The smellscapes of Lublin

Sniffing out everyday life in interwar Poland. An attempt at narrating the city’s history on the basis of its smells.

Stephanie Weismann

The smell of horse dung and bakeries, of rynsztok (street gutter) and herring marinade were dominant topics in everyday debates in Lublin between the first and second World Wars. Smells are ubiquitous and strongly determine the atmosphere of a given place. In this project, historical smell experiences and smell perceptions are used as a tool for cultural analysis. ‘Nosing around’ the city of Lublin is meant to explore certain olfactory sensitivities that were emerging at that time. With a focus on the Polish interwar period, the project asks which smells have affected the citizens of Lublin, their everyday lives and how these smells have reflected infrastructural, socio-cultural and political conditions and transformations.

The city of Lublin serves as a case study, representing the troubled, yet in many respects ‘ordinary’ history and socio-cultural landscape of a medium-sized city in East Central Europe at the time. The smellscapes of interwar Lublin were shaped by forms of habitation, by sanitary practices, cooking customs, seasonal cycles, by the level of industrialization and, last but not least, by the people inhabiting the city. By asking who smelled and what smelled, the project reflects upon changing notions of hygiene, socio-political struggles as well as interethnic sensitivities. Case studies on selected urban micro-spaces (e.g. courtyard, staircase, neighbourhood) do not only give insight into local smellscapes, but also into the emotions and feelings provoked by these smells.

The project implements approaches from sensory history, everyday life history and historical anthropology to study urban life in interwar Poland, thereby expanding the field of sensory (urban) studies to the social and cultural history of East Central Europe. Sniffing out what was in the air provides insights not only into cultural practices of everyday life, but also into the motions of modernisation and the emotions of nation-building.

In this context, archival sources reveal patterns of social surveillance and civil (dis)obedience and reflect problems of hygiene and living conditions. Discourses in selected newspapers provide useful insight into fears, public concerns and national sensitivities. In addition, personal recollections elucidate moral and cultural ideas and reveal what people think about odours.

How did you benefit from the POLONEZ fellowship?

I applied for a 12-month POLONEZ grant to do in-situ research on my ‘olfactory history’ of Lublin. When working on an urban history, especially with a sensory approach, it is of special relevance to actually live in this city. Being ‘in the field’ for me has rendered multiple possibilities to actually get a sense for the city and to make sense of the city – not only from inside the archive and with a view to its historical sources, but also on the everyday level.

Moving from Vienna to Lublin with the support of POLONEZ was a great possibility as well as a great challenge: as a non-native of Poland without a basic social network and as a single mother of a three-year-old, choosing a medium-sized city has turned out to be an advantage in many ways: smaller local networks for academic as well as non-academic cooperation, being exposed to Polish language on an everyday basis, and the pleasure of communicating scientific findings to an interested local audience via various non-academic activities. My POLONEZ stay in Lublin has allowed me to really get in touch with the city, the subject of my research, it facilitated fruitful exchange with local experts (both academic and non-academic). Furthermore, it has paved the way to broaden my individual academic network, to improve my language (and therefore also cross-cultural) skills and to get acquainted with the facets of Polish histories and mentalities.


Dr Stephanie Weismann studied Comparative Literature, German Philology and Slavic Studies (Russian) at the Universities of Vienna and St. Petersburg. She earned her PhD within the research programme ‘Habsburg Galicia and Its Multicultural Heritage’ at the University of Vienna. After her MSCA POLONEZ Fellowship 2017-2018, she has continued to work on her project as Hertha-Firnberg-Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the Institute for Eastern European History at the University of Vienna. Her research interests are: sensory history, the history of everyday life in East Central Europe and Russia in the 19th and 20th century, the history of emotions, popular culture under Socialism and after.