March 3, 1977
by Elton E. Shell
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
BIOGRAPHY OF THE AUTHOR
Elton E. Shell, author of B.O., has written the paper primarily for entertainment, but also as an introduction to a "taboo" subject.
Mr. Shell holds the following degrees:
A.B., University of Redlands
M. Div., San Francisco Theological Seminary
M.A., University of Denver
M.L.S., Rutgers University
He served as a librarian in three different graduate schools until 1964 when he accepted the position of Head Librarian for San Bernardino Valley CollegeO
Mr. Shell has held offices and served on committees for the California Library Association and for many years he was on the Advisory Council to the California State Library, Sacramento.
B.O. is first of all the author's recall of the many pleasant scents and smells encountered in his early years in the rural farm area of Rumsey, Yolo County, California, in the 1920's and 30's. He does this to introduce and contrast memories of pleasant smells with those few smells that he found objectionable, especially B.O. He then proceeds to examine the phenomenon of human odors in order to try to determine if his early revulsion is still justifiable.
The author focuses on two body hot spots, the armpits and the genital area, the two places that contribute most to B.O. He uses as his main source a book titled, BODY HOT SPOTS, THE ANATOMY OF HUMAN SOCIAL ORGANS AND BEHAVIOR, cited in the manuscript, and included in the list of sources
He concludes by pointing out that "for better or worse, we are an animal with biological heritages that are a part of our lives, and we cannot comfortably deny them." He adds, "The next time you squirt your armpits with deodorant perhaps you will reflect for a moment." B.O., in fact, does involve a little more than most people think."
Now that I've lived more than a half century, I find it enjoyable and satisfying to take time out, upon occasion, to think back over the years and to try to remember some of the experiences that pleased me the most and gave me some wonderful memories. This paper provided me with such an opportunity. It all began about a year ago during a bad siege of smog when I suddenly realized that one of the great joys of my youth had been an exposure to a tremendous variety of wonderful smells, none of which had ever been diluted by smog. A number of these came to mind quickly and easily and I began to catalog them in my memory to help me through a miserable attack of smog when all I could smell was the acrid, pungent smell of polluted air.
It was not long until I also realized that I could recall (but not so vividly) a number of unpleasant smells, many of them related to animal waste or body odors in some way. I began to wonder why this was so and if it was due to my early childhood conditioning or was the aversion universally true for all humans?
This paper will first list my catalog of pleasant and memorable smells--partly to indulge in a bit of nostalgia, and partly to contrast such with those that I found objectionable in my youth, and to a certain extent still do. I will then proceed to examine the phenomenon of human smells or B.O., to try to determine if my re w lsion to B.O. (and possibly yours) is justifiable.
The smells I am about to list were associated exclusively with northern California, especially at Rumsey, Yolo County and a few from the summers I worked harvesting peaches in Sutter County, California.
As I proceed to list my catalog of pleasant smells, please make a mental note, if your background included such, and during the discussion period let me know if you share a similar memory from some other geographical section of the state or nation
My favorite group of smells had to do with the outdoors. Dad had quite a few acres planted in alfalfa. I shall never forget the cool smells that the summer breezes carried out across the alfalfa fields, and especially the smell of the new mown alfalfa hay as it lay curing in the fields. There was also a characteristically good smell, mid-summer, when the pasture grass was brown and closely cropped by the livestock, when temperatures reached between 90° and 100° and you could see the heat waves rising off the landscape. Then there was a fine running stream (a river, although its official name was Cache Creek) on one side of our property where a daily swim was never missed, complete with a pleasant and distinctive "creek" smell, never-to-be-forgotten, together with the smell of tamarisk and willows along the banks, tules nearby, etc.
There was also an irrigation ditch not far away, where on the banks wild lilac grew, with exquisite fragant blossoms enjoyed by a myriad of Monarch and Mourning Cloak butterflies--a smell that was slightly aphrodisiac to me as well as to the butterflies. Another aphrodisiac-type smell was emitted by the carob tree at different times of the year, which I originally mistook for a commercial fertilizer smell, until I came to the realization it really reminded me of the rather pleasant and unique smell of fresh semen.
