Where Have All the Smells Gone?

I miss the smells of years gone by Today’s environmentally-friendly, sanitised and packaged world has largely eradicated the kinds of things that caused the enormous variety of aromas that were once characteristic of everyday life. The very air we breathed was once redolent of sulphur in varying degrees thanks to coal-burning fires in every home, industrial smoke stacks and the ubiquitous steam railways. The atmosphere was never totally clear even on windswept, rainy days, but the autumn and winter months produced almost suffocating fogs that could reduce visibility to a few yards and could last for days.

To walk the streets of London or any other industrial city such as Birmingham was to encounter smells continual. My boyhood years were still during the era of horse-drawn delivery – for such things as milk, bread, coal and beer in particular. The horse was a common sight, and horse droppings littered the streets. The smell of horse was never far away Then there were all the speciality food shops – the butcher’s, the fishmonger’s, the greengrocer’s and the dairy, all with produce that was usually much fresher
than today, and seldom packaged. They all had sawdust on the floor, which again had its own particular smell, but the freshly-cut and hanging sides of meat, poultry, rabbits, wheels of cheese, tubs of butter, marble slabs covered with fish no more than 24 hours old, and garden-fresh and ripened fruit and vegetables, had mouth-watering aromas.

The streets were also permeated by the delicious aromas from the fish and chip shops that would advertise their presence from considerable distances, and often the aroma of hops emanating from the beery interiors of numerous pubs, seemingly one on every corner.

The home had its smells too, much more so than today Polish was something used frequently during the week for wooden floors, metalware and leather shoes, and each had a distinct and lasting aroma. Coal-burning fireplaces provided the heat, coal gas stoves were usually used for cooking, and before the advent of electricity, lighting was provided by coal gas lamps; even candles were sometimes used. They all had a distinct, ever-present aroma that lingered for some time.

Smoking was pervasive, and cigarettes and cigars fouled the air when fresh and lingered stale on everything they polluted, yet the burning sulphur of the big Swan Vestas matches and often exquisite aroma of pipe tobacco could be quite pleasant. Other smells that come to mind are of hot tar being used to repair roads; the hot, oily smoky steam locomotives; carbolic soap and steaming water on wash days, and hot flat irons driving any remaining moisture from linens.

They were all so familiar that the faintest whiff would establish the source. Not all were pleasant, but together they formed a tapestry of everyday experience that bought a stability, continuity and comfort to people’s lives.

There are moments today when a fleeting and unexpected aroma of something will make me think of a long-gone smell. On occasion, too, I have almost managed to conjure up some long-ago smell for an elusive and tantalising moment, as though I could re-create it for the senses from my store house of memories.

I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of world again, but it had its pleasant side for all that!

Lawson Stevens