A tobacco advertisement (c. 1879). For many Victorian city dwellers, cigar smoke was not an acrid affront to the senses but rather potent protection from miasma, which lurked in reeking gutters and squalid factories.
Thomas Worth/Wellcome Collection
book review / science

If You Smell Something, Say Something

City dwellers of the 19th century were dogged by a foul terror: miasma.
In Smell Detectives, historian Melanie Kiechle shows us the ways in which bad smell was not just an inconvenience or a mild embarrassment to 19th-century Americans, but also a potentially lethal threat to growing cities and the people living in them. In a world before germ theory—or before it was widely comprehended and incorporated—foul miasmas were understood to spread disease. Corrupted and diseased air spread illness from person to person and from foul environments to vulnerable human bodies, leaving behind weakness and infection. Eliminating odor was not just about creating a more pleasant environment; it was one front in a constant war against disease and debility. Nasty odors were the first clue to bad airs that could kill children, weaken laborers, or cripple a family. Combating them was a priority for anxious mothers and ambitious city bureaucrats, experimental scientists and hard-pressed Civil War commanders. Kiechle takes us into their world.

In the 1800s, longtime residents of booming American cities saw their gardens disappear amid tenements and omnibus tracks, and had their access to clean water blocked by new factories that belched out smoke and foul waste, such as “sludge acid,” a wretched-smelling combination of spent acid and contaminants that was a by-product of oil refining. New immigrants were as bewildered by the stench of tanning and industrial production as they were by the language and customs of their new home. Yet all these 19th-century city dwellers knew that the offensive odors floating off free-running open sewers and billowing out of nearby factories were not just unpleasant but physically dangerous.

In one notorious episode in 1873 the sides of houses in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, changed color overnight. Residents awoke to find their homes blackened and their silver tarnished. Modern Americans might trace these effects to the changed chemistry of the air, but people at the time knew what had happened: the horrible stenches of Miller’s River, long an industrial dumping ground, had gotten so bad they had become visible. For the people whose homes were suddenly discolored, this transformation simply showed the power of what they could sense: factories creating repugnant odors were changing the environment and had to be stopped.

Assaulted by stench, urban Americans were driven to action. They struggled to expel butchers from next door and agitated for city street cleaning. Urban women complained to their shopkeeper neighbors about offal in the streets.
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