Virginia Tech ‘s Melanie Kiechle examines the foul side of history

melanie kiechleUnusual odors have been strong indicators throughout history that something is not quite right. One year ago, the smell of licorice permeated the air in Elk River, West Virginia, alerting citizens to a chemical spill of coal-washing foam.

“People who smelled it—even though it smelled sweet—knew something was going on,” said Melanie Kiechle, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech.

“We use our sense of smell to evaluate our environment,” she said. “In a world where we worry about pollution and biotoxins, smells that are out of the ordinary are alarming.”

The same was true in the 19th century, when American worried that miasmas would make them ill.

Kiechle’s research specialty is perceptions of odor and how they have changed over time. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Antiquarian Society, Kiechle is working this academic year in Worcester, Mass., where she has access to the Clara Barton Papers and other 19th century records.

These materials are a rich source of information about how the Civil War, with its stench of death and disease on the battlefield and in hospitals, changed attitudes toward odors.

“To spend a year at the American Antiquarian Society is a rich opportunity to work in primary archives and to be part of an intellectual conversation with other scholars,” said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “The National Research Council, home to the National Academies, classifies this as a highly prestigious honor. NEH Fellowships are a rare honor to win and offer an early indication of the distinction that this project is likely to achieve.”

An expansion of her doctoral dissertation, Kiechle’s current work will be part of a book titled, “Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Urban America, 1840-1900.” She describes it as “a cultural history of fresh air and foul odors in urban environments.”

That time is significant because the 1800s brought oil refineries, slaughterhouses, paper mills, and other industrial expansion—all means to prosperity but also causes of pollution on a large scale. People wrestled with how to balance urban growth against threats to pure air and clean water.

The Civil War heightened awareness. “Standing boards of health were created as a direct result of the war,” Kiechle said. “It made an impression on those tending the wounded. People starting talking about how bad conditions were in hospitals and prisons based on smell.”

Kiechle admits to being a bit of a smell detective herself. “A lot of historians were doing work on the senses and how people define their world in visual and spatial terms. I realized nobody was working on smell. I got interested in trying to recover and understand the lost smells of the nineteenth century.”

“We don’t think about our sense of smell very often,” she said, “but it brings us a lot of information about the world around us.” In the case of the Charleston chemical spill, for example, “there was an odor that was out of the ordinary. It was different, and that alerted people to a problem.”

Kiechle joined the history faculty at Virginia Tech in 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Her dissertation is titled, “The Air We Breathe: Nineteenth-Century Americans and the Search for Fresh Air.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech includes programs in the arts, humanities, social and human sciences, and education. The college seeks to illuminate human experience and expression by creating works of lasting scholarly, cultural, and aesthetic value; empower individuals to engage critically with the complexities of a diverse, global society; and foster the inquiry, innovation, and growth that produce individual and social transformation.

augusta free press
augusta free press news

UVA Basketball Fans!

uva basketball team of destiny
Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25. The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe, and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018 through to the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.

Dick Vitale on Team of Destiny: “This is a hoops story you will LOVE! Jerry and Chris capture the sensational and dramatic championship journey by Tony Bennett and his tenacious Cavalier team. UVA was Awesome Baby and so is this book!”

Ralph Sampson on Team of Destiny: “Jerry and Chris have lived and seen it all, even before my time. I highly recommend this book to every basketball fan across the globe. This story translates to all who know defeat and how to overcome it!”

Buy here.

AFP Business

As professional consultants, Augusta Free Press LLC provides clients in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia and beyond with marketing and PR solutions including website design, SEO, TV/radio, video work, branding and logos, social media and overall marketing campaign design and implementation. Augusta Free Press LLC was founded in 2002.

Web Design

Augusta Free Press has designed more than 800 websites for clients in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia. We take care of all facets of web design – visual design, layout design, content development and SEO. Short on staff? We’ll work with you to update your AFP-designed website in a timely manner or train your staff to make changes.

Marketing/Social Media Management

Augusta Free Press manages advertising campaigns for small- and medium-sized businesses across Virginia. You don’t need to hire a full-time marketing coordinator. Bring the experience of the Augusta Free Press team to work for you – for a fraction of the cost.

Graphic Design

Augusta Free Press will help you take your vision to the next level. From branding and logos to print materials, our team will work with you to develop products to showcase your business. From brochures and rack cards to full-color magazines or print/digital ads, we’ve got you covered.

Event Planning/Fundraising

Augusta Free Press will help you plan the best event for your organization. From an open house or anniversary to a 5K or Pay Per View, we can handle it all. Looking for training for your sales staff? We can help energize your employees or board. Need ideas to raise more money? Let us help you plan a successful event. Want to hold a news conference or need help with a press release? We can do that too.

Click here for more.