Column, Looking Back

Our connection to aromas

By Mary Ellen Shaw

Once you have lived through several decades you will realize that various aromas have a connection to a certain time period in your life.

One of the earliest aromas that I can remember was the delicious scent of a pot roast that my Aunt Nora cooked for Sunday dinners. Back in the ’50s my father and I would stop in for a weekly visit so he could catch up with his sister. We usually arrived in the late morning and that wonderful aroma greeted us as we went through the back door that took us into her kitchen. Potatoes and carrots were cooking on top of the stove along with the roast. Back in my own home my mother was cooking our family Sunday dinner while my father and I “socialized!” Sunday dinners were a tradition for many families “back in the day.” The leftovers were used in creative ways to provide a meal the following day.

But my olfactory memories are not all related to food. During my teenage years in the ’60s girls were very much into scented bubble baths, body lotions and perfumes. The most popular, and probably the most affordable, were products made by Jean Nate. They had a natural fragrance of citrus and floral. Many teenage girls started with a bubble bath and finished with a splash of lotion. We all smelled like Jean Nate but that was OK as it was the “in thing” to use.

Teen years were also the time to go to Rutland City band concerts and walk around Main Street Park on a Sunday night. So this memory once again reverts back to food. There were aromas in the park that anyone in my age group can recall. One was the smell of popcorn from Charlie Hackett’s stand at the west end of the park. Just a few feet to the east you could find Roxie’s that produced the appetizing aroma of French fries along with the vinegar that people smothered them with. Roxie’s looked like a silver bus and Charlie operated out of a small green wooden building.

In my college years this little old Rutland native was exposed to scents that were popular in the big cities. Trinity College in Burlington was a small school but attracted students from New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut. I quickly found out that Estee Lauder products were the way to go! A group of us who had no classes on the same afternoon often boarded the city bus to go downtown shopping. The Mayfair store carried Estee Lauder products and Youth Dew was a favorite among the college crowd. It came in a blue bottle with a gold cap and looked quite “ritzy” on my dresser!

College boys had their favorites too and English Leather was one of them. Many of us hoped that our dates would be wearing that scent when they picked us up. English Leather had a woodsy scent. Canoe was another popular cologne and after-shave. It seemed a little stronger than English Leather and had a citrusy and slightly floral scent.

Elementary school classrooms had the scent of fresh wood that fell from the pencil sharpener on a classroom wall. As you hand-cranked the device the curly wood shavings emerged.

When teenage acne struck, the first product tried by many was Noxema. It didn’t have a pleasant smell but the young people put up with it if it helped. In case you are not familiar with Noxema it has the aroma of eucalyptus and camphor. It would waft its way into your nostrils as soon as you unscrewed the top of the jar.

Back in the late ‘60s I was teaching and clearly remember the smell that came from the “ditto machine” that transferred ink to paper. Apparently the duplicating fluid was a mix of methanol and isopropanol. It created its own kind of “high” with a smell no teacher or student will ever forget!

I wonder what scents today’s youth will remember as they look back at reminders of this era? Whatever they are, a connection will exist to the time period when they were popular. Looking back at such things always tells us about a way of life that can be remembered only by those who experienced it.

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