that smell does for more "primitive" creatures. Animals use smell to evaluate direction -- moving towards good smells and away from bad ones. Similarly, humans are motivated by pursuit of happiness* and an aversion to that which makes us feel bad.

FWIW, research on scent-evoked memories have shown that they are no more accurate than memories triggered by other things, but they tend to be much more vivid emotionally.

*yes, I know that the meaning has shifted since that phrase was coined...

#49 ::: Lin D ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:32 PM:

Sycamores are heavenly. Home-made bread rising, all yeasty and wonderful. Baking bread smells wonderful, but rising bread is just... yes, it's just. Horses, oh yes, to walk into a barn full of horses and inhale deeply. Aahhhhh. There used to be a semi-transparent petroleum-based hand cleaner for those of us who worked on cars. Part of the enjoyment was cleanup after, pop the top on the can and inhale deeply. Walking into a used bookstore, reminds me of my first public library and all the glorious places the books took me to.

Evocative scents I don't like: Lavendar smells acrid and medicinal. I use it for and in lots of things because it's effective, but I don't like it. The smell of non-barbeque smoke, because it often means California's on fire again. (Just lived thru being down wind of the Sesnon fire.) I catch that scent and start scanning the skies for billowing clouds of brush fire smoke.

#50 ::: deCadmus ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:37 PM:

In (rough) order:

The yeasty richness of rising bread.
Autumn leaves at the bottom of the pile.
Milk chocolate.
Percolating coffee.
Toasty marshmallows over a smokey campfire.
The cold, coppery scent of blood in the snow.
Musty, leather bound volumes slowly desiccating on a library shelf.
Fresh-cut alfalfa.
Aged oil and wax patina of a 60-year-old guitar breathed in from the sound hole.
Musk gland freshly cut from a bow-shot buck.
The tinny fume of melting solder.
Frankincense and sweet myrrh of Catholic high mass.
Sweet-corn being shucked.
Melting beeswax.
Sweat and greasepaint.
Fermenting apples.
The clinging, briny spray of the Pacific Ocean.
The raw ozone of of 27,000 volts arcing.
The jasmine and lime scent of blooming coffee flowers.

#51 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:38 PM:

Okay, I sit corrected. You could actually get one for home use, and we did (although I don't remember what it was actually for, now).

My grandfather smoked cigars, and some brands bring that back.

Warm, ripe peaches. And some varieties of grapes.

#52 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:40 PM:

Oh, and speaking of amazing scents that I recommend...

If you're ever in Venice, stop at Rivoaltus -- a store on the Ponte De Vecchio which sells handcrafted books.

Two scents with positive associations (for me): leather and books/paper -- blended together.

When I walked in the door, I was captivated, and wish somebody would bottle that scent.

On a more personal note, I also love the smell of lilacs in the spring.
As a child, our house was surrounded by humongous bushes, but then my family moved to a climate too warm for the plants to produce flowers (they need a hard freeze).

I now live in New England, and the proliferation of lilacs is one of the reasons. Looking forward to seeing and smelling lilacs in bloom is definitely a motivator during hard winters...

#53 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:06 PM:

Okay, this is one I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned: that just-out-of-the-box smell of a new Mac. The original Macs, the Powerbook 100, various Performas, and even my 2004 reconditioned iBook all have that smell that I associate with anticipation, excitement, and eagerness to explore.

There's also that distinctive smell of the IKEA warehouse, composed equally of cinnamon, sawdust, and optimism.

#54 ::: iain ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:13 PM:

I was taught English at school by the novelist Christopher Rush. He had a habit of taking deep sniffs of any old books he happened to have down off the shelf. His claim was that he could tell by the smell of each one which Edinburgh second-hand bookshop he'd bought it in.

#55 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:24 PM:

Serge @17:

Freshly mowed lawn... That was my job, and so was the scrubbing off of the clippings still sticking to the bottom of the mower. It made me feel like a grownup, or at least trusted to be careful near that blade.

So that's where you got the nickname "Serge the one-handed"! I always wondered about that...

#56 ::: Bether ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:43 PM:

The combination of coffee, Colgate shaving cream and Dial soap -- my father kissing me good-bye each morning when he went off to work, when I was a kid. (Also his mildly bad breath.)

A certain smell of water on mulch brings to mind my grandmother watering her rather large garden. It doesn't happen in Portland; it rains too much here.

When I was little, both sets of grandparents owned 1970s diesel Mercedes sedans (what I wouldn't give to have one of those cars today). There is a smell in those cars that I don't experience very often, but it makes me feel very small, and recalls the feeling of slipping around in a dress and tights on the leather seats.

#57 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:48 PM:

I get teased, especially by my nephew, because I hold the Coke bottle near my face when I open it to catch the burst of smell with the very strong bite of CO2.

Bright early summer morning in New England woods when it had rained lightly the night before.

Indian summer among the oaks and maples, when the leaves have started to compost, but are dry and crisp again - if only for the day.

Burning leaves always brings me back to childhood.

The smell of the first dusting of snow on a crisp autumn evening.

A hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Coffee being ground (my Mom ground coffee by hand early in the morning, I love the smell — even though I've never liked coffee).

The absolutely clean smell of a heavy snowfall. No smell at all, just the chill cleansed air?

Balsam fir forest (Christmas wreaths give me an urge for a walk in the woods).

Maple syrup steam and pine smoke. (They go together in the sugar shack).

#58 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:58 PM:

Horses. Also hay, sweet feed, saddle soap, and horse manure.

The smell of rain evaporating off hot asphalt.

The first whiff of salt in the air (with a subtle undertone of fish/decay/marsh mud) as you get close to the beach.

What Debra said, about the purple mimeos (though they weren't a gateway drug for me).

Both new books and old books in their very distinct ways.

Beeswax candles remind me of the parts about church that I loved before our congregation was dissolved.

Neutrogena hand lotion reminds me of my father's last hospitalization; I can't bear it.

Wisteria, honeysuckle and mimosa remind me powerfully of my childhood. I think they may be the Southern equivalent of lilacs (which I've never smelled).

Dead pecan leaves have a distinctive warm/bitter/dusty smell that catapults me right back to the front yard of my childhood home.

Two plants that I've grown with scents so lovely they make my eyes roll back in my head: "Zephirine Drouhin" rose and "Gypsy Queen" hyacinth. I also love the powerful smell of tomato foliage, possibly even better than the smell of the tomatoes themselves (and if there's a better flavor than a Purple Calabash tomato right off the plant, I don't know what it would be).

#59 ::: Cynthia Wood ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:53 PM:

Rose Milk hand cream instantly takes me back to my grandmother's house. Her whole house had that distinctive background scent.

Lilac has mixed memories for me, on the good side, spring and trips to the park, on the bad side, a time in life when I was deeply unhappy.

Sandlewood - college and a close friend who loved it.

Cinnamon - baking with grandma.

White Ginger (plumeria) - the early years of my marriage, when we had a plumeria growing in our backyard.

