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

Date: February 7, 2012
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.
Location: Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free

How did a mid-nineteenth-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 will provide 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 situates the fight against smoke as a direct outgrowth of earlier worries about bad odors. The talk will focus on the significant role that 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—will explain 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.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

For more information, click here, call 215.873.8289, or e-mail bbl@chemheritage.org.