One of my happiest associations of smell had to do with the lone freight and passenger train that came on a branch line to our rural town of Rumsey, daily. I often slipped away from school during the noon recess to admire the beautiful iron horse with all of her attendant smells while she waited patiently for the return trip to Elmira, California, near Vacaville. The single passenger car with plush seats also had an inviting smell and the conductor and train crew never bothered to chase me out until time for the train to pull out. How I hate myself now that I didn't use my pennies to ride that beautiful mixed-train-daily, during the early 1930's when the fare dipped to a penny-a-mile.
Then there were some smells associated with making liquor that I shall never forget--partly because of the drama connected with the blowing up of a large still in 1926, at Guinda, California, five miles from Rumsey. I was five years old and my mother and a large group of WCTU ladies took me to first tour the plant and then stand off in a nearby orchard while the Yolo County, State,and Federal officers blew it sky high and thousands of gallons of liquor in various stages of processing or aging poured out across the orchard, unexpectedly heading our way and to the river, almost drowning the good ladies and children (including me) in an incredible sea of liquors The smells were not bad at all and since-then I have enjoyed the smell of brewer's yeast, molasses, and certain liquorsO After that experience I could never keep a straight face when singing, "Shall we gather at the River...," for our river never ran more loaded than on that fateful day in 1926.
Just to think, only six years later and it could have been a legal business, possibly providing enough freight on that branch rail line to have kept the trains running all through the depression!
Each season stands out in my mind for certain outstanding smells. I cannot forget the lovely fall seasons with a bit of smoke in the air from burning leaves or the burning of the rice fields over at Woodland. This signalled the beginning of school and that meant the exhilarating smell of new shoes or a visit to a leather shop which had an almost catnip effect on me.
The crisp fall air and the first frosts. Then the forerunner of a rain, the smell of rain in the air, especially along the macadam paved road which I often rode over on my bicycle. Whenever there were low clouds and mist, the odors were even more pungent. A walk along a trail through the woods during a light rain was always a special treat due to the wonderful array of fresh smells emanating from that particular environment.
Winter brought out the smells of the woods, the pine scents, the wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, an occasional whiff of a coal-burning appliance, and in February, the almond blossoms. Orchard after orchard of almond blossoms throughout Capay Valley in Yolo County were really responsible for some marvellous scents--a most exquisite perfume, more delicate than the scent of orange blossoms.
Spring brought a whole new inventory of smells, including orange blossoms. Many of the flowers of April were my favorites for lovely scents. The fragant white blossoms of the common locust trees were wonderful and filled the surrounding air with a marvellous perfume.But there was also the glorious smell of newly ploughed earth (mostly done by a team of horses with Dad walking behind the plough and close behind him, our family dog) and best of all the smell of a lazy spring day with the warm sunshine on the grass and weeds that Dad feverishly attempted to plow under to replenish the nitrogen and humus. There was also something aphrodisiac about a lazy spring day, which of course at the time I attributed to the influence of the devil--having been properly schooled in the appropriate non-sexual behavior for a teenager.
Then came summer--sensuous smells, really--that delightful time when even the dust kicked up by the team of horses smelled good. The woods smelled different too. The strong smell of California Laurel or Bay permeated the trails where I hiked. The peach orchards at Rio Oso, between the levees of Bear River and Yankee Slough, gave off a delightful peachy scent just before, and all during harvest time. I would be asleep in the open Model T Ford and I could tell when we had descended the levee of Yankee slough and were surrounded by peach orchards, without ever opening my eyes. Then there was an occasional visit to the ocean beaches and the smell of the salt air and the ocean itself.
Fortunately, there was no season on indoor smells except for Christmas and Thanksgiving,They were an especial delight. But, any big dinner was responsible for numerous delightful smells. Breads and pastries baking were responsible for their share, but so were almonds roasting, freshly opened or freshly ground coffee, and of course coffee brewing. To say nothing of roasts in the old wood-burning oven or venison steaks or pork chops simmering over the fire O Speaking of venison, Dad always preserved much of the fresh venison by making jerky. This process accounted for some good smells too, especially the seasonings. I tried to recall if I had any pleasant associations with animal smells. For example, some people appear to enjoy the smell of horses that lingers on their clothing after a ride--but I-could bring back no such association. My memory was full of the unpleasant smells of horse sweat on well-worn and well-seasoned leather harness, or saddle, and blanket, or barnyard manure, especially on Dad's shoes when as he so often did, came into the house directly from the barn yard without wiping his feet.
