I’ve long tried—and, you might say, failed and pretty much given up—to fill a gap in the construction of our cultural histories, most of which are entirely too preoccupied with images and their interpretation. Western culture may privilege vision over any other sense—but if you think that the past will unfold before your eyes simply by looking at graphics, photos or printed records, you’ve been led by the ear you aren’t using. It’s no use being so eye-minded as to forget all about lowbrow radio programming, for instance. After all, sound-only broadcasting had a greater influence on most folks living in the middle of the 20th-century than the press or motion pictures—certainly a greater influence than most scholars are prepared to acknowledge. Radio comforted and counseled, intimated and importuned. It brought the world home and played on our minds like no competing medium could.
Crooning, cajoling, and commanding attention, whatever talent stood at the microphone became part of a soundtrack to the everyday of millions of dial-twisters who took in or were taken in by the big bands and banter, by sermons, sportscasts, and soap operas. Radio sold products as well as ideas and ideologies. It excelled in telling stories, be they fictive, factual or false; and, if you let it, it keeps on telling them or telling you about them . . .
While I have long suspected the picture to be incomplete if we insist on looking at the past as a sequence of images, I never seriously considered that, aside from sound, there is a story, too, in the way we smelled. And yet, in my old hometown of Cologne, Germany, alone—the burg that gave us the word for all our attempts at olfactory cover-up—the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once ‘counted two and seventy stenches.’
There would have been no soap—and no soap operas—if we didn’t have trepidations about not being quite fresh, anxieties that were over-ripe for commercial exploitation. In the US, tuners-in of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s were constantly being alerted to the dangers of B-O, reminded to ‘Lux’ their ‘dainties,’ and told to gargle before putting their kissers to the test. Lest they could endure facing guilt by omission, listeners lathered up with products like White King toilet soap, the box tops of which they collected and sent in to broadcasters as ocular proof of their hygienic diligence, for which cumulative evidence they were duly awarded various prizes (or premiums).
For all the restrictions faced by press and broadcasting, advertising some sixty, seventy years ago, was certainly more in your (presumably unwashed) face than it is now. It sounds as if listeners-in back then were in far greater need of Lysol and Listerine. Could it be that our forebears required more frequent scrubbing because they were more likely to labor manually without having access to as much running water, cold and hot, than our more sedentary selves take for granted today? If so, did they really need to be reminded of their particular emanations?
Advertisers did not rest until the natural acquired the whiff of the common. The airwaves, though they were not permitted to be polluted by sounds suggesting most of the bodily functions to which we give vent in private, certainly were awash with voices alerting us of the social consequences of reeking to high heaven.
However fleeting, sound has not been an instant bygone ever since we succeeded in preserving it some 135 years ago. Granted, such records do not tell us the whole story of how people talked and what they had to say; but whatever we bottle as fragrance is even more likely to throw us off the scent in our quest for the real, something that complicates our efforts whenever we feel inclined to stick our nose into the past.
The irony that I am using a print ad to illustrate my point has not eluded me. It is an ad, no less, from a magazine catering to the radio listeners, consumers who were often told, as they waited for the advent of long-promised television, that only sight could complete the picture. It is a myth in which even radio broadcasters were complicit. Sure, the picture of the past is always incomplete; it is as much a composite as it is a construct. Still, I prefer to keep augmenting my impressions of those yesterdays by lending an ear to the ticking of our clocks. If we keep on looking, and look on only, we might well be missing what is right under our noses . . .