Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fascinating Facts about Fragrance Or Stinky romance of the Old West

Recently, on a Facebook group that I frequent, we had a discussion on things that bother readers. A few readers mentioned how it bothered them that authors constantly refer to a man’s scent. And how, if we are historically accurate, they wouldn’t have smelled that nice or WORSE, if we are historically accurate, the smell of horse might not be that pleasant.
Now, this may come as a surprise, but this is actually a question I can speak to! I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and one of the things I studied was sensation and perception. Not only that, I’ve actually experienced the phenomenon in my own life (and so have you). So, here we go. Let’s dial our time machine back to the year 1880 and get a noseful!

Have you ever walked into a veterinary clinic or into a barn? You probably noticed that the smell about knocked you off your feet at first, but after a few minutes, you barely noticed it at all, unless you focused on it. Our brains were designed that way! Scent is a way to let us experience our surroundings. This hasn’t changed. The first scent you take of a place warns you or warms you, depending on where you are, but fades fairly quickly, so that your other senses can do their jobs.
We find the smell of body odor offensive and so would people 1880. However, we put our own 21st century spin on it when we assume that the experience would be the same. It wouldn’t. If you actually traveled back in time, the smell would bowl you over just like if you walked into a barn today. People then, wouldn’t have noticed body odor as stringently as we do now by virtue of the fact that it was commonplace. They didn’t use deodorant and their diets were much different than ours, creating different scents. Not only that, it would’ve been rare for a man or woman in the west to not smell (at least some of the time) like horse. That smell was probably so prevalent that, for the most part, it went unnoticed.

Romance writer’s use all the senses to pull readers into their stories, but in the case of smells, being historically accurate can cause a problem. It is pretty difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone from that time period. The fact is, tooth powders didn’t do what our own minty toothpaste does, talc did little other than keep you slightly drier than without, even soap wasn’t heavily scented like it is now, and bathing wasn’t something people did every day. Yet, the population kept on rising.
So, next time you read a romance and the hero smells like leather and hay, remember, to your heroine, that scent means he’s a full-blooded man who works hard. And let’s face it, that’s attractive no matter the date.

Kari Trumbo is an inspirational romance author, blogger and proud home schooling mother to four great kids. She interacts often on reader groups on Facebook and volunteers at the local library when needed. When she isn’t writing, she is obsessively reading and expanding her skills as a wordsmith. Kari lives in her great-grandfather’s remodeled 1890-built home in central Minnesota with her husband, children, cats, and one hungry wood stove. You can find her at


  1. So true, it was the rare person, like Luke Short, who bathed daily. Still, we associate scent with so much. A very clear and honest look at what a person would deal with. Thank you. Doris

  2. I'm so glad you wrote this article, Kari! It's something I've talked to my friends about often. When you don't own dogs and you walk into your multi-dog-owning friend's house, the place reeks. Yet they don't smell a thing. Then there's my experience from growing up on a dairy farm--when my husband and I drive by a dairy, I don't notice the odor in the slightest. And I haven't lived on a dairy farm for 30 years, so that filter you talked about is still there.

    I've had critique partners want me to put scents in a scene when, in that character's point of view, there would be none. And they just didn't get it. Now I can tell them why. Yay!

  3. Great article, Kari. I hadn't given this a lot of thought! I do include scents in my stories...I'll have to be more judicious from now on!