Scent Diary : In Search of Lost Time

Old houses have a particular scent. Damp wood, lacquer, furniture polish, dry herbs, dust, a whiff of vanilla that evokes old books and old libraries. I catalog these smells whenever I visit my grandmother’s house and even when I’m away, I can recompose the scents in my mind and feel transported home.

You can write about anything you wish in this thread–favorite books, interesting scents you’ve encountered. For those who would like to use the Scent Diary to sharpen their sense of smell, I will give a short explanation. As I wrote in How to Improve Your Sense of Smell, the best way to do so is to smell and to pay attention to what you’re smelling. It doesn’t matter what you smell. The most important thing is to notice scents around you. It’s even better if you write it down. So please share your scents and perfumes with us.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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44 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria and Perfume Lovers,

    When I’ve been out in my 41-year-old car, driven back into my garage and stepped out of the car, I often smell an aroma that takes me back to my childhood kitchen. It must be something about the warm, metallic engine and petrol smell that is similar to the smell of Mum’s old Sunbeam Mixmaster when she was combining eggs, butter, vanilla (with its alcohol content) and perhaps a couple of other ingredients. It always seems strange to me that a warm car should smell of cooking!

    I wonder whether anyone else has had a similar experience.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline June 17, 2019 at 10:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Fascinating! I now need to pay more attention. Garages do have their own unique smells. June 24, 2019 at 5:17am Reply

      • Tourmaline: o Hi Victoria,

        That is true. When I get out of the car and notice that aroma, I feel like breathing in deeply. I have to remind myself that the petrol fumes (and carbon monoxide fumes that I CAN’T smell) are bad for me!

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline July 4, 2019 at 5:30am Reply

    • donna macdonald: Yes! My mother’s Sunbeam Mixer reminds me of home. It’s a plastic smell and I immediately think of afternoons when she would bake a chocolate cake, or cookies.

      I go back in time when I also smell a new doll’s head – brings me back to childhood and holding my new dollys on Christmas morning. June 26, 2019 at 12:19pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Donna,

        I have to confess that, some years ago now, I bought my own Sunbeam mixer; the good memories made me faithful to the brand!

        I know exactly what you mean in relation to those great toy smells from Christmas day. That delicious aroma of plastic dolls was probably no accident; I have little doubt that it was designed to entice children. It was so good that one could be tempted to bite the doll, and I’m sure many did!

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline July 4, 2019 at 5:33am Reply

  • Tami: Whenever the discussion turns to memorable scents, I always think of stargazer lilies. If you’re not familiar, they’re beautiful and dramatic pink-and-white blooms with a powerful, peppery scent that meets (if not exceeds) the appearance. I actually can’t have them in the house because the scent takes over.

    I used to frequent wine tastings at a local wine shop. One day they had an all-Burgundy tasting. Along with the usual earthiness and red fruits, one of the selections (sorry, don’t remember which) hit me over the head with that familiar stargazer lily scent. I mentioned this aloud and a ripple effect went through the room… mostly men (who weren’t familiar with the bloom) began mumbling “stargazer lily? What’s that?” and sniffing that glass again, trying to detect what I was talking about. I still giggle about it because usually I didn’t say much and I wasn’t even aware I’d been that loud… but apparently I’d made such a novel observation that it upped the sense of competition in the room! 🤣

    By the way, wine tasting is a wonderful way to increase your scent “vocabulary.” You’re trying to put a name to what you’re smelling… even when it’s not really there. Of course taste is part of the process, but scent plays an important role in wine education, and gives you a fuller appreciation of what you’re enjoying. It’s fascinating.

