Nancy Carlisle, Senior Curator of Collections at Historic New England, has long studied the subject of kitchens in America.
“We have such an embedded sense of the kitchen as the ‘heart of the home,’” she says. “And yet, it’s not always true. Throughout the 19th century, the kitchen was behind a curtain, a functional workspace that was not acknowledged socially.
“We also know that horrible things happened and still happen in kitchens: often, that is where abuse takes place. During the 19th century, when women began to wear cotton instead of wool and linen, they were often victims of terrible burns. And yet, we are strongly nostalgic about kitchens and associate them with positive things.”
Carlisle believes that is because we associate kitchens with pleasant smells.
“The sense of smell is linked to the amygdala, the area of the brain that governs emotion. When we think of kitchens, we think of nice smells and that triggers an internal pleasure factor.”
Her theory is intriguing; it certainly points to the enormous role that smell plays in our sense of wellbeing.
“Scent goes directly to the emotional center of the brain and drives us,” says Lindsay Kandra, mental health expert at the telemedicine company Hims and Hers. “We know that realtors use good smells to create positive connotations when clients tour properties. On the other side, cancer survivors often find that the smell of a hospital creates anxiety.”
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She suggests that scent is the important but invisible element that can be used in the home and office to reinforce positive practice.
“For example, I find the smell of mint to be energizing and to help me focus, so I use it to help me concentrate when working. If you are at home with lots of anxiety, use scent to help you relax. Lavender has been proven to have anti-anxiety effects. But first, make sure that you are not allergic.”
Few companies know more about the positive properties of scent than diptyque, the French company that, for 60 years, has been a market leader in the field of home fragrances. Yet, the company began in 1961 Paris as a home textiles and wallpaper retailer.
“The store’s founders wanted to create a space that would be a cabinet of curiosities, with music playing, beautiful objects from around the world, and an atmosphere of mystery and luxury,” says Eduardo Valadez, diptyque Director of Marketing.
“In 1963 we launched the first scented candle and became one of the first brands to use scent to create ambiance. diptyque pioneered the idea of scenting the home, and today we create candles, diffusers, electric scent diffusers, room sprays and personal scents like eau de toilette.”
Preferences for scents vary by geography, season and personal history, he says.
“Scent is such a personal thing. It all has to do with past experience, because smell has a direct link to memory.”
Vanilla is the first scent we all recognize, he says, because it is in breast milk.
He stresses the importance of clean, best-quality ingredients. Lindsay Kandra agrees.
“Be concerned with the chemicals used in many candles; they will not be a good addition to the air in your home.”
She and Valadez also point to the fact that human are extremely sensitive to scents of all kinds, and to proceed with caution.
“Just think of how unpleasant it is to be in an elevator with someone who put on too much aftershave or cologne. Start small, introducing variety with care.”
In 2021, Valadez says, we want to feel comforted.
“We may be drawn towards fresh, clean citrus fragrances, or we may reach for perennial favorites, like Baies, which is a combination of black currant and Bulgarian rose.”
Lindsay Kandra agrees with Nancy Carlisle about kitchens.
“The smells of tea, coffee and cooking can be used to create positive associations and to create your own new memories,” she says.
But no matter what we learn about how our brains work, Carlisle believes that our positive kitchen associations will remain.
“It’s a deeply embedded fantasy.”