Carcasses of dead animals, domestic or wild and dead fish were almost more than I could bear. The smell of human feces was particularly horrible and each visit to the outhouse was an ordeal for me. I marvelled at the sudden disappearance of my lifetime of constipation after I arrived at the University of Redlands and had access to flush toilets! Of course, constipation had meant enemas, and plenty of them, and I can recall almost fainting from holding my breath while attempting to void my bowels after each enema, so sternly administered by my mother who had had training in "practical nursing" at the King's Daughter's Home in the Bay Area.
There was only one smell that I encountered as a youth that literally made me ills I do not know the explanation, except that it was obviously some kind of an allergic reaction. This culprit was the common apricot and I finally traced my nausea to inhaling (over a period of time) the smell (fumes) from apricots cut in half and pitted and placed on a wooden tray for the drying yards. It was not a bad smell, but it became such for me. When I began to associate cutting apricots with nausea, I eliminated the problem by changing jobs.
In my recent day-dreaming and remembering smells, I asked myself if I could recall any pleasant or unpleasant associations with body odors. I could only recall two pleasant ones and no unpleasant ones. The first was that of a soap that I used faithfully as a teenager as it was supposed to clear up pimples. This was Woodbury Soap and it had a rather pleasant smell that I can still recall. Since we had no indoor plumbing, the daily swim in the creek included a liberal soaping, and the scent of the perfumed soap on the body and in the armpits was quite nice. This is not a commercial for Woodbury Soap! Actually, I do not believe that it is still being manufactured, or if it is, it probably does not include the perfume of the 1930's.
The other pleasant smell was that of my own body when my sweat glands poured out copious amounts over my shiftless torso during the strenous work of digging ditches, climbing ladders and picking fruit, etc. Profuse sweating was not objectionable to me unless I was wearing a shirt, which seemed to pick up an undesirable odor rather quickly.
I think my first sensitization to body odors came from a neighbor, Mr. Forrest . I have no idea why he said what he did, but one early morning he came into the house before my brother and I had left to catch the school bus, and he said to us, "You oughta get out there long enough to blow the stink off before the bus comes!" We often laughed at that and speculated that getting out into the open air must have been his way of controlling his body odors.
All of the above were experienced before I outgrew my teenage years. And now after many more years, I can only think of one additional good smell that I can add--that was the smell of the floor covering in the U of R's Hall of Letters. The smell is gone now but for many years, it brought back many wonderful memories of the U of R and the classes I attended in that building.
But, I have had to add five additional unpleasant ones! The first was the body odor of a woman librarian at USC during the early 1950's. At the age of 30, I had thus far escaped unpleasant body odors. But I have since been exposed to one or two others--with objectionable B.O., but it is very rare, thanks to the perfume and cosmetic industry. The second was what I encountered when coming into closed areas where smoking had been allowed or was taking place--especially bad were Motel rooms and club or lounge cars on trains.
The third was the discovery that some strong perfumes used by women were really objectionable to me, and some caused me to sneeze violently. The fourth is the smell of marijuana being smoked, the most recent addition to my catalog of smells I do not enjoy. And, the fifth is the smell that I began with, namely acrid smog, especially that, that collects in a building such as the corridor of the administration building of San Bernardino Valley College or my earlier encounter with it, in the huge reading room of USC's Doheny Library where it showed up as a blu~ish haze.
But, what about B.O? The first thing that comes to mind is the odor associated with armpits. Armpits have come to carry the meaning of something gross and in the political and economic area we now hear mention of the armpit cities or the armpit area of our lands But did you know that armpit smells can be a sexual lure as well as a defensive device? There are two types of sweat glands there, in addition to the usual ones found elsewhere on the body, There is a type activated at puberty that secretes a mucous substance that is eaten by bacteria--their digestive by-products producing the smell. This type is attuned to mood. In situation of high stress this type, the apocrines, spew profusely giving us a built-in defense mechanism. Or at times of low stress producing a mild scent that is supposed to be a sexual lure. Now the armpit is a strategic area in which to locate a scent gland. The more the movement of the arms, the more the scent is disbursed. Likewise, genital area hair is also located in a strategic position to be disturbed by movement. -Armpit and genital hair is used to incubate odors and, of course, the hair is rubbed together with every movement disseminating the body scent to the surrounding air.
