The scent of change. Image by Cat Jones 2013.

Having read up on how plants both emit and respond to volatile (olfactory) chemicals * I did a little reading on the social history of the human sense of smell.

What I found is an observation of change over time of our value of the sense of smell that correlates to the increasing distance between plants and the way humans live their lives, despite our reliance on them. **

A timeline summary and the scent of change…


A world lived close to plants where all aspects of the general domestic nature occurred in the outdoors and had a direct relationship with plants. A world and a way of living connected to the spiritual, the instinctual the emotional.


In search of the truth, proven visual truth of science and a rejection of religious/spiritual practices and therefore intuition and emotions. The beginning of social feminisation of the sense of smell along with its relationship to intuition, the emotions, memory and nostalgia.


A decline in domestic and agricultural hands on practices with plants. The beginning of sanitisation and therefore further rejection of the olfactory.Note here: a disempowerment of women’s key role in domestic and agricultural hands on relationship with plants. Rise of visual culture through the dissemination of print medium and the moving image.

War and Post-war

Further rejection of the sentimental, intuition, emotions, and nostalgic aspects of culture in order to overcome enemies and survive.Further leaps in scientific knowledge and increasing focus on decontamination of spaces, humans, agriculture and therefore rejection of olfactory deviations. Leaps ahead in the imaging sciences. The deoderisation of public and personal space and a shift in limitation of perfumery to personal space.

Information Age

Steady incline of the focus on mental and industrial processes and revolution in digital work and information practices. Visual culture continues to innovate – human visual languages further increases in sophistication.

Communication Revolution

Technology revolution now overtaking our social practices (in addition to work/information practices) – a contraction of parameters in the sense of touch.

How has our relationship with plants been affected by our change in focus from the olfactory sense to the visual sense? or perhaps more importantly, plants relationship with us?


* What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, by Daniel Chamovitz

** Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, by Constance Classen and David Howes