Love's Baby Soft - sweeps me right back to middle school, when about half the girls wore it. Which means I deeply loathe the scent, since middle school was a miserable place for me.

Baby Powder + Brill Cream + Menthol = my grandfather's scent. Whereas Old Spice is associated with my father so strongly I had to ask my husband not to wear it, even though I like the scent.

#60 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:08 PM:

My favorite is the smell of the California bay laurel. You can tell when you are coming up on one in the woods just by the perfume. (But walking with your eyes shut is not recommended if there is poison oak around.)

Another amazing olfactory experience was going on a group hike in the East Bay hills. The trail cut across a steep south-facing hillside that was covered with sage bushes growing up to and over our heads. As the group brushed through the bushes along the narrow trail, they sent up of sweet spicy cloud of sage leaf dust.

#61 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:09 PM:

John Houghton @ 55... So that's where you got the nickname "Serge the one-handed"!

Whaaa?! Who calls me that? I was told that my nickname was Hooked-on-Punnic.

#62 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:21 PM:

I got funny looks once for telling someone a place "smelled like Schenectady." But my grandparents' house, my pediatrician's office and Proctors' Theater all had that scent.

#63 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:37 PM:

Serge @ 36: Oh, yes, that was taken long after I climbed out of the ivory tower.

Now, please pardon me while I go sniff the oregano -- I love that smell. Much nicer than sniffing dog ears for the scent of infection.

#64 ::: Zeborah ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:52 PM:

When I was a kid, the "Strawberry Shortcake" dolls were all the rage. My parents didn't go in for that kind of fad, but I picked up an old "Blueberry Muffin" doll at a church fair and named her Petunia. And the mother of my next-door neighbour gave me a Strawberry Shortcake lipstick. Ever since, I've loved that artificial strawberry smell.

#65 ::: Amanda ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 07:09 PM:

Purple ditto ink! I remember that smell too! Elmer's glue takes me back to elementary school as well.

I'd never thought of the smell of tomato plants as especially evocative until one day I sniffed a "Tomato" cologne, and it was as if a trap door had opened and deposited me in the front yard of my childhood house, where my mother grew tomatoes.

Any kind of violet perfume reminds me of my grandmother's dressing table, with her little perfume bottles and jars of hand cream.

I once got to spend a weekend in Nantucket while the beach roses were in bloom, and the combination of roses and the sea was one of the best things I've ever smelled. I wish someone would bottle that.

And it's weird, but I've always liked the smell of basements. Even though it's basically mildew. I don't know why, but I do.

(Long time reader, first time poster, by the way, and I can't believe it's taken me this long to finally reply to a thread here. Hello world!)

#66 ::: sara_k ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 07:21 PM:

Fresh bread, which is probably why I am baking so much lately.

The hot sweet smell of jam boiling down.

Guavas - a year or so ago I ran across guava muffins in MD and they smelled just like my backyard in Kenya; I could almost taste them. Unfortunately, the flavour wasn't close.

Fresh basil a couple of years ago the CSA had an overload and basil and tomatoes were pick-all-you-can every week. I made loads of pesto but also had bouquets of basil all over the house. My sister visited and had a very different reaction; when her landlord in dushanbe died during the summer they used vases of basil to mask the scent while he was on display for the week before the funeral.

The woods after a heavy rain - wet greenery and wet leaf mulch.

#67 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:17 PM:

Hello Amanda! I think there's an earthy smell to basements, whether it's dry and dusty or damp and mildewy.

Now I'm thinking about how much I loved going over to my grandmother's and sleeping on her back deck. She lives on the top of a hill near the bay. I would fall asleep listening to fog horns and barking seals. The predominant scent was rotting seaweed, wafting up from the bay. My grandmother has always been the frugal environmentalist and dries her clothes on a line as much as possible, so her clothes and all the linens in her house have a faint whiff of rotting seaweed.

#68 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:27 PM:

Pine and sage in the Sierra Nevadas. Every time I'm there, I can't wait until arriving at the destination -- I pull over at a scenic overlook, get out, and take a deep breath.

#69 ::: Hmpf ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:33 PM:

Strangely enough, I love a number of smells that are not usually the first to come to mind when trying to think of pleasant smells. Unfortunately, for two of them, I don't even know what to call them. But, for what it's worth:

1.) The indefinable smell of some of our local subway stations. Machine oil is definitely a related smell, and the 'subway station smell' is often strongest near the escalators, which suggests it's likely some special lubricant. I have no idea why I love this smell - but I started using the subway relatively late in my childhood, so maybe it got associated, somehow, with a sense of adventure and newness?

2.) Probably something used to treat wood. Associated with childhood memories of playgrounds with a variety of fantastically-shaped wooden playing equipment - I particularly remember a kind of communal rocking horse, seating five or six people, shaped like a viking ship.

3.) Machine oil proper. Associated with making things, a workshop smell.

4.) Hot streets after a summer rain. Summer afternoons, during school holidays.

#70 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:43 PM:

The odour of allspice takes me back to my teenage years. This is not altogether a good thing, since it brings memories of tedious hours cleaning leaves and twigs from the berries. On the other hand, those hours also brought all manner of tales of my mother's youth, which didn't altogether relieve the tedium.

Lavender has strong, positive associations for me (including my aunt pressing some sprigs from her orchard on me: ¿Sabes qué es? No tia Aida. Es lavanda, llevalo contigo).

#71 ::: Hmpf ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:44 PM:

Oh, and ditto on the ditto sheets! I have no idea what they were called here in Germany, but they were purple, yes, and had a very distinctive smell - must be the same thing. My generation of students (born in the mid-seventies) were probably among the last to know that smell - I think my school got a photocopying machine when I was in second grade, so that smell really was the smell of my very earliest school years (i.e. when school was still fun.)

#72 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 08:46 PM:

Mountain misery. A wonderfully evocative hiking-trip smell.

#73 ::: little light ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:14 PM:

This thread is such a delight. It reminds me of a request I made of my partner in planning our future home: that at its center should be a kitchen that smells like garlic, yeast, coffee, and peppers. I want my children to know those smells and remember them connected to warmth, comfort, and love.
It's funny how much that dream home of the future is defined by smells: old books, and roses, and woodsmoke. I guess that sort of proves the point; smells are deeply personal and powerful.

Just this last week, I was in a friend's apartment, and her roommate pulled out a handful of sweet hay for his rabbit, and it brought me right back to helping out in a stable when I was eight years old. That stable was a peaceful haven two doors down the lane from my own house, with a wealth of education on everything from nonverbal communication to hard work to Punnett squares from its owner, a patient woman who saw my interest and nurtured it by putting me to honest work. She was one of my first good queer role models, too. It was a pleasure to be taken back by that smell, and it was the isolation--just the smell of sweet hay in a downtown San Francisco apartment--that reminded me why I love stables so much.

There are so many; I grew up in the high desert, and the first rain hitting the dry pumice dust and pavement gets me every time. I can still smell it for miles off on the breeze, and that first thrill of a storm coming hits me every time.