This may well be the reason why shaving of the armpit hair is questioned in the book, THE JOY OF SEX! There it is called "ignorant vandalism.''] It claims that a woman's little tufts are antennae and powderpuffs to introduce herself in a room, or in lovemaking. "They are there to brush the man's lips with; he can do the same more circum-spectly. Kissing deeply in the armpit leaves a partner's perfume with you."
Before the advent of underarm deodorants, perhaps there was indeed differences in the way people of different races smelled. R. Dale Guthrie, in his book, BODY HOT SPOTS 3 says, "There are considerable racial variations, as well as cultural attitudes concerning the quantity and quality of odor productivity among human beings. Orientals in general have poorly developed scent glands, which are large and varied in Caucasoids and Negroids." 4
Skin, with all of the accompanying sweat and scent glands is our chief extragenital sexual organ--grossly underrated by most men, who tend to concentrate on the penis and clitoris; better understood by women. "The smell and feel of a man's skin probably has more to do with sexual attraction (or the opposite) than any other single feature, even though you may not be conscious of it." 5
Babies certainly are aware of the odor of their mother's skin and my guess is that if a suckling child was blindfolded and placed in a circle of nursing mothers, it could distinguish its own~mother very readily by her distinctive odor and immediately crawl to her.
Rising of the male genitals is a universal mammalian caress (so much for it being unnatural) and the male probably has an odor pheromone to turn on the female. 6
Actually, 'the clean genital odor of both sexes is a built-in stimulus." If it is distasteful, something is wrong." 7
As to the smell of urine or feces of humans, it is interesting to learn there is knowledge about excrement communication among animals, except humans have lost the apparatus and the need for such communication. But unlike birds, early mammals saw the world through their noses. Comfort was the smell of home--the smells of good food and of a familiar path or social settings Discomfort was the smell of a stranger or of a strange place. A person's smell told others something and their smells told him something about them--perhaps their age, sex, where they came from, etc. We have lost the special musk gland that we may have had at one time near the anus to anoint our fecal matter with our odor. We no longer scent our feces or urine with special glands but we still react to the smell of rancid urea and the bacterial products of feces with an unreasoning nausea. A fart is almost as disgusting as our feces, yet these bowel gases contain no harmful pathogens. I should add that urine is usually sterile of pathogens--more so than most spring waters, so the idea that we have evolved our repugnance of elimination products for reasons of sanitation doesn't hold up entirely.
It would appear that when tension causes us to urinate more frequently, this may be nature's way of preparing us with an adequate supply to mark our territory, just like a dog when he smells new odors. In situations where we are blatantly in another's area (smelly hospital), it is difficult to urinate because marking foreign turf goes against our ancestral grain.
Humans still have glands in the prepuce and vulva areas, though they have long ceased to fulfill any urine-marking function. They do add to the smells of the body, and if not cleansed properly become potent aromatic centers. The foreskin of the uncircumsized penis could be thought of as a gland itself; the bacterial activity on the secretions is so extreme as to generate a white, cottage-cheese-like by-product. Circumcision then, could be thought of as a glandular amputation.
As conservationists we decry the horrible waste of water, yet spend hundreds of gallons a week flushing our excrement, keeping clean, and washing and rewashing the body scents from our clothes. We fear that dirty clothes and dirty bodies are common indicators of social dirtiness. The establishment's attitudes toward those who do not participate in this social ritual are particularly hostile, even more than toward uncropped hair or profuse ornamentation. Our social values about smells is really something.
Guthrie makes a good case for trying to understand our organic selves. Smelly underarm odors begin to take on meaning beyond the immediate condition; this can connect us with ancestors who used such odors with the pride of newly-gained identity This may be likened to wearing a badge of ancestral social strategy--"Like an organic coat-of-arms from a distant family tree tatooed into one's soul and skin. Such a badge gives us a deeper tradition of kinship than any of us can trace by oral and written genealogies."8 For better or worse, we are an animal with biological heritages that are a part of our lives, and we cannot comfortably deny them.