    I’m also fascinated by the concept of phantom scent—not true phantosmia, but the phenomenon some encounter, where they suddenly encounter the scent of a long-passed loved one or former paramour in a context where it wasn’t possible to just be smelling residue (e.g. wearing an old sweater or grabbing something out of the loved one’s closet). It happened to me with an ex-boyfriend’s scent. Years after breaking up I experienced a period of smelling him wherever I went—different contexts, different clothes, surrounded by people and all alone. More than seeing a car like his, or hearing a song that reminded me of that time, the scent was a sucker punch. I’m sure I could have picked up some other guy’s scent somewhere… but all over the place? Our memory is a funny thing. June 17, 2019 at 11:19am Reply

    • Mel Bourdeaux: Your observation about wine-tasting reminds me of the documentary Somm which documents the hardcore path candidates take for the ultimate sommelier accreditation, whatever that is. In any event, one guy describes a tasting note as “like a freshly cut garden hose.” Seriously. Great film. Thx for your post! June 17, 2019 at 9:42pm Reply

      • Tami: Hi, Mel — I love Somm, too! I can’t imagine all the work that goes into earning your master somm credential. And not to mention, expensive! Wow! Thanks for the reply. June 18, 2019 at 12:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I so enjoyed reading this! You’ve reminded us how complex the associations can be and how unpredictable the connections. June 24, 2019 at 5:18am Reply

      • Tami: Aww, thank you for saying so! It was fun thinking about all these scent memories. June 26, 2019 at 1:09am Reply

  • Stephazul: It’s funny that you mention old cars and food because it reminds me of my childhood memories. My grandfather had an old, rumbly metal Ford truck that by the 80’s had seen quite a few decades. On certain mornings, when it was cold and he was waiting for the engine to warm up I do remember thinking that the gasoline mixed with the cold air smelled like vanilla ice cream to me. Everyone I’ve mentioned this to has thought I was crazy. June 17, 2019 at 11:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Have you tried Serge Lutens’s Tubereuse Criminelle? It has a gasoline like opening and then it melds into a vanilla-white floral accord. June 24, 2019 at 5:19am Reply

    • Tourmaline: Hi Stephazul,

      Well I don’t think you’re crazy at all! For me, i think the two major links were those between the smells of the warm metal engine and the warm metal mixmaster, and the petrol fumes and the alcohol fumes from the vanilla essence. But then, perhaps there is something else about a warm car that smells like butter or sugar or eggs.

      With kind regards,

      Tourmaline July 4, 2019 at 5:42am Reply

  • Joy Erickson: I live on a river that has significant tidal action. Last week the smell of marine tideflats awakened me at about 2 am. Somehow more pleasant when out clamming than in the middle of the night. June 17, 2019 at 6:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like such scents too. June 24, 2019 at 5:19am Reply

  • Aurora: What a lovely photo, is this your grandmother, Valentina, Victoria?

    I stopped several times at the weekend to bury my nose inside various roses in the neighborhood front gardens, most roses were scented, one red orange rose which I check every year smells exactly like the passionfruit rose of Nahema.
    It seems all the roses are blooming at once. June 17, 2019 at 7:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds wonderful!

      Yes, that’s Valentina. 🙂 June 24, 2019 at 5:20am Reply

  • Muriel: It’s a bit strange, but I have some sharp olfactory memories of my grand-parents’s (and even great-grand-father’s) houses, but not so much of my own childhood house… On my father’s side, I remember the powdery smell in my grand-parent’s bedroom, and the terrible smell of geranium plants in my grand-father’s “winter garden”, that room also smelled of black soap. On my mother’s side, I remember the smell of old wood, and something like damp cardboard… June 18, 2019 at 8:09am Reply

  • delia jean: as i read these descriptions, i kept wanting to click a “like” button.

    thank you June 18, 2019 at 12:09pm Reply

  • John Luna: There is that wonderful line in the mesmerizing opening sequence of Paolo Sorrentino’s movie, The Great Beauty, when the narrator mentions his childhood fascination with, “the smell of old peoples’ houses” as the sign that he was meant for a life based on sensibility. Great film… Lately I have been very surprised to find myself enamoured of the original Aramis (Bernard Chant, mid 1960’s), a composition that, owing to its occasional presence on drugstore shelves, I had never looked too closely at before. Part of my delight in it is this accord that suggests a dried-out but still slightly dank basement in the summer. More specifically, it reminds me of my great aunt’s place in Los Angeles where I spent my summers growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s…built for her and her husband in 1930, it was a massive old Tudour revival place that had remained untouched by time (a decorator changed the dining room wallpaper and upholstery every five years). I was endlessly curious about its servant staircase, sun room, veranda, and old pool house filled with spiders hiding from the sun. There was a chest bound with baked leather straps with slightly moldering sporting goods inside. It smelled a lot like Aramis…What a wonderful scent. June 19, 2019 at 1:26am Reply

