Eau de Cologne as a Haunting Matter

As Elizabeth Ettore writes in Autoethnography as Feminist Method, autoethnography means that the author reflects deeply on her actions and describes a ‘plausible journey of transition from “who I was to who I am”‘ (2017: 3). While my current research on the Olfactories of Hygiene is an ongoing journey, I indeed started noticing a kind of sensual re-attunment when it comes to Eau de Cologne. Upon embarking on this project, I readily associated Eau de Cologne, in particular the most classic one, 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser (Original Eau de Cologne, in German), with the older working-class relatives of my adopted mother, especially with Elli, her mother. As I grew up, Elli and her husband Fritz, a gardener, lived in a terraced house in a working-class district of Cologne, an industrial German city on the Rhine. Fritz passed away when I was six years old, but his presence lingered on in the large garden’s fragrant herbs and fruit trees as well as in the winter garden on the back of the house, which was filled with orchids and other flowering plants. In contrast, the house itself had an air of cool austerity to it which I readily associated with Elli.

The author and Elli in her house in 1977.

Elli extensively used 4711 and I suspect that she used it not only on her body and embroidered handkerchiefs to refresh herself, but also mixed it with vinegar to mop the stone floor of the house, which she did at least once a day. The slightly pungent scent of 4711, as ephemeral as it was (and still is), accompanied her as she moved in with us after selling the house. It travelled with us on our way south during summer holidays, with her sitting next to me in the back of the car. Later, when my mom could no longer take care of her, it permeated the room of the nursing home where she spent the last year of her life. This was in the late eighties/early nineties and by then, 4711 had long gone out of style. When in June 2020 I interviewed my uncle, born in 1942, about the role of smell and scents in his life, he noted that when he was young, 4711 was already considered something that only the elderly would use.

Nevertheless, it is still being produced and lately has seen increasing demand, especially in the form of wipes. In April 2020, after I had taken an interest in Eau de Cologne, which was now used as a hand sanitizer in Turkey, I discovered bottles of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser at the bottom of a shelf in my local drug store. As I took up the blue and golden flacon and sprayed it on my hands, I sensed Elli’s presence almost three decades after she died: Elli mopping the floor in her apron dress with a flower design; Elli holding her scented handkerchief to her nose as we pass by freshly manured fields in the car; Elli sprinkling her temples with 4711 for relief from anxiety or headaches. The scent of a particular part of my childhood had been sitting on that shelf all along and I never noticed!

In Ghostly Matters, Avery F. Gordon writes of mediations that are of a haunting presence. Eau de Cologne and 4711 in particular, I realized, was such a mediating or haunting matter for me, defined by Gordon as a force or structure that ‘appear[s] removed from us [but] make[s] [its] impact felt in everyday life in a way that confounds our analytic separations and confounds the social separations themselves.’ (2008: 19) Scents and odors are paradigmatic haunting matters in that they may evoke memories one was no longer aware of. In the literature, this has been called “The Proust Effect” (Van Campen 2014), referring to an episode described in Proust’s Remembrance of Time Past, where a cake dipped in tea suddenly evokes a strongly affective childhood memory. The olfactory trigger is transported from the olfactory bulb straight to the limbic system of our brain, which is responsible for emotional processing and long-term memory. The sense of olfaction is the only sense linked directly to the limbic system. (Stoddart 1991)

4711 ad alluding to the disinfecting effects of alcohol and essential oils in front of the 4711 House in Cologne

A few days ago, I took my daughter to visit my hometown Cologne where Eau de Cologne –literally, the water of Cologne– has been traded since the late 17th century, with northern Italian tradesmen from Santa Maria Maggiore, especially Giovanni Paolo (de) Feminis and Giovanni Maria Farina, playing a major role (Rosenbohm 1951). Farina created a fragrance that reminded him of a spring morning in Italy, it is claimed, which he obviously missed while making a name for himself in Cologne. As I entered the 4711 flagship store, rebuilt after the war in Cologne’s almost completely demolished inner city, the scent of 4711 enveloped me once again. It emanated from a large fountain in the middle of the room, a reminiscence of the fact that Eau de Cologne, also called aqua mirabilis, miracle water, used to be consumed not just externally, but also internally (like the Plague Waters, which –some claim– have survived in the form of Eau de Cologne).

