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.

References

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.