Melanie Kiechle‘s Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (University of Washington Press, 2017) takes us into the cellars, rivers, gutters and...

Melanie Kiechle‘s Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (University of Washington Press, 2017) takes us into the cellars, rivers, gutters and similar smelly recesses of American cities in the 19th century. In the decades on either side of the fulcrum between “miasma theory” and the modern germ theory of disease, Americans typically linked smell with healthfulness, or lack thereof. In places like Chicago, New York and Boston, as industrializing businesses generated ever-greater amounts of noxious fumes, medical professionals, policymakers and ordinary people employed various techniques to follow stenches to their source–not always accurately. In a fascinating urban history that centers around the “invisible sense,” Kiechle examines not only what 19th-century cities smelled like, but how people’s thinking about smells changed and how that knowledge came to change their urban environments. This book is a highly creative and unusual glimpse into a realm of environmental history that is rarely accessible to modern observers.


Sean Munger is a historian, author, podcaster and speaker. He has his own historical podcast, Second Decade.

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