The aromas of Jane Austen's England


Smell is taste at a distance, so to speak, and others are forced to share the pleasure of it, whether they want to or not…” Immanuel Kant, 1790.  

There was much more than romance in the air during the Regency Era of novelist Jane Austen. In fact, the English of her time were bombarded with a host of smells, that to our modern-day noses would be considered either very unusual or down-right offensive, according to Dan Macey, a food historian and Chestnut Hill resident. 

Macey, who is on the board of the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley and is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, will be speaking on "Scents and Sensibilities: The Fragrance, Aromas, and Odors of Jane Austen’s Regency World," at the Venetian Club on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, Saturday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. The talk is hosted by the Eastern Pennsylvania Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America and is open to the public. 

“The explosion of smells from a variety of sources both in the city and countryside would be the very first thing that would overwhelm most modern-day time-travelers who ventured back to 1800 England," Macey said.  

Probably the smell that would stand out the most would be the tremendous aroma of horses and horse-related matter, Macey added. “Remember, horses were the primary means of transportation – whether on horseback or pulling a great assortment of carriages. The horse also was used for all sorts of labor activities and was prevalent in both the city and country.” 

Other prominent smells one would encounter in the late 1700s and 1800s were the odors of the business of a burgeoning industrial age: a lack of sanitation and proper sewers and the down-right ripeness of one’s clothes and perfumes to hide poor or less rigorous hygiene practices. 

But there would also be a variety of smells that would be mostly unknown to our modern-day noses. The unique spices and flavors coming from kitchens of the time would include such things as sweet fragrant orange and rose water, which were commonly used to flavor baked and savory dishes, since vanilla was not yet cultivated as a flavoring agent. One culinary smell that would be familiar to us is that of what we now consider “pumpkin spice,” a trifecta of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and sometimes allspice that was used in many Regency Era dishes. 

Macey’s presentation will bring the everyday smells of the time to life, through references to period correspondence, images, sensory experiences and even a tasting. 

The program is free to the public, but registration is required. Please contact Rebekah Ray at if you are interested in attending.