The Fragrance of Home: Making Sense of How Your Home Smells

The Fragrance of Home: Making Sense of How Your Home Smells

Carolyn Purnell
Feb 2, 2012

Scent is eminently personal. We attach memories to aromas and associate people with certain smells. It's common to think of perfume or cologne as ineffably evocative of who we are, almost as if it were an expression of personality in olfactory form. But do we think about the scents in our homes in the same way?

Growing up, I was no stranger to home fragrances. My mother always burned scented candles in the living room, and my grandmother always kept sachets in her drawers. At Christmas, my aunt would pull out a spicy bowl of potpourri, and family bathrooms were always outfitted with Plug-Ins or oil warmers or any number of other odor-emitting devices. But, oddly, I don't have any strong associations with these scents. They don't strike me the way that, say, my mother's perfume or the scent of her laundry detergent would. It's as if the distance of the scent from the body makes it less remarkable, less memorable.

In my own home, I tend not to use any fragrances. I allow the odors of daily life to fill my space. The food I cook, the cleaning products I use, the toiletries I select--these are the things that give my apartment its olfactory character. I have never tried to give my home a scent of its own, to perfume it in the same way that I would my body. Could it be that my reluctance to use scented products stems from a perception that my home is personal enough, me enough, without a characteristic scent?

Or perhaps I'm just unconsciously participating in a broader historical phenomenon. Cultural historians tell us that there has been a consistent push towards deodorization in the modern era. This began with some early public health projects in the late eighteenth century, as sewers and ventilation systems were improved as a way of fighting miasma, or "bad air" that contained noxious, disease-causing particles. Over centuries, these same historians tell us, this olfactory vigilance has expanded into a widespread conflation of "no scent" and "good scent." My idea of cleanliness, according to this account, is intimately bound to an idea of odorlessness, hence my desire for an unperfumed space. (For some excellent histories of smell, see Alain Corbin's The Foul and the Fragrant and Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott.)

For those of you who do use scents, what are you trying to achieve with home fragrance? Do you tend to think about it in the same way that you would think about a scented body product?

And how do you select scents? Do you prefer something strong, light, or deodorizing? Do you choose a scent based on the types of memories it evokes or because it speaks to something about who you are? Or is it something much more basic, something much less meaningful?

Good Question: Home Fragrance?
The Smell of Home: The Science of Scent
Scented vs. Unscented Candles
Love 'Em or Leave 'Em?: Fragrant Candles
For the Bathroom: Candles, Air Fresheners, Sprays or Nothing?

(Image: Shutterstock)

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