Old oak and eucalyptus trees, too. Childhood hiding places, safe havens all. Fresh coffee grounds, coupled with the sound of a grinder being shaken upside-down a few times to get the last of the grounds out; my dad used to give it the exact same number of shakes every morning, and I find myself imitating the motion precisely when I do it myself, years later. Sandalwood incense. Clover blossoms, which call up endless afternoons making myself small and exploring the grass and bugs and little things as a child. The honeyed scent of Queen Anne's Lace and Cow Parsnip, and all the hikes where they grew on the river's edge and wafted up that spicy-sweet promise that if you pay attention to the details, it's all even lovelier.

I have an unusually sensitive nose, so I was delighted to discover that the woman I fell in love with smells wonderful pretty much all the time. I was always worried I'd fall for someone whose smell I found offensive, and just have to live with it, but then, considering our brain-wiring, it's entirely likely that I find her personal scent so delightful partially because I love her so much, or even the reverse. I try not to think about it, and just enjoy it, you know?
We had a rough patch for a while and it was torture; I just had to be downwind of her, from yards and yards off, or even just be somewhere she'd been recently, and the smell would drive me crazy missing her. I was at a loss for what to do with a life that didn't smell like her any more. It's such a relief that that's over and we're getting married, rendering the question largely philosophical. It's a funny thing.

#74 ::: little light ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:15 PM:

This thread is such a delight. It reminds me of a request I made of my partner in planning our future home: that at its center should be a kitchen that smells like garlic, yeast, coffee, and peppers. I want my children to know those smells and remember them connected to warmth, comfort, and love.
It's funny how much that dream home of the future is defined by smells: old books, and roses, and woodsmoke. I guess that sort of proves the point; smells are deeply personal and powerful.

Just this last week, I was in a friend's apartment, and her roommate pulled out a handful of sweet hay for his rabbit, and it brought me right back to helping out in a stable when I was eight years old. That stable was a peaceful haven two doors down the lane from my own house, with a wealth of education on everything from nonverbal communication to hard work to Punnett squares from its owner, a patient woman who saw my interest and nurtured it by putting me to honest work. She was one of my first good queer role models, too. It was a pleasure to be taken back by that smell, and it was the isolation--just the smell of sweet hay in a downtown San Francisco apartment--that reminded me why I love stables so much.

There are so many; I grew up in the high desert, and the first rain hitting the dry pumice dust and pavement gets me every time. I can still smell it for miles off on the breeze, and that first thrill of a storm coming hits me every time.

Old oak and eucalyptus trees, too. Childhood hiding places, safe havens all. Fresh coffee grounds, coupled with the sound of a grinder being shaken upside-down a few times to get the last of the grounds out; my dad used to give it the exact same number of shakes every morning, and I find myself imitating the motion precisely when I do it myself, years later. Sandalwood incense. Clover blossoms, which call up endless afternoons making myself small and exploring the grass and bugs and little things as a child. The honeyed scent of Queen Anne's Lace and Cow Parsnip, and all the hikes where they grew on the river's edge and wafted up that spicy-sweet promise that if you pay attention to the details, it's all even lovelier.

I have an unusually sensitive nose, so I was delighted to discover that the woman I fell in love with smells wonderful pretty much all the time. I was always worried I'd fall for someone whose smell I found offensive, and just have to live with it, but then, considering our brain-wiring, it's entirely likely that I find her personal scent so delightful partially because I love her so much, or even the reverse. I try not to think about it, and just enjoy it, you know?
We had a rough patch for a while and it was torture; I just had to be downwind of her, from yards and yards off, or even just be somewhere she'd been recently, and the smell would drive me crazy missing her. I was at a loss for what to do with a life that didn't smell like her any more. It's such a relief that that's over and we're getting married, rendering the question largely philosophical. It's a funny thing.

#75 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:30 PM:

Ole Time Woodsman Fly Dope

Guaranteed to repel Mosquitoes, Black Flies, Friends and Enemies. New England bug repellent, pre Deet. Boy did it stink! But it comes with memories of climbing Mt. Washington as a Boy Scout.
Now is it worth buying a bottle just to let Jon Singer take a wiff?

#76 ::: comelovesleep ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:05 PM:

I'm something like synaesthetic--smells to me are not what they probably are to you. People all have distinctive odors, when I get to know them(one of my kendo senpai smells like a deep pine forest, for instance, my mother smells like dandelions and gun oil) and so do certain situations (dangerous times always stink of gunpowder). People I've been intimate with all take on a slight scent of warm, fresh-sanded wood along with their other smells.
I get all the normal smells, too, there's just this stuff on top of it. My world is full of scent, all of the time. Poetry, and music, and emotion all have scents attached. Until this year--and I'm going to be 26 on Friday!--I thought that this was *normal.*

My favourite smell, though, would have to be petrichor--the smell of the desert after the rain. Beautiful.

#77 ::: affreca ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:07 PM:

My nose confuses me. I smell things no one else does, and not sure if it is sensitive or I'm hallucinating smells. But they often send me down memory alleys.

I love the smells of rains. Beginnings of thunderstorms smell different then endings of thunderstorms, and still different from fall rains. I especially love light sunlit rain smell.

#78 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:13 PM:

When one flies in to New Orleans, and the airplane has landed on the tarmac but is still rolling, and they switch the ventilation system from recirculate to intake, there is a Smell - the thickness of humidity, with fishy brackish water and the suggestion of decaying vegetation and salt, and overall the heady whiff of petroleum distillates.

That Smell.

(The ocean always smells good, but here in New England it smells different than the Gulf of Mexico did when I was a child.)

#79 ::: Kes ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:45 PM:

Salt marsh and creosote. That's the smell of childhood summers.

#80 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:47 PM:

Smells for the most part aren't tied to specific memories in my mind (probably for the best, as the exceptions are all ... well, let's put it this way: there's a smell which instantly sends me back to playing in the basement playroom of the local child psychology practice, while my parents were talking to the psychologist, and I was too afraid to try to talk to any of the kids in other parts of the playroom or upstairs.

More generally, smells are emotional context (see earlier comment about the amygdala). This is at times very annoying, as there are smells which bring back confused emotional states and, try as I can, I cannot remember the situations that led to them — while thinking that it's important for me to do so

The other thing smells do for me is practical: I associate particular smells with changes: changing seasons, changing weather, machinery (both farm and office) being repaired or replaced, etc.

#81 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:48 PM:

Thena @ #78, Kitty Carlisle said something very similar about the warm, humid air in New Orleans ("that balm") in an interview I heard once.

#82 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:04 PM:

Two-stroke engine exhaust - takes me back to marina docks, being near the water, from my Florida childhood.

White Shoulders perfume (the old formula, not the newer - it smells different)

Herbs, especially astringent herbs - I walked into an herb shop in Chinatown in San Francisco one time, and my knees went weak with that overpowering and familiar smell. I kept going out and coming back in again to be hit with that smell again.

