Smells like Teen Spirit
June 30, 2009 4:44 PM   Subscribe

How/when did floral, citrus, pine, and mint become associated with cleanliness?
posted by asockpuppet to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that these fragrances are meant to refer back to a time when homes were freshened and made beautiful with fresh flowers, and home-brewed cleansers were made from backyard mints/herbs and lemon. A new, simple home would have lots of beeswax-rubbed wood floors and trim (and so that new wood smell had nice associations), and pine tar was used for simple repairs. You can often find ads in 50s-70s ephemera that encourage homemakers to purchase a cleanser to make 'your home smell/sparkle like grandmothers, without the work.' It's interesting, too, how many natural cleaning companies are re-discovering that many of these original, free cleaners like citrus, pine tar extractives, and mints truly are excellent cleansers vs. their detergent+perfume copy cats.
posted by rumposinc at 5:04 PM on June 30, 2009

From Lysol's wiki page:

"The original formulation of Lysol contained cresols (here defined as having "an odor characteristic to that of other simple phenols, reminiscent to some of a "medicine" smell.")...

"In 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic, Lehn & Fink, Inc. advertised Lysol disinfectant as an effective countermeasure to the influenza virus. Newspaper ads provided tips for preventing the spread of the disease, including washing sick-rooms and everything that came in contact with patients with Lysol."

Not directly pertinent to your question, but an interesting link between scent and the clean sick-room.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:06 PM on June 30, 2009

All these scents/essences are used in a lot of herbal skin care for various purposes and natural cleaning supplies. Some people think they have healing/antibac properties.
posted by ShadePlant at 5:08 PM on June 30, 2009

Interesting (at least to me) personal anecdote--my grandmother, who was very much an "old-fashioned" housekeeper, planted mint as a ground cover in a perimeter around the house so that in warm months, when the house was open and the mint growing, it would naturally perfume the house--she said that many of her peers an family did the same (grow something fragrant and hardy around the house), as did her mom.
posted by rumposinc at 5:11 PM on June 30, 2009

All those essential oils - pine, lavender, orange - have antiseptic properties and solvent properties so they're good for cleaning grease, etc. Pine-sol dates to 1929 but the extraction of pine tar and turpentine goes back centuries in ship-building.

orange oil is a byproduct of the juice industry and I think it's recent popularity must stem from some sort of process improvement in the extraction of it or the general increase in OJ consumption.

Lavender oil's use as an antiseptic and in aromatherapy dates back to the Roman times.
posted by GuyZero at 5:17 PM on June 30, 2009

Also, they all smell strong and mask the scent of stinky cleaners (bleach, ammonia) or plain old stinky stuff like garbage or body odour.
posted by GuyZero at 5:17 PM on June 30, 2009

I'm sure it has something to do with all of those things having pretty strong scents, too - good at masking the odors of a musty or dirty area.

A stronger version of potpourri was worn around the neck of people exposed to the black death, and plague doctors wore a creepy creepy mask in which the beak "was often filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasmas or 'bad air' which was also thought to carry the plague. At the very least, it may have served a dual purpose of dulling the smell of unburied corpses, sputum, and ruptured bouboules in plague victims."
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:19 PM on June 30, 2009

These fragrances have been associated with cleanliness for hundreds, in some cases thousands of years.

For each example I think you can find compelling narratives stretching back to ancient times where these smells were associated with life. Good-smelling stuff was highly prized in ancient Egypt, for example, where the embalming process sought out anything that masked decay-smells, etc.

A corollary would be salt. It's white (few things in nature are), it's a preservative (repelling decay), and it taste good. Is it any wonder then that salt came to be thought of as repelling evil and decay? When you spill some, you throw it over your left shoulder to repel bad luck and evil (which was thought to approach from the left, seeing as how most humans are right-handed...)

In other words, these things came to be preferred through a variety of anecdotal experiences.
posted by wfrgms at 5:23 PM on June 30, 2009

Also, I can't find it again, but I remember reading a really interesting article about disgust studies a while back that explained why the color blue is so frequently associated with cleanliness (cleaning products, hospitals, etc.).
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:23 PM on June 30, 2009

Also, there are cultural differences. Apparently lavender is much more popular in the UK than Australia, we go more for citrus scents in our cleaners. lavender is more associated with old ladies. or something like that.
posted by wilful at 5:35 PM on June 30, 2009

GuyZero has it right. They are all:

- Pleasant smelling
- Antiseptic (generally)
- Solvent

I'm not sure that orange oil has much to do with the orange industry not knowing what to do with their rinds though. I used to work at Frank's Nursery before they went under, and we used orange oil and another "green" cleaner I can't quite think of the name right now. Those worked SO much better than the abrasive chemical cleaners, and kept the finishes on things better.

It is also common knowledge among chefs that you can essentially sanitize your cutting boards/wooden kitchen islands by sprinkling kosher salt on them and rubbing them down well with lemon halves.
posted by akephalos at 8:15 PM on June 30, 2009

Orange oil as a cleaner wasn't very common when I was a kid, though I don't have any hard data. It seems to have become much more popular in the last few years. Relative to pine oil or lavender there are more competing uses for oranges in general and orange oil (as a food additive). Also, lemonene (a compound in lemon and orange oil) is a skin irritant which makes it more difficult to formulate into a safe cleaner.
posted by GuyZero at 8:23 PM on June 30, 2009

I wouldn't recommend lavender as a CLEANSER. Its appeal is more fragrant.
Insofar as I can tell, lemon and orange oil is no more of an irritant than squeezing an orange/lemon peel on the forearm would be.
posted by akephalos at 9:34 PM on June 30, 2009

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