    • Victoria: It makes me think that all of descriptions would make fascinating fragrance accords. June 24, 2019 at 5:21am Reply

  • Inma: Hello,
    These days wondering about the need to have a support to get to somewhere really new. It was awesome for me to know the mum’s milk smells similar to the amniotic fluid. It is the smell that guides babys up to the mum´s breasts when they are just born.
    On a different note I read about this book: Philosophie de l’odorat (Philosophy of the smell), by Chantal Jaquet and I thought about Victoria and the people in this blog. I am curious about it, have any of you read it? June 19, 2019 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t read it yet. Are you enjoying it? June 24, 2019 at 5:21am Reply

      • Inma: I am not reading it yet either, unfortunately! Too many other books in my professional life are taking my attention. I sort of keep a list of books I´ll read when this tide goes away. June 25, 2019 at 4:11am Reply

    • Megan: I’ve read that mammary glands are essentially enlarged, modified sweat glands, so it makes sense that milk would have an individualized scent. I never thought about babies smelling their mothers – just the milky smell of babies! Thanks for sharing. June 25, 2019 at 9:57pm Reply

  • Nancy: Last year my mother sold our family home, built in 1924 — the house she and I both grew up in. I created a fragrance to commemorate it, incorporating elements from the inside out: flowers and herbs from my grandmother’s garden, citrus and tea from the kitchen, and wood and vanilla (from Peru balsam) for that “old house” smell you mentioned in your post. With a sniff of this scent, Mom and I can be transported back to our family home whenever we feel the need. June 19, 2019 at 10:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Wonderful! It’s important to have such mementos to tie us to the places that were meaningful to us. June 24, 2019 at 5:22am Reply

  • eudora: My grandmother passed 30 years ago when I was a child.
    Last week I smelled Chanel n22 for the first time and it transported me all straight to her. Suddenly a big hug. As John Luna noted, I am one of those fascinated with old people’s houses and special mention to both my grandmothers. I adored both and I loved -and love- their smell… no doubt I loved to be close to them so much…

    Sent from my iPad June 19, 2019 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Something to cherish, definitely. June 24, 2019 at 5:23am Reply

  • Fazal: When I think of my childhood, I realize perfumes did not really penetrate the sub-continent and might still have not. Any perfumed smell I remember from childhood comes from anything but perfumes such as body creams, talcum powders, lipsticks, and even nail polish women in the family used. I had almost forgotten what lipstick smelled like until I smelled Dior Homme back in 2007 and it immed. took me back to the smell of lipsticks.

    Original Dior Homme remains the most realistic lipstick smell I have ever smelled. Some other perfumes have also been credited with smelling like lipstick but none have come close to original Dior Homme. Maybe the lipsticks smelled different in the west back then because no other perfume reminds me of the smell of lipsticks from childhood, not even Malle’s Lipstick Rose. June 19, 2019 at 6:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: What did lipstick smell back then? I imagine that it was a mix of ionones and rose oil. Lipstick Rose also doesn’t smell exactly like my mom’s lipstick. June 24, 2019 at 5:24am Reply

      • Fazal: It is hard to describe how lipsticks smelled back then. Before I smelled dior homme for the first time in 2006 and 2007, I could not conjure up even a single word to describe the smell of the lipstick from my childhood if you asked me.

        I still remember so clearly the first thing to come to my mind upon smelling Dior Homme, “so it must have been iris that gave the lipsticks their particular smell during my childhood years”. After smelling many iris fragrances since then, I am not so sure if it was really iris or something else. Almost every lipstick smelled the same no matter what the shade was.

