Archiving Smells

Are there any signature scents from your childhood that you haven’t smelled for years? Do you think those scent memories will sit strong in your brain, or will the fragrant details start to fade?



First, we can start by exploring which smells people most frequently associate with their childhoods. What are your top five?

One survey of 2,000 British adults – commissioned by Disneyland Paris – revealed:

The Top 18 Smells That Evoke Childhood
i. Freshly mowed grass
ii. Freshly sharpened pencils + shavings
iii. Baby powder
iv. Vicks Vapour Rub
v. Plasticine
vi. Candyfloss/Cotton Candy
vii. Bonfires
viii. Sunscreen
ix. Fish and chips
x. Old school perfume
xi. Bubble gum
xii. Chalk
xiii. Talcum powder
xiv. Grandpa’s pipe smoke
xv. Garden shed
xvi. Chicken soup
xvii. Hairspray
xviii. Rain on pavement.



Neuroscientists study the strong connections between smell and memory. Scents travel from the olfactory bulb to the limbic system’s amygdala and hippocampus, brain areas we hear referenced often in relation to emotion and memory.

But, what about smells that are going out of favour? Take mothballs, for instance. Can you conjure up the smell of mothballs? Doing so might make you smile or recoil. (🤗) But, if you’re Generation Z or Alpha, you might never have smelled a mothball in your life. End of the world? Probably not. But will future generations have live experience with, say,  old book smell? If not, is that a smell worth preserving?

Researchers at University College London say ‘yes’. In their ‘Smell of Heritage’ project they ask: ‘what smell would you take into the future’? Their goal is to ‘archive smell metadata and preserve odours for future generations.’

First, these UCL researchers work with a template designed to identify heritage smells worth saving. Then, they embark on meticulous chemical analysis to isolate those volatile organic compounds that define a particular scent.

More on their process – from analysis to archiving – here:

The Smell of Heritage project case studies include places like St Paul’s Cathedral Library, known for its particularly entrancing historic library smell.

How many of the Top 18 childhood nostalgia scents above – freshly mowed grass? Freshly sharpened pencils? – will future scent archivists have to bottle before we can no longer smell them in our day to day lives?

Header Photo: Taryn Elliott
Photo 2: Sharon McCutcheon


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