THE NOSE DOES NOT KNOW
You may not know it, but science is leading you around by the nose. Though your life may never be a bed of roses, it can certainly smell like one.
There was a time when perfume was just something for ladies to dab behind their ears. Today your shirts, your shoes, your house, your family car, little sister's rubber toys, even your mattresses are perfumed. You are living in a new era of smells, and practically everything you use has odor added, subtracted or changed. Chemists like to tell a joke about a little boy who was seen one day happily eating his spinach. His father had sprayed the bowl with chocolate smell.
A family went out to buy a used car recently. The dealer showed them a car that looked new; why, it even smelled new. But was it new? Not at all. It had been sprayed with "new car" smell. Criminal court records reveal cases in which people have actually been tricked into buying "new cars" which turned out to be old ones. The characteristic aromas of fresh paint, glue, leather and other materials can be applied to a Model T Ford. Unfortunately, they do not fool the motor.
Used cars are smelling so good nowadays that people who buy new cars sometimes feel disappointed. As a result, one of the biggest automobile manufacturers is secretly adding "new car" odor to his new models as they come off the assembly line.
In the supermarket one day you may reach for a package of buns, tempted by the pleasing aroma of cinnamon and honey. On second thought you may realize that you could not possibly smell the buns through the layers of wrapping. The fact is that "cinnamon bun" odor has been added to the cardboard of the package.
As you go over to the fruits and vegetables department the pungent aroma of oranges, grapefruit and lemons tickles your nose. These fruits, too, in this modern age of packaging are neatly wrapped in plastic bags. Once again it is the wrapping that you smell, not the fruit.
Grass seed in bags does not smell either, but the home gardener thinks it should. A seed company, therefore, is treating the bag with "grass" odor.
"Most packages eventually will be made to smell like the products they contain," states a research chemist optimistically.
And what of the products themselves? The odor is no longer a safe guide as to what is inside. Does beer make a girl's hair more beautiful? At least one shampoo manufacturer believes that the smell of beer alone will do the job. His shampoo reeks of beer, but does not contain an eyedropperful. A competitor, on the other hand, puts beer in his shampoo and hides it with a heavy rose perfume.
Like most Americans today, your family probably has cook-outs several times a week during the summer. One of the great pleasures of barbecue cooking is the woodsy odor of hickory smoke. Nowadays you can get the smell without burning a single stick of hickory. The aroma of the wood is added to the chemical which is used to light the charcoal on your grill. Left to itself, this product smells of unromantic kerosene.
Your Christmas tree last year may have come straight from the woods. Many people, though, use trees that grow in a factory instead. At least as far as smell is concerned, you could not tell the difference.
You pick up an inexpensive pocketbook in one of the big department stores. At that price it must be plastic, but it smells like leather. Yes; "leather" odor has been added.
Which tire has the real rubber? During World War II, it became very difficult to get rubber from the Far East. An artificial type was made here and used as a substitute in tires and other manufactured goods. Although natural rubber has a most unpleasant smell, the chemists were called in to reproduce it. The odor completed the masquerade costume of the artificial product.
When natural rubber became available again, its smell once more was considered unacceptable. The chemists were asked to come up with an improvement. Both natural and synthetic rubber products are now scented with odors that do not bear the slightest resemblance to either one in its original state. They smell of flowers or of chocolate or of many other things. The aroma selected depends upon how the product will be used. Baby toys, after all, should not smell like tires, which in turn should not smell like foam-rubber mattresses or girdles.
Shirts and sheets coming out of electrical clothes driers are every bit as dry as those hung out on the line in the back yard. Something, however, is missing.
"They don't smell of sunlight and grass the way they used to," complains the suburban housewife.
To provide these, the smell of "sun, grass and the great outdoors" has been distilled in the laboratory and can be added to the machine. Where were your clothes dried? You must follow the laundry basket to find out. Your nose cannot give you the answer.
If you are sometimes fooled by artificial aromas, pity the poor animals. Fish-lure odors entice luckless fish. A strong carrot odor draws rabbits into enclosures where not a single carrot lies. A familiar aroma added to the mash fed to piglets being weaned from their mothers helps them to adjust to the change. Some hunters resort to the use of an artificial "deer" scent to deceive their quarry. Perhaps the greatest trick of all has been thought up for hunters by a sporting-goods house. It is an "odor" that conceals the smell of man altogether. Wait until the mystery story writers get the idea of concealing the presence of the murderer with this.Not all artificial smells are intended to deceive; some are designed to serve as warnings. Natural gas, now generally used in gas stoves, has no smell. Imagine what would happen if the wind blew out the flame on the stove burner. Gas could then escape freely into the kitchen. Whole families would collapse, never knowing what hit them. A "gas" smell, therefore, is added to the natural gas in the pipe lines.
Drivers are warned when the motors of their automobiles are overheating by a carefully designed characteristic smell that is released whenever the temperature reaches too high a point. The chemicals in the fire extinguishers are also perfumed so that it is possible to tell if there is a leak. Otherwise, the cry of "fire" would ring out and fire fighters would rush to the extinguisher, only to discover - too late - that nothing was left inside to put out the flames.
Odors, you can see, fill many different needs. As one chemist put it: "Everything smells." Even things which you think are unscented have perfume added. The smell may be so faint that you are not aware of it.
Some years ago an experiment was performed in which women were asked to vote on the one of two pairs of stockings they preferred. One was lightly perfumed; the other was left completely odorless. An overwhelming majority picked the scented pair, but none of the ladies gave that as her reason.
"It is a prettier color," said some. The colors were identical.
