When Henry David Thoreau’s pine desk arrived at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan for a special exhibition on the New England writer’s life, curator Christine Nelson couldn’t resist opening one of the drawers and taking a giant whiff. The spicy terpenes from the wood, softened with age, produced an “eau de Walden Pond” that sparked images in Nelson’s mind of Thoreau sitting at the desk and writing in one of his many journals.
“When I put my head in the desk and smelled this old pine, I was overcome with emotion and a sense of connection to the past and this person who had such an effect on me,” Nelson says.
Studying the smells of history is something Nelson has recently become interested in. She’s part of a team to capture the historic odors in the Morgan library to get a better grasp of the room’s history—from the mundane act of a maid dusting the furniture to groundbreaking events, including when J. P. Morgan himself locked a group of banking magnates in the library to save the U.S. financial system.
A growing number of scientists and historians are on similar quests to deconstruct and recreate the odors of the past. Their insights could change how we think about the past and how scientists work to preserve it. For example, some odors are signs of decay in historical artifacts that conservators could then try to slow or reverse. And given the symbiotic relationship between olfaction and emotion, decoding what people might have smelled gives researchers a better idea of how they felt and what they thought.