        I could be wrong but I feel the two notes that play the major role in creating that unique lipstick smell in early versions of Dior Homme are iris and lavender. I am sure you have access to Dior Homme from 2008 or before. It really is the closest thing to the smells of lipstick as I remember. I smelled the latest version of Dior Homme last year in Sephora and it is not even quarter as good as the early year versions. Makes sense that someone like artistic like Hedi Slimane would have spared no expense in the original formula and now Dior Homme is made in-house. We all know how LVMH runs the business. If they identify an opportunity to save even a penny per formula, there is no way they would let that go. June 24, 2019 at 5:48am Reply

      • Fazal: Forgot to respond to one inquiry. I don’t remember any rosy smell in lipsticks. In fact, I don’t remember any lipstick reminding of the smell of traditional flowers like rose, jasmine and so on. I was not aware of the flower of iris back then but unless I am wrong iris does not really have any smell. Maybe you could say lipsticks smelled waxy, and waxy lipstick is a good way to define the early versions of dior homme. I feel confident high-grade iris was used generously in first dior homme formula. June 24, 2019 at 5:52am Reply

        • Victoria: You’re right. I worked at IFF then, which made the original formula, and it was definitely very expensive and used excellent ingredients. But unfortunately, the bean counters had their way with it.

          Iris flowers have a certain scent, depending on variety, but the perfumery iris is the scent of the root. The higher the percentage of irone in the finished essence, the high the quality. That being said, even iris synthetics smell amazing. Their synthesis is complicated, so the price is impressive too. June 24, 2019 at 6:09am Reply

          • Fazal: wow, I can only imagine how the original formula essence must have smelled before adding alcohol. to it.

            I don’t know when I will visit Pakistan but whenever that happens, I hope to remember to ask every woman I meet to check her old stuff if she can find a lipstick from 1980s or 1990s. It would be nice to have one as a reference because it seems there is not really one standard lipstick smell around the world. June 24, 2019 at 6:19am Reply

    • Tourmaline: Hi Fazal,

      Oh my gosh, I have to smell Dior Homme; I love the smell of lipstick!

      With kind regards,
      Tourmaline July 4, 2019 at 5:48am Reply

      • Fazal: Tourmaline, you must. When you do, I hope it is preferably 2008 or earlier batch or at least not later than 2010. One handy tip is to look for a bottle with the silver tube inside (I think silver tube versions were made until 2010 or 2011 at the latest). July 4, 2019 at 6:33am Reply

        • Tourmaline: Hi Fazal,

          Thank you for the tip. Perhaps I should search on eBay for the right vintage.

          I look forward to it!

          With kind regards,
          Tourmaline July 4, 2019 at 8:51am Reply

  • Potimarron: The smell that takes me back most is the smell of cigarettes, particularly now that so many people vape instead. It reminds me of my Nan’s (grandmother’s) house. Nan used to look after us in the school holidays. She used to smoke while knitting, while watching soaps, while on the phone. I remember once watching a cigarette burn down on her hand while she was on the phone, fascinated to see when the increasing stalk of ash would fall off. She wasn’t the only smoker in my family (an uncle and an aunt still smoke) and she’s been gone ten years, but the smell of cigarette smoke reminds me of her house before she got ill. June 23, 2019 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: I do have some pleasant memories associated with the scent of cigarettes, but it has to occur in a very specific context–cold air, black coffee, a whisper of cigarette smoke… June 24, 2019 at 5:31am Reply

      • Muriel: I’m not a fan of the scent of cigarettes at all, but I love it when they are lit. That very short moment, is really delicious. June 25, 2019 at 7:37am Reply

  • Megan: My grandparents’ house smelled of Bounce fabric softener, natural gas from stove burners that didn’t light right away, a faint mustiness from years of humidity on a wood-paneled basement and cedar shakes on the outside of the house, and brewing coffee. I don’t think I’d ever wear that as a perfume, but it’s the best scent I know. I still miss it. June 25, 2019 at 9:52pm Reply

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