Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Scents of the Season

Remembrance of products past.
December 30, 2021
The Scents of the Season
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Autumn we might associate with the smells of fallen leaves, Thanksgiving feasts, and the pumpkin-spice concoctions that no coffee shop seems brave enough to eschew. The Christmas season might fill homes with the scents of candles and cookies and fir trees. But what about the rest of winter?

I can still remember the smell of the ancient electric radiator in my bedroom in my parents’ house in New Jersey. It’s still in their basement—in its original box!—but the thermostat broke, and it’s lived ever since in that limbo between active use and the landfill where durable, possibly fixable, broken products go.

I’ve got a similar stash in my own home, too—maybe you do in yours? Our household is only four years old, and we already have a dehumidifier with a bad fan and a dead humidifier with stripped, rusted internal screws. I fully intend to fix them one day. They’re cheap and lightweight, but they aren’t junk. A certain amount of what we consider to be the junkiness of products is really our own throwaway ethic, which itself is bound up with the low cost of replacing these products and the value we put on the time we would have to spend repairing them.

But anyway. I couldn’t describe that smell, exactly, but it signaled the dark cold of winter, and its partial alleviation, every bit as much as a lit-up Christmas tree. Rolling in the heavy, oil-filled electric radiator—what kind of oil was it?—was a little seasonal ritual for me. The smell was a little like the inside of vintage electronics—the kind of thing that brings to mind both the real solidity of those products themselves, and even a certain imagined stability of the society that produced them. It was, like Proust’s madeleines, the smell of nostalgia.

The newer generation of electric heaters available in stores now—quartz tubes, forced-air heaters that don’t light up at all, rickety plastic cases—feel somehow very different from the older ones I remember.

For example, in addition to the radiator my parents had a very long heater, with a simulated-wood steel case to make it look like a log. Its single, long element was just like the elements in an electric stove, glowing an incredibly bright orange in the night and emitting a kind of heat that seemed almost to have substance to it, to linger in the room.

It was a little creepy, I suppose, to wake up and look at that silent element, brighter than a nightlight and casting an orange glow over the room. But I liked it, and its attempt to resemble a fireplace kind of worked. Like the electric radiator, it had no fan. When you turned them off, the room retained warmth for a long time. With newer heaters I’ve used, the heat seems to dissipate as soon as the unit shuts off.

I’m not sure if there is anything scientific to any of this—in fact, I’m rather sure that there isn’t. These units can produce more or less heat, and heat the air more or less efficiently, but once the air reaches a certain temperature, it is what it is. Most likely, nostalgia is at work here, too: an association of the warm, cozy, worriless winter nights of my lucky childhood with the devices that happened to be common in those years.

I feel something similar about flip clocks—the old clock radios that had digital displays but used mechanical number cards instead of LEDs. (That’s where the early marketing term “electronic digital” came from.) Flip clocks were pretty much a figment of a brief technological moment in time, when digital displays were a modern look but electronics were still too expensive to put in a clock. Yet today, the barely perceptible click of the card and hum of the motor feels like a little window into a whole world. And I didn’t even grow up with the things! (I am, however, a collector of clock radios.)

It’s amazing to me how powerful such feelings can be, despite the knowledge that they probably aren’t really based on anything in these erstwhile consumer goods themselves. I’m sure products I dislike or take for granted will one day be prized and collectable. Perhaps, as I get older, everyday things I barely think about now will take on the patina of nostalgia and antique-ness.

An old colleague at a college internship, at a small left-leaning organization promoting more ethical consumption, once argued that the problem with American consumerism is not that we value our stuff too much, but rather that we value it too little. We throw things away with little thought to the human effort and natural resources embedded in them.

That may be part of why I keep broken products in limbo instead of Marie Kondoing them. And perhaps, mixing with my childhood memories, it’s part of why that mass-produced electric radiator from the ’80s is something that I still occasionally think about, more than two decades after it heated my childhood bedroom.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).