"It is filmier," said others. The stockings were exactly the same in weight, too.
In the light of these findings is it any wonder that a manufacturer of a cleaning fluid for ladies' suede shoes and pocketbooks spends more to perfume his product than he does for the chemical that does the cleaning job? In fact he uses perfume oils equal in quality to those put in regular perfumes costing twenty dollars or more an ounce.
This kind of thinking applies to household products, too. Homes smell a lot better than they used to. Perfume chemists dare you to name a single thing - from hot water bottles to scouring powder - that has not received the odor treatment. Fragrance is added even to toilet paper. Some eager manufacturers want to lull you into sweet dreams by perfuming mattresses and pillows which have already been deodorized.
In some cases the effectiveness of a product is judged by odor alone. How can you be sure which insecticide will make most bugs bite the dust? A long list of ingredients is given on the can, but it is hard to read the small print, let alone figure out what it means. At least you can tell if the spray smells bad. Many people, therefore, buy the insecticide that smells the best, even though that might be the least effective.
"You could make an odorless baby powder that was every bit as soothing as the one that is most widely used today," comments a chemist, "but what mother would buy it? Without the familiar odor, everyone would assume that her baby was not getting good care. The perfume must be there."
You would probably define perfume as something that smells good. That is not necessarily true in this artificial era. Many smells which are quite unpleasant are added to products on purpose.
What does fertilizer smell like? It smells terrible, of course; everybody knows that. Actually many chemical fertilizers do not - or did not - until the artificial odor of "partially decomposed barnyard manure" was added. This disagreeable aroma makes the farmer happier; an odorless fertilizer, he feels, could not. really do the job.
At one time if you had your shoes shined everyone within a three-block radius knew it by the smell. The next step was for the chemists to take the shoeshine smell out of shoe polish. Now there is talk of putting it back in.
A smell that duplicates the odor of hemp lying on a dock has been developed. Nylon sails, ropes and fish nets were too odorless to suit fishermen. They are glad to have the old familiar smell back.
Even some household products have an intensely unpleasant aroma - on purpose. Two of the most widely used household cleaners literally reek. Why?
"It makes it obvious that the housewife has been working hard," explains a chemist, who was called in to provide smells for several of these cleaners. "The husband comes home, sniffs the air, and knows at once that his wife has been slaving away all day. It is perfectly possible to make the same cleaner with no odor, or with a pleasant odor - but nobody wants that."
"On the whole, though, the great challenge that must be met by perfumers is that of concealing bad smells," reports Givaudan-Delawanna, a leading firm in this field.
"We 'deodorize,' which means that we find a way of taking an unpleasant odor away altogether, or we 'reodorize,' which means that we change the smell to something agreeable."
Most plastics must have odor added or taken away. Not long ago a number of housewives noticed that the milk and butter in their refrigerators smelled as if a skunk had just passed by. What was to blame? The culprit was a plastic. used in the refrigerator door. A pleasanter aroma was quickly added.
At just about the same time, in another community, youngsters came home from school complaining that the sandwiches in their lunch boxes smelled decidedly odd. "I couldn't even eat the peanut butter and jelly!" exclaimed an angry first-grader. This time it turned out that the plastic wrapping was responsible, and it had to be deodorized.
Textiles require the best that laboratories have to offer. Foul-smelling chemicals are used in making fabrics out of fibers. Your grandmother may remember a time when she would walk into a dress shop in the summer and find her nose wrinkling in disgust and her eyes watering as a result of the formaldehyde in the dyes. This problem still exists today, along with a lot of new ones. These are caused by the development of plastic materials called "resins," which are used to make modern wash-'n'-wear, uncrushable, shrinkproof and water-resistant fabrics. These resins give off a strong, fishy odor. In the case of plastic raincoats, shower curtains and tablecloths, the problem is particularly severe. At one time quite a number of families were dismayed to find that their bathrooms smelled fishy whenever the hot water was turned on. The vinyl shower curtains proved to be at fault. Chemists meet the plastic challenge by adding scents. The fragrance has to be carefully chosen. What boy would be willing to wear a shirt that smelled of roses?
It is not only synthetics that smell bad; many natural products have unbelievably unpleasant aromas, too.
Do leather and fur smell good? Most people think so - mistakenly. A few years ago a merchant seaman on a trip to Latin America found a leather pocketbook painstakingly made by hand by a native craftsman. Delighted, he sent it home to his wife. In the steaming jungles he did not notice the smell. This was not the case in Chicago where his wife opened the package. The appalling odor was so strong that, with a handkerchief to her nose, she hurriedly hung the pocketbook out of the kitchen window. She left it there for three days before she could even bring herself to examine the gift more closely.
Most natural leather products are perfumed with an odor that people think is "leather," but that actually contains many extra perfume ingredients. This is the "leather" odor that is added to synthetic leather, too.
If you took a walk down the blocks that contain New York's famous fur market and got a whiff of the mink skins you would be horrified. The stench is indescribable. By the time the skin has been transformed into a coat or stole, however, its smell has been transformed, too. It is faintly exotic and glamorous, quite suitable for a princess or a movie star. You could not detect the smell of the furry, four-legged beast.
Even if you like animals, chances are you do not like the way they smell. What about your pet? Shampoos, sprays and powders to kill insects are all perfumed. Your dog or cat can smell of pine or lavender or even chocolate. There is one unhappy side to all of this, however. The refined scents may appeal to you, but your puppy might become unpopular with his fellows. They want a dog to smell like a dog.
(From The artificial world around us, by Lucy Kavaler)