“What smells trigger memory for you?”

My niece Joyous Derner asked the above question on her Facebook page a few days ago. She got lots of responses, which led me to remember a wonderful book:  Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. I read this book soon after it was published in 1990, and it has lingered in the memory like a powerful perfume or a vivid poem.

Just one quote from the book will explain why I remember it: “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once.”

From Facebook: what smells trigger memories for you?

1.      Cigars… I miss my grandpa!

2.      A very familiar stink=the rotten smells of New Orleans after the hurricane

3.      Snickerdoodles – make me think of my Nanny. She died in May of 1988.

4.      Nana and Papa in NJ’s house always smelled like wicker.

5.      Roasted green chiles.

6.      Babies heads – thinking back how little my (quickly) growing kids used to be.

7 .      I opened a box from Grandma Rittenhouse a few days ago. A mix of cigarettes, cleaning products and asian cooking (maybe rice wine).

8.      Moff Balls? Grass … Fresh cut!

9.      The creamy custard & blushing apple candle reminds me of the smell of our hallways where my sister and I played w/ our Barbie dolls. The tobacco aisle smell in Rite Aid, pipe cleaners and reminds me of my dad who used to smoke a pipe.

10.     Leather. Reminds me of my cowgirl days in VT, the first 19 years of my life. How I’d love to be back in my tack room polishing a saddle…

12.      Sometimes I smell my grandmother’s perfume and no one is there. She died 18 years ago.

13.      Coffee aromas always give me the warm fuzzies…I remember going to family Christmas gatherings on my Mother’s side of the family..the house was always filled with the wonderful scents of great food and coffee!…and there were lots of cousins to play with!!

14.      Fun Q’s 🙂 For me…tar that covers asphalt is one of the best smells in the entire world. I know totally crazy. A house I was living in as a small child was on a county road that was being fixed that summer and that smell brings back the memories of that house, summer and wonderful grandma who caring for me then! 🙂

15.      For me the smell of gasoline reminds me of many rides in my Dads truck and snowmobile trips!!

16.      Gasoline – reminds me of going to the garage where my Dad worked while he worked on our car Saturday mornings. Me and my sis would play in the car up in the car lift while Dad worked.

17.      Hyacinths remind me of when the twins had chickenpox – right around Easter one year, so we put those in their room to brighten the mood (and maybe mask the smell of sick babies?). And orange Dial liquid handsoap reminds me of one time as a… child when I woke up in the middle of the night, couldn’t go back to sleep, and decided to go into the play room and color.. I don’t know why the soap reminds me of that, except I must have stopped in the bathroom and washed my hands at some point. I guess these aren’t quite as sentimental or warm and fuzzy as most people’s, but those are the two I thought of 🙂

What about you? What smells unleash memory for you?

Don’t think about it too long, just comment below. Smells are overwhelmingly nostalgic, says Diane Ackerman, because they trigger powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them. Maybe something on this list has stimulated a memory from deep in your past just like Proust’s madeleine brought back his remembrances of things past.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Kathleen on October 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Chocolate chip cookies baking: After school then, myself as a kid, and now, kids and neighborhood friends gathering around the kitchen island as the cookies come hot from the oven.

    • shirleyhs on October 28, 2010 at 1:04 pm

      Kathleen, you demonstrate both the power of melted chocolate chips and the power of positive memories of one childhood leading to the creation of more positive memories for the next. You have created a family tradition. My guess is that it may go on for generations to come. I think I can smell those cookies baking now!

  2. Duane on October 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Well, believe it or not, when I go back to Lancaster country and smell fresh manure on the fields, it beings back good memories of childhood summers on the farm.

    • shirleyhs on October 28, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      Duane, I know that smell well. I noticed in the list above that a number of smells that otherwise would not be called positive were associated with childhood and therefore are held nostalgically in adulthood–manure, gasoline, cigars.

      Perhaps pungency is the key to the association???

  3. gerry on October 27, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    The smell that hits you as you walk into a bakery–sugar cookies, bread–wonderful scents. It reminds me of when my girlfriend and I would walk a mile or more, to some local stores–the bakery was one of the spots we would sometimes visit.

  4. shirleyhs on October 28, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I know. I love this smell also, Gerry. This summer I visited Tom’s Mom’s Cookies in Harbor Springs, MI. The little gingerbread house looked like it popped out of a children’s book. And all the smells of baking in my mother’s kitchen came back. Sounds like your memory involves a girlfriend. That increases the intensity and specificity of the memory.

    Thanks for commenting. Please come back again!

  5. GutsyWriter on October 29, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Poppyseed bagels remind me of my youth in Denmark where we had fresh poppyseed rolls called, “rundsykker” for breakfast on vacation.

    The smell of a third world country, when you get off a plane. A mixture of ash, burning trash, clay soil, food, humidity.

    • shirleyhs on October 29, 2010 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks, Sonia. So great to have both of these. I love poppyseeds in almost anything, even without the lovely name and vacation association.

      And, yes, I recall vividly entering Port au Prince, Haiti, in November and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, on April 1. In both cases we left cold, even snow, behind in Chicago, and were overwhelmed by the crushing humidity and the new smells as we stepped off the plane into our new temporary home.

      When I smell charcoal fires or roasted meat and corn, I still remember those streets. Great example.

  6. doradueck on October 31, 2010 at 2:56 am

    The smell of Jergen’s Lotion (original) evokes memories of a favourite aunt, who died this summer. She was a teacher, a single woman, and to me as a kid, that lotion somehow seemed exotic. I guess we couldn’t afford lotion or something. She was a wonderful and supportive person, just as soft and soothing.

  7. […] who study memory know that the senses, especially the sense of smell, connect us to storage of people, places, things, and events we know we experienced before, but we […]

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