The Memory of Smell

November 06, 2011

In her new book, Assistant Professor of English Holly Dugan investigates the influence of olfaction in early modern England.

By Julia Parmley

The scent of mothballs and wet concrete may not be the most glamorous of smells.

But for Assistant Professor of English Holly Dugan, they conjure powerful, poignant memories of her late grandmother.

“I think we’re hard wired to associate smell with memory,” she said. “Smell is one of the most direct and unmediated sensory mechanisms.”

The memory of smell—and its role in everyday life—is a topic Dr. Dugan delves into in her new book “The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England.”

The book looks at six scents—incense, rose, sassafras, rosemary, ambergris and jasmine—and their role in important cultural spaces of the time period, including churches, royal courts and pleasure gardens. For Dr. Dugan, the point of The Ephemeral History is to show what smell can reveal about life back then and how it hints at changes to come.

“Perfume is such a loaded object of study because we have so many assumptions about what it is, how it functions and who uses it,” she said. “It was fun to look back and see that before it was a commodity, it had all these other implications for culture, religion, politics, sexuality, religion and discovery.”

“The Ephemeral History” was based on Dr. Dugan’s graduate school dissertation on the role of smell in England’s playhouses and texts, but the idea to investigate smell first was born after a reading of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” where she noticed “tons of really gross jokes about smell.”

“I started reading old medical texts to learn about what smell meant during that time, and then began to look into smell of playhouses and metaphorical references to smells in London’s sewer systems and neighborhoods.”

Dr. Dugan found herself intrigued by differences in the uses and descriptions of smell. “I found the question of what life was like in the past really fascinating, and I think my research delves from that curiosity,” she said.

Her research continued in England and France, where she read about smell in London’s Museums of Health and Medicine and visited a perfume museum in Versailles. She immersed herself in what she calls “literature for the senses,” which at times revealed personal glimpses into the lives of early modern Englishmen and women.

“Literature for the senses—particularly olfaction—is a tremendous historical archive because you don’t just get description of scent but the phenomenon of experiencing it,” said Dr. Dugan. “Partly what I love about the early modern England time period is that the literature gets at personal experience that is also related to broader, shared stories about the culture.”

Dr. Dugan also found “weird, enormous amounts” of recipes in old cookbooks about how to perfume leather gloves, which “clued me in to how prevalent and important fragrance was in early modern life.”

In France’s perfume archives, Dr. Dugan was able to smell essential oils that were commonplace in early modern England perfumes. Ambergris, a substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, now usually only exists in modern day fragrances as a synthetic version.

“Actual ambergris oil and the synthetic version smell totally different,” said Dr. Dugan. “I got to sniff the essence of musk, civet and all heavy animal smells that don’t on their own smell good, but combined with other layers make great perfumes. That added another dimension to the book—what smells we can encounter from the past and what can be lost forever.”

The tender, familial role of sassafras was another surprising discovery for Dr. Dugan.

“I would read these moving descriptions about how people would make cradles out of sassafras wood because they believed that the scent would protect their babies from the devil,” she said. “It was a powerful smell.”

“The smells I thought would be the keys to perfume were not always the smells that in the past were the most poignant for their culture and for that cultural moment,” she added.

Other prevalent scents included jasmine in pleasure gardens and rosewater in the court of Henry VIII. Dr. Dugan discovered the king gave away more than 27 different bottles of distilled rosewater to his mistresses, which she said were made out of imported damask roses. These gifts gave Dr. Dugan a bit of insight into the king’s emotional life.

“When we gift perfume, it’s often a reflection of a beloved’s sense of his or her lover, but I think what Henry VIII was doing was saying, ‘Here’s a bit of me; I wear this and you can now wear this and through smell you are marked as mine,’” she said. “So in the book, I explore what olfactory references are associated with the court and what they mean. The Tudor rose is a powerful icon that signals royal lineage and I think the rosewater allowed King Henry VIII to apply that idea in a three-dimensional way.”

Dr. Dugan also came across unusual words that described smells at the time. Her favorite is “smeek,” which refers to something that both smokes and smells.

“There was a whole language to describe smells,” she said.

Dr. Dugan, who came to GW in fall 2005, called her position in the Department of English a “dream job.”

“The number of well-known faculty who have become my colleagues is sort of mind-blowing, and I found over the first year that I really loved teaching in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I share the same passions that many of my students have about why they came to GW—it’s just an amazing place to learn.”

Dr. Dugan currently teaches an introductory course in Shakespeare and a graduate course on the space of the stage in early modern England. For both courses, Dr. Dugan utilizes the District’s cultural offerings—the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Folger Shakespeare Company and the Kennedy Center, among them—as well as multimedia in her classroom.

“There are all these great things that I’m showing in class and I’m learning alongside students,” she said. “We’re working together to figure out what these plays mean now. It’s been really fun.”

A recipient of a 2011 Bender Teaching Award, Dr. Dugan said the recognition is more reflective of the strength of George Washington’s Department of English as a whole.

“Most of what I do in the classroom I learned from my colleagues, so that award shows how lucky I am to be surrounded by really great teachers and really great students,” she said.

Dr. Dugan did not plan to pursue teaching as a profession until she went to college and discovered “a world of ideas” she never wanted to leave.

“I always say the classroom is a total utopian space,” said Dr. Dugan. “Utopia isn’t really achievable but the reach is there in that space, and in college I first discovered that.”

Although her book is on store shelves, Dr. Dugan is still pondering the significance of smell. She remembers a few years ago, on a crowded sidewalk in New York City, passing a woman whose coat smelled like mothballs. Dr. Dugan turned around and followed the woman for a few blocks, her mind filling with memories of her grandmother.

It’s these kinds of unexpected moments, she said, that reveal how powerful smell can be.

“I wasn’t consciously thinking that ‘mothballs equal grandma’ but in that moment I was instantly 10 years old, rooting through her closet for something,” said Dr. Dugan. “That’s what I think is so interesting about smell—I think the brain works in myriad ways to foster those connections, the meanings of smell in our lives.”

“My book tries to tell that story in a scholarly way, but it ends with thinking about that relationship of what the body is hard wired to do and how the meanings that we accrue over time show the spaces we’ve been and the places we’ve touched,” she added. “Strange things can happen just beneath perception.”

GW Research Blog