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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scratch and Sniff

We all know the appeal of new-car smell, but here at the Rosenbach we also know the appeal of old-book smell. Many of our collections objects have the generally pleasing smell of age, but I thought I'd point out a few particularly fragrant items that I would include on a "scratch-and-sniff" tour, if such a thing existed. (Disclaimer, please do not actually scratch collections objects. Disclaimer #2, this blog post would be better with smell-o-vision, but we'll have to make do).

The Holford collection of Defoe materials is housed in the third floor hallway. The bindings for this large matched set are made of Russia leather. Russia leather has a distinctive aroma, which comes in large part from the birch-bark oil used in its production. It smells of wintergreen and the effect of whole cabinet of books is quite pronounced when the glass doors are opened.

Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. Third impression. London: Printed for P. C. [Philip Chetwynd], 1664.Rosenbach Museum & Library. EL1 .S527 664

Another smelly item is our Shakespeare Third Folio, which you may have seen recently in the Burn This exhibition. Our copy smells strongly of smoke and, to paraphrase Elizabeth Fuller, it is tempting to imagine that that the scent is a souvenir of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Great Fire burned London's bookselling district and is believed to have destroyed many unsold copies of the Third Folio. Unfortunately, as Elizabeth has pointed out, any possible Great Fire scent would have been washed out when the book was rebound in the 19th century and the present odor was probably acquired in peaceful repose in a library with a smoky fireplace.

Toilet bottle from Philip Rosenbach's grooming set. England, Charles Fox. Rosenbach Museum & Library 2002.0337.006
It's not just our books that have evocative odors of the past.  Several bottles from Philip's grooming set retain strong scents from their original contents.The tightly screwed caps may have assisted in the olfactory preservation.

Sadly, none of our objects smell of fresh-baked bread or chocolate-chip cookies, but hopefully this brief tour has given you a "scents" of  their history.

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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