Guthrie goes on to say, "The entangling of sex and status produces various blends of sexual taboos. Irrational rejection of urine and genitalia speaks of a tradition of genital and urine signals millions of years old and almost as broad as all mammaldom." 9
We are all deeply involved in the organics of life; the smells we love and cherish and also the smells we find loathsome. Research is going on in this field in a number of places. One such place is UCLA, where Dr. Orville Chapman, a professor of chemistry, is now studying odor perception. His research has demonstrated that species communicate with each other via pheromones--hormonal substances secreted by an individual and stimulating a physiological or behavioral response from an individual of the same species. For insects, pheromones not only constitute an odor language, but it is their best way of obtaining information about the outside world.
Dr. Chapman points out that " . . . odor perception is operating all the time at a subconscious level, evoking an emotional reaction rather than an idea as sight does.''l0 He explains it this way:
The olfatory nerve is connected with the most primitive part of the brain; the message it sends--unlike a visual signal--is not filtered through the intellect. Communication from a skunk, for instance, is direct and persuasive. It's not something to mull over.
Think of new-mown hay, and sight-smell and touch memory are all experienced at once. 11
Charity Hopkins, writing for PARADE, reports on Chapman's work as follows:
Deja vue, the sudden feeling of familiarity in an unfamiliar place, Chapman believes, is the result of an unperceived odor evoking an old memory. If this is so, psychiatrists could capitalize on it by using odors to unlock a patient's blocked memories. In addition, an odor which suggested peace and security might be used to relieve anxiety. The odor of breast milk, the first smell associated with falling asleep, might develop into a replacement for sleeping pills.
Among most animals a certain pheromone in a particular strength must be present before mating can take place. The implications of this in human terms are sensational. Channel No. 5, with a drop of human aphrodisiac pheromone, would assure the continuation of the human species.
It's certain that humans are attracted to each other, even now, for unexplained reasons, some just sensedO Personal odor, perceived subconsciously, may generate a special emotional whammo. It is known that perspiration from physical exertion is inoffensive and probably has an aphrodisiac effect. Perspiration produced by tension, however, is always immediately offensive.
Link with immune system
"There's something here no one understands," Dr. Chapman says cautiously, " and I have some reservations about understanding it."
Within the body, Chapman believes, the immune system communicates by chemicals shaped like the pheromones of odor language. Small fat molecules--lipids--control the function of certain organs and systemsO The ratio of these lipids may be each person's chemical fingerprints--his identity--or the balance that his immune system seeks to maintain. When a foreign substance upsets this characteristic balance, the immune system gathers to fight it, often, scientists believe, destroying early tumors before they are medically recognizable.
What attracts the immune system to the tumor and what turns the tide, causing the body to accept and allow a tumor to grow to lethal proportions, is something Chapman wants to investigate. He believes it's the lipids shaped like and structurally related to the pheromones of odor language.
From memories of fresh hay to the body's immunity, it's as plain as the nose on your face that odors play a subtle and important part in our lives. Just how important, scientists like Dr. Chapman are only beginning to recognize. Those volatile lipids, those pheromones, may manipulate us in any number of ways--frO2m curing cancer to explaining that funny thing called love. 12
Thus, it has been my pleasure to have made you aware of some smells I encountered in the formative years of my life, plus a few I added to my inventory later. But my main objective was to introduce you to B.O. and its fascinating evolutionary history. It's quite possible that B.O. may involve a lot more than you thought it did. And to those members who were apprehensive about the title of this paper, may I add, "I hope this has given you some "scents" in the matter." Thank you.
1. Comfort, Alex. ed. THE JOY OF SEX. N.Y., Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972. 255 pp.
2. Ibid., p. 112.
3. Guthrie, R. Dale, BODY HOT SPOTS, THE ANATOMY OF HUMAN SOCIAL ORGAN AND BEHAVIOR. N.Y., Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1976, 240 pp.
4. Ibid , p 44-45.
5. Comfort, Alex, op. cit., pp. 150-151.
6. Comfort, Alex. MORE JOY, A LOVEMAKING COMPANION TO THE JOY OF SEX. N.Y., Crown Publishers, Inc., 1973, p. 116.
7. Ibid, p. 120
8. Guthrie, op. cit., p. 211
9. Ibid., p. 213.
10. Hopkins, Charity, "Your Nose Knows More Than You Know," PARADE,
January 2, 1977. p. 10.
11. Loc. cit.
12. Loc cit.