#83 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:17 PM:

Some of my earliest memories of visiting certain relatives and childhood friends involve distinctive smells of their homes-- but I couldn't tell you now just what those smells were. I've occasionally encountered them elsewhere, (though not recently) and have instantly recognized them.

Probably the strongest evocative smell that I *can* definitely describe is the salt air blowing off the beach on the island where we camped every summer when I was a child. That smell meant two weeks of complete relaxation, playing in sand and water, hiking trails and climbing rocks, and reading books in our cabin (which had a distinctive piney-salt smell of its own).

Nowadays the vacations are shorter, further south, and require more work and responsibility on my part, but when we're approaching the shore I still roll down the window to catch that first scent of salt air, and recall for a moment that anticipation of a boy leaving the everyday world behind for a quiet, wild place in the sun.

#84 ::: JKRichard ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:30 PM:

I had called the cable company to come troubleshoot the connection a few months ago. The cable guy walked into the house, took a deep breath and said, "Man, I smell leather." I showed him my office/studio room --- I have three saddles and a mess of leather hides and a box-full of scraps. He said it reminded him of his father...his father used to make saddles. When he was done troubleshooting the cable box he asked if he could sit in my office for a few minutes. "Absolutely..."

#85 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:39 PM:

when i was little i told my mother i loved the smell of the basement. she looked horrified. "miri, that's mildew!" so i love the smell of mildew.

i've never met anyone else who could relate until amanda at 65.

as far as fragrancing agents, i love the smell of almonds best. there is one airline which uses strongly almond-scented soap in its airplane bathrooms, but i'm usually disappointed in any commercial soap that describes itself as almond.

clay in all stages, from wet to fired, is both lovely & brings back good memories.

i also always love smelling the hair of my loved ones, whether shampooed or greasy & musky.

& rain, like many others have said.

#86 ::: Ann Rose ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:48 PM:

Warm Sno-seal waterproofing goo curing on workboots (said workboots placed in the oven), sawdust and Aqua Velva cologne define pretty much all of my childhood memories of my father.

The waxy, rosy/powdery smell of lipstick and coal tar shampoo are what I recall most of my mother. That, and warm bathwater -- she loved to take a long bath every morning, around 4AM, before she got ready to go off to work.

K2r "spotlifter" cleaning solution immediately makes me feel suffocated and panicky, and I think it's because it smells exactly like whatever anesthetic was pumped through the heavy black rubber mask in 1970's hospitals. My mom sent me out once with a can of K2r to clean up a spot I'd left on the carpet in the car, and I came back in tears, with the job undone, so overwhelmed by that stink that I couldn't even explain to her why I couldn't use it. She was, of course, skeptical, but she did toss that can and never replaced it.

On the other hand, I like the scents of Dial soap, fruit punch and the ozone of pure O2, as they take me back to the "safe" parts of all my childhood hospitalizations.

And, does anyone else recall the "aroma of Tacoma," that distinctive heavy, sweet-sulfurous smell from the pulp mills just past Fife, WA? It's a doozy.

#87 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:53 PM:

One that's not nostalgic, wistful, or even at all pleasant:

Powdered latex gloves. The smell makes my teeth hurt.

When I had braces, they got tightened every month or so. The orthodontist wore powdered latex gloves. Now, just the smell sets off those pain nerves. Conditioning, I guess. The first time it happened I was very confused -- and then I made the conscious connection.

It's actually lessened a good deal over time. My teeth used to ache terribly when I used powdered latex gloves in science class. These days, years later, it's no more than a twinge, which might just be a memory.

#88 ::: Carol Maltby ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 12:36 AM:

I burst into tears recently from a smell. I'd stopped at a somewhat funky coffeeshop in an old building, went through the back door to use the bathroom. There may have been an apartment further on from the bathroom. The smell was the same as my grandparents' apartment that was attached to their luncheonette, a place I hadn't been to since 1966.

Another smell that hit hard came from the woods surrounding the house I'd lived in until 1966. I'd visited the town recently, parked the car next to the woods. I've parked there occasionally over the years, but never smelled anything notable before. This time it was as if it was flooding all my receptors at once. There was a sense of rightness, that I was bonded to these woods, that I was tuned to take them in and be nourished by them.

It's all the more curious as I've been descending into anosmia for a few years. It comes and it goes, I'm not so sure why. It's harder for cooking and tasting things to make sure I've seasoned them right. But I can summon smell memory so well it doesn't seem to matter.

Sometimes a scent that I associate with a dead relative will momentarily assault me somewhere in public. It's very transitory, I have not idea if it is real or not, but it feels like grace.

Yes, hectographs and Play-Doh and lilacs. We didn't have lilacs when I was a kid, but I knew them from bouquets kids would bring to school for the teacher. They've got an associated sense of ecstatic joy at learning to them.

The smell of a baby drunk on breastmilk. They get all googly and goofy.

Yardley Slicker lipstick circa 1968 (what WAS the dominant smell of those?).

The smell of the tiny janitor's closet in grade school where we washed out the tempera paint containers.

The first whiff of the London Underground when you've just gotten off a plane from America. Not so much the first trip, but subsequent ones, when you've got history behind them.

#89 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:07 AM:

Smells... Sagebrush, the dessicated whiff of it on the breeze, a hint of rank, and of dry and wet and musty. It's clean where the air is dry, and musty in the moist hollows of the creekbeds.

Books, The smell of leather and paper.

The odd smells of oiled canvas and JP-8 (sort of like diesel, but just a little different), and "Cordite"

All of them, oddly, are comfortable in strange ways. The first is homely, the second is homey and the third is redolent of comrades and friends on three continents, and more than a dozen countries.

#90 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:14 AM:

Snow on the wind.

Fresh rain. Maybe it's because I've lived in a place where rain is seldom. The smell of it is full of meaning. On hot asphalt, it's new, and short. On the desert dirt... that's a smell more evanscent than that of perfume on the street. It's dusty and dark and full of hope. It promises flowers and life.

Come the winter, and the smell of it in the grass, and the cold cleanness of it as the rain beats down for days, and the sun comes out and the wetness of the dirt is rising up to the nose.

That's the smell of spring's hope.

#91 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:33 AM:

The booth I work at in our Renaissance Festival is near the elephant and camels.

Guests often comment on the smell and ask how I can stand it.

Truth is I don't much notice, herbivore manure is about as inoffensive as such things can get.

I grew up around horses, so it really isn't an issue.

Nowadays I'm chief cat-box wrangler, and there are days I wish they weren't carnivores...

Otherwise: the sweet smell of the air after a rain in spring, the individual smell of both my spouses and my four cats (yes, the cats all have different scents), baking bread and cookies, these are a few of my favorite things.

#92 ::: m.k. ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 04:20 AM:

Tomato plants = early childhood, cousins backyard, running was still fun.

