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The Big Stink over Odor Maps

The “offensive trades” – we’re not talking about lawyers, real estate moguls or bankers – we’re referring to smelly businesses. Gas works, tanneries, slaughterhouses, and stables that were the backbone of 19th century New York’s economy.

Back then, the microbial sciences didn’t exist. Odors were present and believed to cause all kinds of diseases so the Metropolitan Board of Health began to map where odors emanated from and where they ended up. Can you blame these officials with places named Dead Horse Bay and the Gowanus Canal? Called stench maps or Malodour charts. These schematics showed the migration of airborne stink from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Brave city workers ventured out handkerchiefs in hand noses in the air from the Battery to Coogan’s Bluff sniffing for floating illnesses. The olfactory hunted down the factory. As Manhattan sanitized, Brooklyn industrialized embracing the wayward and unwanted trades of its big brother.

The winds of change blew into the 20th century as Typhoid Mary terrorized New York spreading something equally amorphous – germs. The nose gave way to the microscope but stench maps continue albeit as digital sensory charts, smellcapes, and smell walks. In the decades since the first odor maps were whiffed one constant remains. In its own way, government still smells.

Nosing around the offensive trades of 19th century New York City.

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