Sitting in the newly refurbished exhibition hall on the first floor of the building and talking to a fragrance developer of Mäurer & Wirtz, the manufacturer that acquired the 4711 brand in 2006, the pervasive scent of 4711 slowly lost its awe. The fragrance developer told me about the challenge to compose a contemporary 4711 remix series from its seven basic ingredients –bergamot, lemon, orange, neroli, petitgrain, lavender and rosmarin. Her love of the resulting product and indeed, its refreshing and cleansing feel came as a revelation. Like other visitors and employees that I talked to, the fragrance developer was well aware of the common stereotypes and affective aversions triggered by 4711, especially by those born in Germany before the 1980s. The French tour guide who guided us through the exhibition alongside a group of visitors told the story of a four-year-old who never smelled 4711 but when asked about it responded ‘it stinks’. My daughter turns out to be less indoctrinated and happily collects the tiny 3ml glass bottles of 4711 that I suddenly remember playing with as a kid.

Miniature flacons of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser

‘To be haunted and to write from this location,’ writes Gordon, ‘is not a methodology or a consciousness you can simply adopt or adapt as a set of rules or an identity; it produces its own insights and blindnesses’ (2008: 22). I’m not sure yet what the haunting matter of 4711 Eau de Cologne produces in and around me, but exposing myself to its scent and thus creating new layers of olfactory presence and experience certainly feels like facing ghosts of the past. Elli was certainly haunted herself as a working mother and wife of a rather bohemian plant lover in the conservative post-war period in Western Germany. Her extensive use of 4711 was certainly part of an attempt at self-cure and healing. Like many other women of her generation and social background, she lived the frugal life of a hard-working and, she would have liked me to emphasize, a clean and respectable woman. The luxury promised by more expensive perfumes or fragrances was not just unaffordable, but it was also morally suspect to her. The hygienic freshness and unapologetic presence of 4711 fit well into the world that she created for herself.


Ettore, Elizabeth 2017. Autoethnography as Feminist Method: Sensitising the feminist ‘I’. London, New York: Routledge.

Gordon, Avery F. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosenbohm, Ernst 1951. Kölnisch Wasser. Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Kulturgeschichte. Berlin et al.: Albert Nauck & Co.

Stoddart, D. Michael 1991. The Scented Ape. The biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Campen, Cretien 2014. The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Surveying Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey

Between June 8 and July 15, my research assistant İdil Deniz Şakar and I conducted an online survey on the “Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey,” which has now been completed by 212 respondents. We were overwhelmed by the many positive responses to our survey and would like to summarize some of our findings in the following.

Who completed the survey? More than half of our respondents (59 percent) resided in Turkey, 37 percent in Germany. Due to the fact that we reached many of our respondents from among our (former) students as well as university staff, university graduates were clearly overrepresented, with 63 percent of all respondents holding a university degree. Nevertheless, we succeeded in reaching persons of many different ages with half of our respondents being 40 years of age or older. 76 percent of our respondents described themselves as female, 22 percent as male and two percent as diverse.

Facial masks for sale in a mobile phone shop in Berlin-Neukölln (Photo: C. Liebelt)

Changes in bodily hygiene in Corona times

According to our respondents, everyday bodily practices and hygienic measures have changed dramatically since the global spread of COVID-19: 89,4 percent of all respondents said that their own hygienic everyday measures have increased; in Turkey, this rate was even higher, with 95.2 percent of all respondents saying that their hygienic measures increased. Respondents in both Germany and Turkey stated that they now washed their hand more often, 96 and 96.7 percent respectively. Some of those, who did not, explained that due to the risk of infection they observed physical distance and therefore did not see the need to wash their hands more often. Forms of greeting have likewise changed, with 90.4 percent of all respondents saying that they now refrained from touching other persons’ hands or faces upon greeting them (89.5% in Germany, 91.1% in Turkey).