Wai'anae Mountain Range = early childhood, running was still fun, the outhouse was well maintained, and two of the friends I grew up with were still alive. I did a field archaeology class this past summer, with the field portion taking place in Wai'anae Valley, a short hike up from the Ka'ala Learning Center. I'd come home after a day of digging smelling wonderful, and I couldn't figure out what it was reminding me of until I went back to Palehua for a visit recently and we hiked up to Mauna Kapu. I hadn't been there for several years. Told Dad about it and he confirmed my thoughts on it; there's something special in the air there. Our goats smelled a bit like that too when they were babies.

Rotten potatoes = one of my best friends. It's an odd association, but when we were both working at a grocery co-op I warned her that few things smell as bad as a rotten potato and she didn't believe me until we got a delivery that included potatoes gone bad.

Fresh-grated nutmeg = my paternal grandmother, making me a mug of warm milk to help me sleep.

I gave Dad a bar of coal tar soap when he had a rash and warned him that it smelled really strong. He told me that he knew the smell and liked it; his grandfather and uncles had psoriasis and used coal tar soap and sunshine to try to keep it under control, so for him the smell reminds him of those men sitting outside with their sleeves rolled up, telling each other stories.

#93 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 06:16 AM:

For me, it's the smell of the road. When you've been out on a motorcycle for the better part of a day (and to a lesser extent on bicycles on public highways) you pick up a strangely sweet, mechanical aroma. There are definitely some elements of motor oil, but also of fresh earth, and a certain indescribable something else. Ride enough, and it gets into your gear, textile or leather, and casts its reminder when you're going through your closet on a cold winter's day.

I also like the smell of leather. Not so much bookbinding leather, but of leather clothing - jackets, shoes, that sort of thing. Usually the more expensive the garment, the better it smells.

Finally, the combination of toast and coffee, NOT accompanied by other breakfast smells are a strong mnemonic. That's pretty much all my mother ever ate in the morning, so I associate it very stronly with my childhood.

#94 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:44 AM:

I've always felt a little weird about discussing odors because I have a no memory for them. I cannot recall ever smelling something and having that bring back a memory. Usually, I cannot distinguish what a smell is at all. It's not that I have a poor sense of smell, precisely. I can smell faint odors, I just don't recognize them.

For some reason I cannot explain, I can determine something down to a broad category by smell, but never what it actually is. For example, if there is something cooking (stove-top, oven, grill, anything) I can tell that something is cooking, but I couldn't tell the difference between marinara and pie. Similarly, someone mentioned tangerines above, and I can usually recognize the smell of a fruit, but can never decide which it is without checking. Tangerines, blueberries, raspberries, they're all the same to me. Maybe apples and lemons would stick out, but I'm not sure about that.

Related to that, there are few odors that I strongly like or dislike. Although I don't enjoy it, I don't greatly mind the smell of sewage and have always been fine working around that odor where others would have to regularly leave to take in some fresh air (this should have come up less often than it has). On the other end of the spectrum, I've always found the smell of flowers not worth bothering, nor have I ever smelled a perfume and not found it worse than the absence of the odor.

This only really bothers me when reading and writing. While reading, I regularly see some scent mentioned, and I never have any idea what it should convey or if it should mean anything at all. Conversely, while writing, I sometimes realize that there should be notable odors in the situation, at which point I freeze as I realize I have no idea what sort of scent that situation might entail, aside from a vague concept that tickles at the edge of my thoughts. I usually end up looking up scent words in google and trying to piece things together the hard way.

#95 ::: Chris Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:57 AM:

If you like the smell of lavender you would like visiting the island of Hvar, off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where so much lavender is grown its scent permeates the air.

#96 ::: glinda ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 12:01 PM:

Oh, my.

Lilacs - my favorite flower. We had several bushes along the fence at the side of the house I lived in until I was 11 or 12. I had a sort of cave under/between them.

Tomato stems/leaves - our garden, at that same house. We'd can bushels of them, and give away just as many. Burt's Bees has a green tomato facial toner that I love, just for the smell.

Certain roses - my grandfather's back yard was his rose garden.

Sawdust, freshly planed wood - my other grandfather's shop; he refinished and restored furniture, and I loved going back there, watching him work.

Pine at Christmas - as with many others, our church decorated with fresh greens, and we'd go to the Christmas Eve service, mostly candlelit. The scents and the sounds combined are probably why I still decorate madly every year, even though I no longer believe.

Windfall apples, starting to turn - each year of high school, a week of summer music camp at Hillside, where the walk from the dorms to the main building went through the orchard area. We joked about getting drunk from the smell. (Those weeks were among the best times of my life, being among people where I fit in.)

Yardley's English Lavender - my favorite aunt's favorite scent. I seldom wear perfumes or scented oils, but I do use the lavender soap.

Second-hand bookstores. 'Nuff said. :)

Lots of others, but that's the 'off the top of my head' list. Thanks for this topic, Abi.

#97 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:19 PM:

This year I've lost two scents which were me for decades: the original patchouli enhanced Nature's Gate Rainwater conditioner and true Bulgarian Absolute rose oil. The first has had the formula changed completely, and now includes the mysterious migraine-inducing chemical pervasive in cleaning products and cosmetics. The second has been replaced in local commerce by rose oil from another source, which contains the scent component that makes me break out in nettle rash.

I feel aggrieved, and also slightly less than my true self.

#98 ::: Ten ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 02:11 PM:

Mmm, good smells.

A lot of people have mentioned rain, and it brought back to me that there is a particular rain smell that sticks in my mind: hot summer rain on concrete, when the rain finally, finally came.

When fall ramps up in Albuquerque, dusk is always marked by the scent of woodsmoke in the air. That's how I know it's fall, not just because it's not safe to wear sandals anymore.

Woodsmoke in general--as a kid, we had a fireplace we would light; when I got older, it was bonfires in the backyard around the community fire pit; now it's just the smell in the air, but it always brings back those moments when you finally walked away from the fire, skin tight from the switch from hot to cold air, clothes saturated with heavy woodsmoke.

When I lived in Indianapolis, spring always came in on the scent of drenched mildew. I found it amusing.

Instant oatmeal with fruit in it, especially strawberries or peaches, takes me right back to early mornings in my childhood.

When I got into e-tailer perfumes , I bought a bottle of a scent called "Quincey Morris" from BPAL. It was a gentle cowboy scent--pears and vanilla on top of leather, musk, and cedar. It dried down on me a bit like a hotel swimming pool (not a bad thing--the hotel swimming pool is a fond scent association) but mostly like cedar with an aquatic tinge. Which, as it turns out, smells exactly like the Finnish sauna at my grandparents' cottage. I haven't been there in years, and I'll never be able to go back,'s nice to have a piece of it in a bottle.

As an aside, let me tell you that, as a linguist, I'm fascinated by the lack of scent-specific vocabulary in this language of ours. Hang around a perfume forum, and you'll find that scents tend to have synesthetic descriptions, usually in terms of colors. Or you get a vivid memory referenced, or some sort of picture painted, in order to describe the scent. Fascinating stuff, and something I wonder about in other languages yet. One day, maybe, I'll have time to check.

