Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Perfume of Mimeographs

For many baby boomers, the mention of the word “mimeograph” instantly inspires childhood olfactive memories. Freshly duplicated papers felt cool in the hand as traces of sweet and aromatic ink (which resembled the intermingling of ethyl alcohol and heliotrope flowers) rose above the paper. Students were often compelled to deliberately sniff the stencils that teachers used to deliver tests and educational materials. As a result that scent has become embedded in the collective memory of a particular generation.

Bill Bryson, author of the memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid writes, “Of all the tragic losses since the 1960s, mimeograph paper may be the greatest. With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off mimeograph worksheet and I would be the education system’s willing slave for up to seven hours.” Bryson’s reveries continued as he immersed himself in the scent and “…drifted off to a private place where fields were green, everyone went barefoot, and the soft trill of panpipes floated on the air.”

The highly purposeful mimeograph offered limited print runs without reliance on electricity and in today’s times would be considered environmentally “green” in form and function. The intense recollections built around mimeos (or dittos, as they were often called) show how the sense of smell is powerfully linked to memory. Every generation has an olfactive catalog of sorts, but the scents of childhood provide a glimpse into the purest form of human curiosity and receptiveness. Perhaps there is a lesson inherent in mimeos that extend beyond reminiscence, a gift our teachers inadvertently left behind.


The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson.

Photo of Nosetalgia, a scratch and sniff book by Michael Gitter, Sylvie Vaccari and Carol Bobolts. Visual mimeo reference on page 16.

The Sense of Smell, the PDF edition of a paper by Harmon and Reimer (now Symrise).