Fragrances are everywhere. From car fresheners, fabric softeners and candles to deodorizers, cleaning products and perfumes — fragrance abounds. So much so that some work places have become fragrance-free because of potential allergic reactions. Scents can be tricky. Less is often more.
A friend recently reminded me of why the kitchens in our old houses are set apart. They are not outbuildings and not in the basement, as in some 19th-century homes, but they are their own little appendages, without rooms above or below. They are separated from the dining room by a pantry or butler's pantry. They have doors that close them off from the kitchen and main staircase.
Before my husband removed it, our kitchen had a heavy door with thick panes of opaque glass at the top and a weight that closed the door automatically. Like the swinging door from the pantry to the dining room, this came in handy when food was being carried.
I always thought that heavy door existed because of the heat generated in the kitchen. My friend explained that heat was one reason but that smells were the main reason. I then recalled that when my parents entertained, some food was prepared the day before and much was prepared during the day of the gathering. Everything timed out to be finished well before the company arrived. It was warmed up before the meal. Biscuits were the only exception; they were baked right before being served.
The doors to the dining room and staircase were closed. The vent through the kitchen roof, controlled by two chains, was open no matter how cold it was outside. Better to be cold than to have smells in the house. I wish my father had followed that practice when he cooked fish or meat for himself on weekends.
No one in the family wore strong fragrances. Our grandmother's strongest perfumes were the Sea Breeze and Noxema she used when washing her face. Before parties or dances, our mother used Tabu or Chanel No. 5. My grandfather had only one bottle of bay rum that was still partially full when he died. Talc was his preference after a shave. My father's bottle of lilac vegetal was a gift rarely used.
The only sweet smells in the house came from garden flowers: daffodils, lilacs, peonies and roses. Our mother did not grow lilies. She considered their fragrance too strong. She did let lilies-of-the-valley grow freely, because my grandmother and sister liked them in small bouquets upstairs. At the holidays, household fragrance came from Scotch pine trees and balsam, with the smell of the turkey and steam seeping through the pantry doors on Christmas Eve afternoon.
Gifts of fragrant soaps, except for the little lemons that we used immediately, went straight between the sheets in the linen closet. I once found a few sprigs of lavender tied with a thin ribbon there.
Other subtle fragrances came from our Little Lady bubble bath or miniscule sachet pillows among our mother's handkerchiefs. Later my sister and I discovered refreshing splashes of Jean Naté.
My family was not alone in their aversion to fragrances. A childhood friend remembers her father loathing a boy who wore strong aftershave when he picked up her sister. "Dandyish," declared their mother. Most every mother had one or two bottles of perfume on their dressing tables, reserved for a quick dab behind the ear or on the wrist before parties, but nothing that would linger.
Another friend's mother turned her nose up and pinched it if one of her children tried on a strong fragrance. Now my friend has done the same with her high school-aged son who sported manly cologne for a few weeks. "I've finally persuaded him to go with old-fashioned soap and water," she said proudly the other day.
I suspect the neighborhood aversion to fragrances is a carry-over from the Victorian era. Strong smells, fragrant or not, were considered vulgar.
But what about the smell of cigarettes? Growing up in the '50s that smell was so ubiquitous, another friend reminds me, that we barely noticed it. Her father and my mother smoked. Until I went to college, I never noticed it. When I returned home, my mother's early morning cigarette gave me my own smell to eschew.
Now I cannot wait to replace another acrid scent, the iron smell of new radiators that has filled our house all winter. Soon daffodils will finally bloom, and I will bring their soft fragrance inside.