69 percent of our respondents also used hand sanitizer on a regular basis, with an overwhelming majority of users (96 percent) saying that they now used it more frequently than before. Hand sanitizer was used more frequently in Turkey (by 79.2 percent of respondents) as compared to Germany (52.6 percent). Those who did not use hand sanitizer on a regular basis said they relied on other hygienic measures (72 percent) or avoided hand sanitizer out of concerns about skin damage (38 percent). Others claimed that during the lockdown they had rarely left the house and therefore did not require it. Most respondents in Turkey and Germany, 88.7 and 86.7 percent respectively, regarded washing hands as the more effective hygienic measure. A majority of respondents living in Turkey (56.6 %) also used sanitizing agents to disinfect objects as compared to just 17.5% in Germany.

The greatest differences between our respondents in Germany and Turkey concerned the use of Eau de Cologne. In Turkey, Eau de Cologne (kolonya in Turkish) is widely used as a hand sanitizer and became the quasi-official national cure for dealing with the Corona crisis following the public declaration of Turkey’s Minister of Health that citizens should use kolonya to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Whereas 90.4% of respondents in Turkey said that they used kolonya, only 9.2 percent of respondents in Germany did so. In contrast to Turkey, where the disinfectant effect of Eau de Cologne was the main reason given for its current use, in Germany, this effect was rarely quoted (if at all known). In Turkey, Eau de Cologne is traditionally offered to guests in a gesture of welcome and hospitality. In Germany, according to our survey, it is rather associated with “traditionalism” and regarded as something used by the elderly or previous generations.

Covid-19 in Turkey and Germany and hygienic measures more generally

As of today (August 4), the official number of COVID-19 cases stands at 233.851 confirmed cases and 5.747 deaths in Turkey and 212.328 confirmed cases and 9.161 deaths in Germany (see the COVID-19 map by the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). Both countries were among the top ten of countries with the highest number of infections globally at the beginning of the pandemic but managed to eventually “flatten the curve,” starting so-called normalization processes in early May. State measures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic differed greatly, with the German government imposing lockdown measures that varied between its different federal states and the Turkish government imposing a total curfew for those 65 years of age or older and the chronically ill on March 21, which in early April extended to those under the age of 20. Whereas an overwhelming majority of 98.4 percent of respondents in Turkey agreed with the statement that “the current situation demands substantial hygienic measures, including the sanitization of public buildings and streets,” only 34.2 percent of respondents living in Germany did so. Whereas not a single respondent in Turkey opposed the statement, 42.1 percent of respondents in Germany did. More ethnographic research and data analysis is needed to further explain these and many other findings, including the reservations regarding some hygienic measures in Germany especially, which are most likely linked to the historical connotation of the notion of “hygiene” in Germany and political concerns.

In both Germany and Turkey, our survey finds, respondents’ worries about their own and relatives’ health, their economic, professional and financial situation have increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the pandemic has made visible and/or exacerbated political conflicts and social inequalities, it is perhaps of little surprise that the number of those, who reported “great worries” about the global-political situation in both countries has doubled. At the very end of our survey, we asked respondents how they evaluated the hygienic measures taken up by the state to fight the spread of COVID-19. Here again, there were clear differences between respondents living in Germany and Turkey: respondents in Germany tended to be rather or very satisfied (60.5 percent) with the hygienic measures taken up by the state, as opposed to just 9.2 percent who were unsatisfied. In Turkey, respondents were divided almost equally between those, who were satisfied (27.1 percent) and those who were unsatisfied (33.9 percent), with a relatively large number of respondents choosing not to respond to this question or opting for “neither/nor, I don’t know” (42.4 percent). The many open answers to our question about the reasons for satisfaction or dissatisfaction with state hygienic measures spoke of a great deal of concern and reflection among our respondents. Many expressed their sense of appreciation for often far-reaching hygienic measures, authorities’ lack of control (in Germany) or reluctance to impose lockdown measures (in Turkey) and were concerned about other persons’ irresponsible behaviour.

Trained as a social and cultural anthropologist who believes in qualitative rather than quantitative data and loves to engage in ethnographic research rather than online surveys, for me these outcomes are just the beginning for more thorough research. Nevertheless, they offer many interesting insights into the dealings with the current crisis, the transformation in everyday lives and bodily practices, as well as olfactorial, hygienic and political concerns in Germany and Turkey.

Stay tuned for more findings and research outcomes!

A great thank you to all of those, who participated in the survey!

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