#99 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 02:22 PM:

I'm not very good with scents. I can pick them up and identify them somewhat, but not very accurately-- my BPAL Pumpkin Queen smells like dry leaves and apples to me because 'apple' is the box I put that kind of smell in. I don't have very many subboxes.

I know lake water, from going to Foreman's Park on Lake Ontario. Hot sandstone, baked seaweed, fresh water.

I once came home from school and was happy that Mom was baking brownies; I could tell from the smell. No, she said, just a vanilla candle. I'd never encountered such a thing before, or not noticed if I had.

I know Dad-is-cleaning-guns, and wastewater-plant, and this-is-my-cat (fur, kibble breath, cat litter). I got a hit of alyssum today, visiting my family.

#100 ::: Andy Wilton ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 04:38 PM:

Wetsuits drying in the sun (big one for me, small and smaller for my two sons).

Seaweed on wet rocks.

Estuarine beach tideline, mud suffused with rotting jellyfish.

Scorched flakes of sardine fallen through onto embers of barbecue charcoal.

Suncream on hot skin.

#101 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 10:03 PM:

Hmfp@69: 2.) Probably something used to treat wood. Associated with childhood memories of playgrounds with a variety of fantastically-shaped wooden playing equipment

Possibly creosote?

#102 ::: coffeedryad ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 10:38 PM:

Pine and snow and woodsmoke, oh yes, and inside there's hot cider and nutmeg. Iron and burnt iron and coalsmoke from my father's forge, the moist green scent that says spring's arrived and the crispness of autumn leaves when the air is cold and dry... but mostly those winter scents. Nothing says "home" to me more than those.

#103 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:02 PM:

reading the list of things, and all that I forgot... horse sweat, tack, the hayroom, hoof dirt, and the sulphrous reek of manure which has managed to hide in a low spot and go anaroebic.

Campfires, bread, basil, the smell of my hands after I've trimmed rosemary, or feathered oregeno, rice/potato water (when it's about to go into bread).

The smell of dry pasta, imminent rain; brushfire, freshly split pine.

Hot iron, coal coking, cut off saws and the tang of hot aluminimum being shaved by the face mill.

Citrus leaves and chickem dust.

field dust, from walking among the vines, the smell of wormcastings, and humus. Garlic pollen on the wind.

The smell of the world, and all that's in it.

#104 ::: sara_k ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:12 PM:

When I was a preteen Noxema and Ten-o-Six were the smells of Official Teenagers and I couldn't wait until I was old enough to use them.

They burned the skin right off my face and that was the end of my personal experience but a whiff of Noxema takes me back to watching my older sisters get ready for big occasions.

#105 ::: flowery tops ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:22 PM:

Fallen yellow plums smell like my very earliest childhood memories, as do crows cawing sound like.

One particular brand of rose incense smells like a favourite bookshop from my teens.

I had a happy long lost scent return to me unexpectedly. My grandmother's bedroom had a very distinct smell, and I always loved spending time in there when I was a small girl: I learned to sew on her treadle sewing machine in there, and spent hours rummaging through her drawers full of old coins and admiring her amazing rosary beads. She died a few years ago, and just a short while ago I noticed after I'd used a tissue, that it smelled like her! So I think really *I* smell like her, but I can't smell it until it's not on me anymore? Does that sound right? But it was a wonderful feeling, smelling my beloved Nana again.

#106 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:26 PM:

I can smell and like lots of things, but my absolute favorite is lilac.

#107 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:57 PM:

flowery tops (and everyone else) that sounds just right.

I didn't realize until I was bowling on a summer league a number of years ago that someone lighting a Salem cigarette invoked the memory of my step-grandfather John. Menthol, sweet, almost yummy.

The biggest sadness in family affairs was that John passed away just after I met my husband.

We were best friends and he was worried that I was so odd that I wouldn't find anyone to be a companion. We liked to listen to baseball games together on the radio and hang out. Mom would sometimes leave me with them for a few weeks during the summer, just so everyone would have a break.,

But when we finally married, I felt like his spirit was watching, happy for me and my choice.

#108 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 12:12 AM:

I forgot one: the smell of medium and lab incubators. Bacterial growth medium smells like life to me, warm and nutrient-rich. Appetizing in a way that does not include me eating it.

I don't know how to explain the scent of my own skin after I've been skiing at night, going fast and coming in windburned a little, maybe, but that's a good one. I don't ski fast much any more; too afraid of falling. I'll work on that this winter.

#109 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 01:54 AM:

Smell of orange rinds
Memories rise from the depths
Hang below my reach

#110 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 02:03 AM:

An afternoon in the city in late summer, the air hangs motionless, no breeze to relieve the heat. The sun beats down through breaks in the clouds making the pavement too hot for bare feet; an electric feeling foretells a storm.

With no more warning a microcell races past, drenching the ground for less than a minute. You and your friends run outside to dance in the rain and shake off the oppression of the heat and humidity.

The rain trails off, having cooled the air a couple of degrees, and not cooled the pavement at all. The remaining water evaporates in large clouds from the concrete, bringing with it the smell you will always associate with summer: a sharp, flinty smell like rocks heated in an oven.

#111 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 02:13 AM:

There's one that I never remember until I smell it, then it hits me hard. When I was 3 or 4 my father and 2 of his brothers owned a butcher shop and I'd go there with him every so often. They kept sawdust on the floor; it wasn't fresh cut, so the smell wasn't the overpowering thing you get in a woodshop (though I love that too), but much more subtle, and intermingled with the smell of cheese and fresh meat (of course it was a kosher butcher shop). The smell of old sawdust always gets filled in with the other smells and takes me back to that time.

#112 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 12:50 PM:

A scent that usually makes me happy is diesel exhaust - I first began to feel that I fit in and had friends in band in high school, specifically on the marching band trips that we took on school buses.

I recently discovered a new scent I love, but it seems to have an incredibly specific source - 1970s Toyotas. I owned a '76 Celica during the most free period of my college life. We recently bought one to renovate, and when it arrived, I took it for a short turn around the parking lot. When I got out of the car, the engine was warm (possibly overhot, actually) and I could smell the interior and the hot engine and a little antifreeze and it took me right back.

And so many of your entries make me say, "Oh, yes!" WD-40, and the smell of solder, and pine sawdust are smells I associate with my father. The scent of sawdust trapped in his denim coat along with the smell of cold outdoors when he came in from his workshop on a winter evening...lovely, and not the least because I got it combined with a hug that lifted me off the floor.

#113 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 02:07 PM:

For someone who claimed for years that I couldn't smell anything, I sure do have a lot of scent assocoations.

Oddly, as I don't smoke and never have, a really big one is tobacco. I grew up in tobacco and horse country, and the tobacco smells changed with the seasons, with the picking, the drying, and the really funky smell of the tobacco sticks that many people put on their lawns as freeze protection.

There wer other sorts of tobacco smells, too: the marvelous smell of the inside of my father's Marlboro packs for one, a really warm earthy smell.

