Microhistory is the “intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (stolen from Wikipedia)
There has been quite a few books popping up recently that focus in on a small object or event, and then look at a larger picture in history. Its a refreshing perspective on the writing of history books, and in many ways makes vast histories of people and events more accessible. And I’m absolutely addicted to them.
As a new feature of this blog, I’m going to read and give short reviews of a few of these microhistories, beginning with ‘Perfume: A Century of Scents’ by Lizzie Ostrom (2015).
Perfume: A Century of Scents
The human ability to smell is not perhaps at the forefront of the list when we think about our most important human senses. Yet, smell is everywhere, and our brains are capable of storing and remembering around 10,000 various smells (according to the BBC…). Even more so, our brains constantly connect smells and scents with memories, which is why we can get all nostalgic when we catch a whiff of something, even if you can’t quite place where you’d ‘sniffed’ it before. Such is like the memories given to us by scents in the form of perfumes. Perfume is one of those things in the modern world that we often take for granted. Many of us wear it daily, or have that one bottle applied religiously on special occasions, it has become part and parcel of getting ourselves ready for life. It is because it is such an everyday thing that it is easy to forget that the wearing of scent has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Nobody would blame you if you thought there couldn’t be a rich cultural history attached to this. But as Lizzie herself comments in the first paragraph:
Scent has radiated from the the collars of politicians as they stand on the steps triumphant, and when they leave, hounded and broken. It has been dabbed on by performers getting into character for their next role. And it has been present – even playing a supporting or confidence boosting role – in negotiations, tussles, crimes, parties, productions and seductions.
Lizzie, in this wonderfully glitzy hardback, reflects upon the last 100 years of perfume wearing by delving into exactly 100 different scents, popular in their time. She really captures the feel and the impact of each scent, without flapping about trying to convey the actual smell, seeing as they are, in fact, long gone. Its written in an entirely accessible way, and by no means do you have to be a history buff to follow it.
I think the best way for me to explain this book is to give you a little sniff of it:
Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain, 1904. (p.22-23)
I thought this would be a great example from the book to illustrate whats included, not just women’s scents!
Lizzie tells us that this one by Guerlain was what was known as a ‘handkerchief’ scent. Scents in this period would often be daubed onto pieces of cloth or clothing, rather than onto the skin. This was designed to ward off the ‘bad airs’ or revive someone with the flick of your handkerchief. But, as Lizzie explains, these scents weren’t just meant to be strong and powerful, like Dettol, they were designed by expert perfumers.
Lizzie explains that this particular perfume’s cultural history ties in with the Flaneurs. This was a name given to certain men of leisure, men who wandered about towns from cafe, to theatre, to park, seeking philosophical enlightenment (probably unsuccessfully). A little like a rich bohemian, perhaps. Finally, somehow Lizzie has been able to track down how this perfume actually smelt. She describes it as a “balance between creamy-smelling coumarin and campherous lavender” with some “typical animalic dirtiness beneath” to mimic the urban smells of the Flaneur’s city.
I quite like to imagine this book as a sort of tour-de-force exhibition on the history of perfume. In fact it would make a great physical exhibition, say, at the V&A. But for now we have Lizzie’s book, and I can only hope someone who reads this will give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.
The next #BookClub microhistory will be ‘The Button Box’ by Lynn Knight.