“Visualizing Vapors: The Shift from Smell to Smoke in Defining Air Quality”

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A talk by Melanie Kiechle

How did a mid-19th-century concern with stench become a Progressive Era fight against smoke? Why did smoke transform from a symbol of civic pride and progress to the harbinger of a polluted atmosphere? This talk provided one answer to these questions by closely examining the connections between anti-stench and anti-smoke agitation. Rather than viewing the anti-smoke crusades as a departure from earlier complacency about industrial pollution, this talk situated the fight against smoke as a direct outgrowth of earlier worries about bad odors. The talk focused on the significant role the graphic press played in the transition from smell to smoke. The demands of a visual medium mandated sensory translation; as artists tried to illustrate the New York City health concerns about Hunter’s Point, they sought an iconography for smell and found their answer in billows of smoke. By focusing on the interplay between the senses of smell and sight, this talk—and its many illustrations—explained the historically contingent reasons that visions of smoke, rather than stenches of industry, launched a widespread campaign for improved air quality.

Melanie Kiechle is currently completing her dissertation, “‘The Air We Breathe’: Nineteenth-Century Americans and the Search for Fresh Air,” in the history program at Rutgers University. She is in residence for 2011–12 at the Chemical Heritage Foundation as a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. 

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