But the most evocative of all is still unsmoked cigars, because my favorite venue as a teenager to buy books, mainly SF and spy stories, was the Fayette Cigar store. An old-fashioned newsstand, it sold the usual magazines and newspapers, along with any number of racing sheets. The paperbacks were toward the back; in order to get to them, you walked past all the cigar boxes neatly laid out. It permeated the air; the mix of tobacco and fresh mass-market was intoxicating.

There was the old-fashioned face powder my grandmother used; she kept it in a flowered flattish china jar on her bureau. It had a faint, gentle scent not quite like that of baby powder, more chalky.

Lapsang souchong tea: I bought my first tin of it on a trip out to San Francisco, and it's always seemed like a fall/foggy day tea ever since. Smoky, slightly burnt, warm and cool at the same time.

Burning cedar: winter's here in Texas. Spicy, slightly sharp-sour.

I've always loved new-mown grass.

Somebody upthread mentioned a sort of sage they smelled walking round trails in the Bay Area. Is that the incredible caramel smell, or does it come from something else? That particular scent can take me right back to when I was living there. Occasionally on campus here in Texas I get a whiff of it. One fall afternoon in 1989, I could smell it quite clearly. Only a few hours later, I heard about the Loma Prieta quake.

Other Bay Area smells: madrones; the air right after you get out of the airport terminal in either SFO or SJC, with a humid, salty smell, but still brisk; the smell of the tide on any beach.

At one time I was convinced that you could take me, blindfolded, to the outside of any building on the UTexas main campus, put me next to some exhaust vent, and I could tell you which building it was.

Stone has its own array of smells, with the most notable being a sort of cold chalky exudation from marble. Old-fashioned public bathrooms, such as in the oldest buildings on campus, always smelled of the marble stalls at least as much as of anything else.

#114 ::: Douglas Henke ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 02:49 PM:

Lots of smells have strong conscious associations -- positive, and not so -- for me. But there's one that can transport me, Proust-like, to a very specific place and moment:

It's mid-summer, and I'm about eight. The cheap green vinyl garden hose has been lying in the sun for most of the day. I turn on the tap, just a little, and let the water cool the hose (and rinse out the spiders) before I take a drink. The warm water-on-plastic smell is summer, and childhood, and carefree amusement at simple things.

(Also doubtless toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, mutagenic, known to the State of California to cause TEOTWAWKI and contributory in various horrible ways to what is doubtless my incipient demise.)

Anyway, yes, <AOL/> to: WD-40, wood smoke, thunderstorm-related ozone and the very specific pine-resin smell you get when you saw-cut wet wood.

#115 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 03:40 PM:

I have no sense of smell.

As far as I can tell, I've never had one. I noticed it when I was five. I received a bottle of kids cologne for Christmas from my godmother. It didn't smell of anything. As far as I was concerned, it was colored water.

So I tried grown up perfumes used by my elder, mostly grown, sisters. (Mom didn't wear it.) All I got was the smell of alcohol -- and that only when I shoved the bottle up my nose. I sniffed a lot of scented things, but nothing registered except the smell of alcohol.

Over time, I realized that I wasn't smelling the alcohol base, I was feeling it. It smelled the same way that one feels the burn of the disinfectant on a scrape or thin, tender skin. Only it was milder. Hot lemon water, when inhaled, has a similiar but different feeling in my sinus cavity. Think of tomato juice or vinegar on chafed or knicked hands while cooking and preserving foods. The burn is that strong.

Despite what some people think, lack of smell does not remove or negate the sense of taste. It just alters it. I can taste all manner of things and function quite well in the kitchen. A lot of people tell me I am a good cook and ask for my recipes. That, I think, is proof positive of my culinary skills. I do tend to favor strong flavors and regularly eat spice hot enough to have others crying or lunging for water.

I have noticed that my tolerance for sugar is limited. It acts like the the alcohol in perfume and has a feel and a taste that carries to the point of overwhelming everything else. The same goes for salt and the various types of fat.

I can also distinguish between the different types of artificial sweeteners. They all taste like chemicals, even the one made from sugar alcohol.

#116 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 11:27 PM:

I think that paying attention to what you're smelling broadens your sense of smell, or at least gives you a better idea of what you're smelling. The strangest moment I ever had involving my sense of smell was walking to the laundry room and realizing that I was smelling somebody's growing cucumber vine... and finally locating it, fifty feet and a balcony away.

Pomegranate is the scent of fall to me. My parents have a bush that grows fruit somewhat larger than softballs* in incredible quantities— I took upwards of twenty pounds to work today, and the season's just starting. It's a scent that I've never found successfully duplicated.

Evergreen is not Christmas to me but camping. I think that the reason that they never get artificial evergreen scent right is that they work from the needles and ignore the bark and wood, which are part of the whole scent. And speaking of that, I'm very picky when it comes to candle scents. You usually can't go wrong with cinnamon, even if it's artificial, but they just can't get cranberry right, and there was one time I got a different size of candle because the one I wanted— theoretically the same formulation— didn't smell good!

Creosote reminds me of Independence Day celebrations. Old Sacramento used to have 2nd of July celebrations and we'd set up near the old train tracks... ah, good times, wooden sidewalks, old-fashioned schoolyard (they've gotten rid of the play equipment, pity), and tourist-trap storefronts with all sorts of WONDERFUL things when you're young. So creosote train ties + cordite = good good times.

All sorts of good smells in nature, but of course I react most strongly to the ones in a Sacramento summer. It's crazy but I've been for nature walks in 100+ degree weather and even then it's fun. Pick a little anise and rub licorice scent on your fingers, smell the dust and baking vegetation... it's such a pity my husband melts when it hits 80 degrees.

*Not joking.

#117 ::: Rainflame ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 12:04 AM:

The scents of woodsmoke, bacon, and coffee on a cold morning -reminders of so many family camping trips over the years. I've never found anything that tastes as wonderful as coffee and bacon smell outdoors.
When I was growing up, we had a wood-burning sheepherder's stove that we called "Dutch Love" because my dad said that's how hot it burned. Has anyone else come across the term "hot as Dutch love"?

#118 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 02:59 PM:

Reminiscent smells:

Camel cigarettes. That was my grandfather's primary cigarette--the grandfather who taught me to cook, whose chef's knife I have, and whose copy of "The Fellowship of the Ring" I read on the sly. (Vindicating my parent's judgment that it was too scary for me, as I had nightmares for months afterward.)

Dairy farms: corn silage, cows, hay, and manure--smells like home. I grew up on a dairy farm.

Heavy outdoor sweat and hay--smells like my father, who hauled hay professionally when I was a preschooler; I used to ride along with him on the loads of hay. When I was in my late teens and hauling professionally myself, I smelled myself one evening and it brought back all those memories. Now, though, it's associated with Papa, but also with the headachy mild nausea of borderline heat exhaustion. (Yes, yes, I know--the safe thing to do in pair-of-aces weather is to stay in the shade.)

