In “The Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America,” Melanie A. Kiechle follows those who tried to make sense of rapid growth of cities and what that did to public health.

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“Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America”

By Melanie A. Kiechle

University of Washington Press, $34.95

Some aspects of human evolution are lost to the sands of time, but one thing we know for certain: We stink. The things we do stink, and even the things we do to make things smell less horrid, stink. Letters, diaries, battlefield reports, missives to the editor and ship’s logs all offer proof that bad odor is but one breeze away.

In the countryside, people could wander away from bad smells. But as more people moved to the cities, olfactory assault became a fact of life in 19th-century urban America.

By the Civil War, when urban areas were growing faster than the countryside, city residents were deeply invested in the “miasma theory,” or the idea that bad smells equaled poor health and disease. Thus the era of the “Smell Detectives,” which Virginia Tech assistant history professor Melanie A. Kiechle explores in her new book of the same name.

For centuries, people used their own common sense to detect, and mitigate, nauseating smells. If you lived near a tannery, for instance, it was common knowledge that you should plant extra-fragrant flowering plants in your window boxes. Kiechle points out that popular decorating books instructed women where to place large bouquets to keep their homes smelling fresh, and wealthy city dwellers knew the best times and routes for leaving the city to flee the stench of slaughterhouses, breweries and distilleries, and manure piles.

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Then came the war between the states, which bred its own horrors of death from filth. “Of the estimated 750,000 wartime deaths, two-thirds were caused by disease, not bullets,” Kiechle writes of the Civil War. Camp life, with its close quarters, open latrines and bad food, was more like a poor New York neighborhood than military quarters.

Postwar, people began to wonder: Shouldn’t the officials who made these cities start making them better for the people who lived there? Scientists, specifically chemists, were getting better at pinpointing what caused terrible smells. They, too, began trying to wield some municipal political power. In some cases it worked; the movement to place cemeteries outside city limits, for example, and rudimentary industrial zoning began to take hold. All of these were based on pointing out and tracking down things that stink — another victory of sorts for common sense.

Kiechle delves into an interesting, if occasionally stomach-churning subject (a soldier writes from Antietam that he was a bit astonished at calmly having his morning coffee a few feet from decomposing comrades), but it doesn’t come through on the page. Much of it reads like a textbook or submission to a specialty publication, with summaries at the end of most chapters. The book contains many names, but not many details about the people who, pre-germ theory, worked to ameliorate real urban suffering. The Civil War chapters are the most horrific, but because of the detail, are the most riveting and hard to stop reading. The subject cries out for more social analysis, rather than simple recitation of what people did to protect themselves and their families from the stinking reality of urban life.