Olfactory Cartography

Today, the New York Times published an olfactory map of Manhattan — “Smells of New York City.”

Picture 2

The map (above) is a more ironic version of the olfactory cartographies that first emerged in Victorian London and Second Empire Paris. One of the most interesting of these is Hector Gavin’s “Pestilent Disease Mist of Bethnal Green,” his map of the odors in that struggling area of London from his book Sanitary Ramblings (1848).

In 2005 I viewed an original edition of Gavin’s map (slightly unfurled below) in the majestic Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University. The reddish brown areas illustrate his perception of the odors of feces and undrained sewerage.  It’s an incredible work of documentation, individual curiosity, and olfactory paranoia. It’s also an interesting work of history, as Gavin understood the odors to be products of this particular neighborhood’s past (and this, of course, moves through the New York Times cartography).

Gavin 1848b

Excellent histories of the map, and the history of olfactory cartography include Robin Evans “Rookeries and Model Dwellings” (in Translations from Drawing to Building) and  a terrific book by Erin O’Connor Raw Material. You can also read a bit about the map (with one of the finest reproductions we could find) in the chapter on gas inSubnature: Architecture’s Other Environments.


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