Thunderstorms--the gust of wind just before a thunderstorm has a characteristic smell, which means the heat is going to break.

#119 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 03:18 PM:

#118, SamChevre -

I'm sorry, but I can't figure out "pair of aces weather." Clearly it is very hot, but what do aces have to do with it? I'm sure it is a failure of imagination on my part, but I'd appreciate it if you'd enlighten me.

#120 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 03:24 PM:

R. M. Koske (119): I can't speak for Sam, but it sounds as if he means extremely hot and humid both. 'Aces'...perhaps both 100? One of my cousins in Miami refers to similar conditions as 'the double 90s'.

#121 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 04:00 PM:

Mary Aileen got it--heat and humidity both at 100. It must be a regional expression, as it didn't occur to me that it might not be generally understood.

(Yes, yes--technically the humidity never gets to 100.)

#122 ::: Velma ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 04:07 PM:

Kiwi shoe polish. I remember being a responsible child and polishing my shoes every Saturday night, so they'd be bright and shiny on Sunday morning for church, sitting on the floor with the tin of polish, the cloth, the mister, and the buffing brush, working on my shoes, then asking if I could do my parents' shoes as well. If Soren didn't wear sneakers almost all the time, I'd be polishing his shoes weekly.

Sunwarmed Long Island strawberries, still on the vine, in the late afternoon. Even a pint basket of them in the greenmarket will lift my spirits.

#123 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 04:15 PM:

Aah, thanks to both of you. I was thinking aces as in cards, and couldn't associate anything with them that made sense.

#124 ::: Laura Strickman ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 04:53 PM:

When I was a kid and my family drove to South Carolina, we'd often stop at a restaurant that was next to a chicken slaughtering plant (or something like that). It is still the worst thing I have ever smelled. Wet, metallic, sour, overpoweringly vile. It swamped the entire restaurant, and I could never eat a bite there; I could barely breathe. Never bothered my parents, though.

Like #19 toxicfur, a soft dusty-rose smell of perfume and cigarettes brings my grandma right back. For a while my mom kept a drawer full of her old clothes, with the scent of her clinging to them. Just perfume won't do it, and just cigarette smoke I dislike, but the blend of the two is powerfully nostalgic.

Smelling chlorine gives me a little involuntary burst of anticipation. It's strongly linked to the sound of echoing voices and splashes from the indoor pool at the community center.

#125 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 06:38 PM:

Another person with an over-sensitive nose here: chlorine makes me nauseous (that's why I never learned to swim -- those icky pools!), cucumber is nearly as bad, lavendar doesn't appeal, National Geograhic pages are nastily chemical, and most artificial fruit scents are icky too.

But it's not all bad. My prime nostalgia scent might be too smoky for me now, but I'm sure it would bring back Sixties memories of rock shows at the Fillmore and Avalon: a mix of regular cigarettes, joints of pot, and "hippie" stuff like patchouli and incense. Personal associations these days are for my husband's fresh-washed shirts (especially when husband is in them), the cat's long fur, maple syrup, decaf Yuban (developed the taste at Locus, via the boss), wet brush, and apricots in most forms.

So even though I have to avoid strong floral/alcohol perfumes like the plague, there are many pleasures. I'm just glad I live nowhere near a tannery -- smelled one of those on a visit to the Northwest -- and we don't get too many skunk sprays *or* the particular kind of wet brush that smells like skunk.

Incidentally, I'm especially glad to be back posting here since I'm just home from several days in the local hospital, for tests and then having my gall bladder taken out. The only problem with getting home in autumn is the extreme amount of woodsmoke in the air: looks like smog, and sets off coughing fits that I could do without! But I'm back with my beloved cat, coffee yogurt, and a husband just home from work.

#126 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 06:50 PM:

Faren @ 125... Glad to have you back.

#127 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 10:11 PM:

Faren, you made me cuddle my cats and wonder where I could get coffee yogurt.

#128 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 11:26 PM:

Faren, #125, I'm glad you're home and hope you feel better soon!

#129 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 10:13 AM:

Allan Beatty @ 127: Dannon makes a coffee yogurt that most of the chain groceries carry. It's actually quite tasty, and I say that as a non-coffee drinker. Look for a yellow label on the Dannon containers, and the coffee bean.

#130 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 01:00 PM:

Thanks for the good wishes, and yes my coffee yogurt brand is Dannon. If I can get it here in central AZ, it's probably available most places. (Ideally suited to be my current "recovery food" too.)

#131 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 05:55 PM:

I love evergreen smells (not found out here in the islands, which may partially explain why).

The odor I really don't ever want to smell again is the one that comes from a mass-production brewery. When I used to drive into Culver City from Northridge before getting onto a freeway, there was an intersection with an Anheuser-Busch brewery on one corner, and invevitably we had to stop at that light. The air was permeated with the smell of cooking malt, barley and hops. That might not be so bad in small quantities, but in bulk it was awful.

#132 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 10:40 PM:

Linkmeister @ 131 ... I'd have to agree that it's overpowering in commercial sized doses.

I'm routinely disappointed to realize that wonderbread smells just as good as real bread while baking, despite the unfortunate taste after the fact.

#133 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 12:19 AM:

Pig farms and astronomy. Back when I was in college, we used to head out into the boonies to avoid light pollution for stargazing, and our favorite spot was within smelling distance of a pig farm. That's what the rings of Saturn smell like. heh.

#134 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2008, 01:54 AM:

Linkmeister @ 131

Powell's Books opened in Portland the year we moved here; we discovered it almost immediately, and made weekly trips there. At that time, the neighborhood it's in was a somewhat rundown industrial area full of artists' studios and car dealers, and, just across the street from the bookstore, the Henry Weinhard brewery. On an unclear day you could smell the barley and malt for a mile at least, and it would take an hour to get the smell out of your nose after you left. That part of town has since been gentrified and the brewery converted to condos and boutiques, and the smell is gone. But Powell's is still there.

#135 ::: Sarah S ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2008, 11:49 AM:

Rain on hot asphalt. Smells like summer in Ohio, out on the front porch, watching the thunderstorms.

And does everyone here know about Demeter fragrances? They produce scents like "Dirt" and "Green Tomato" and "Play-doh" that smell just like the real thing.

And about this guy who founded Demeter, but has since split off into his own company, and now produces a scent called "In the Library" which is described as smelling like:

English Novel taken from a Signed First Edition of one of my very favorite novels, Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish

#136 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2014, 02:09 PM:

Re-reading this thread (thanks, abi!) has reminded me of a scent-related incident. One of my old high-school classmates also ended up in Houston, and a few years ago we reconnected and he and his wife came to my birthday dinner gather. This was the first time I'd seen him in over 30 years. He hugged me, and when the hug ended I looked at him and said, "You still use the same after-shave!" It's one of those scents that was hugely popular in the 70s (Aramis, perhaps? Not Jovan Musk, that was an ex-boyfriend.) and it's still absolutely, unmistakably HIM.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.