Melanie Kiechle

Smell Detectives

When nineteenth-century cities stank, residents worried about their health. Learn why, and how their fears shaped modern cities, in Smell Detectives.

Smell Detectives is a bottom-up history that is necessary to truly grasp the evolution of cities.
— Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present

now available in paperback!


If you smell something, say something.

What did nineteenth-century cities smell like? An innovative contribution to sensory history, Smell Detectives follows the nineteenth-century Americans who used their noses to make sense of the sanitary challenges caused by rapid urban and industrial growth. Believing that foul odors caused illness, medical experts and ordinary people alike equated the new and stronger stenches of overcrowded cities with disease and danger, and so they attempted to make cities healthier by detecting and then mitigating the most menacing odors. But the sources of offending odors proved difficult to pinpoint and the search for them sometimes produced even more of a stink. 

Drawing on nuisance complaints, medical drawings, domestic advice, and myriad discussions of what constituted fresh air, historian Melanie Kiechle looks at the relationship between "common sense" - the olfactory experiences of common people - on the one hand and the construction of scientific expertise in the form of city health boards on the other. The boards introduced new conflicts between complaining citizens and the officials in charge of the air, ultimately delegitimizing those complaints. Although the rise of germ theory revolutionized medical knowledge and ultimately undid this form of sensory knowing, Smell Detectives recovers how an earlier generation of city residents used their sense of smell to understand, adjust to, and fight against urban environmental changes.

Smell Detectives draws insights from the rapidly developing literature in sensory history and applies them to the nineteenth-century urban environment. The results are illuminating and extend the field of environmental history in new and fascinating directions.
— Michael Rawson, author of Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston

Phew! The nineteenth century was smelly! From stockyards to battlefields, Smell Detectives shows us why stench mattered. Chemists, reformers, mothers, cartoonists, politicians, generals, bureaucrats, and industrialists struggled to trace and abate stink to keep Americans healthy. With grace and verve, Kiechle explains their reasoning and their legacy.
— Conevery Bolton Valencius, Boston College