Fall officially started more than a month ago, but only recently has the weather near me turned truly autumnal. Now that the evenings are sufficiently chilly, I’ve been curling up with a fuzzy blanket and drinking warm beverages while I read. And to take the coziness up a notch, I like lighting seasonally scented candles. During the fall months, I usually go for pumpkin spice, cinnamon vanilla and the like, but I started thinking of other comforting scents that I’d like to try and “old-book-smell” came to mind.
I am serial book sniffer and particularly like thrusting my nose into pages that have yellowed with age. Newly printed books smell great too, but there’s just something special about the scent of an old book.
But what exactly are we smelling when our noses are buried in the spine of a decades-old novel?
The results of a study conducted a few years ago concluded that it’s the breakdown of chemical compounds found in paper, as well as other elements of a book like ink, glue, etc. Most notable of these compounds is lignin, a plant polymer that causes paper to turn yellow as it ages and releases an aroma very much like vanilla. To get super nerdy about it, books emit scents as they degrade from the following volatile oragnic compounds (VOCs): toulene and ethyl benzene (overall sweet smell); benzaldehyde and furfaral (almonds); and vanillin (vanilla).
I then asked the question: is it possible to recreate that olfactory experience in candle form? To find out, I conducted a very unscientific experiment. I purchased candles from Etsy (all of which promised to smell like old books), then spent a day sniffing a real old book and comparing it to the scent of the three candles.
The old book I chose as my “control” was a 1967 printing of The Hippies, edited by Joe David Brown (see photo above). I can’t say it really smelled like vanilla or almonds, but it definitely had some sweetness and dusty, mustiness.
How did the candles measure up? Here are my notes and observations:
Belle’s Library Candle – Anthology Candles
Description on Etsy: Aged Library Books, Wild Roses, Hint of Leather
My description: Dominant rose aroma with slight mustiness, very sweet, like a grandma’s perfume
Smells like old books?: Not a bit, and it actually made me feel kind of queasy
Old Books – Frostbeard Studio
Description on Etsy: Paper, Dust, Vanilla and a hint of Fresh Grass
My Description: Unripe banana, cloyingly sweet, a whiff of freshly mown grass
Smells like old books?: Overall scent of the candle was pleasant enough, but definitely not old-booky
Antique Books – Werther and Gray
Description on Etsy: Paper, Vanilla & Leather
My Description: Dark and opaque, musky men’s cologne with a sweet finish
Smells like old books?: I guess the muskiness reminded me of books with leather elements, but it didn’t smell at all like a book with fiber-based bindings
Overall, I was pretty disappointed with my experiment. None of the candles delivered on a true fragrance of aged books. They all had sweetness, but they didn’t have the vanilla or almond aromas that science tells us old books are supposed to give off. I’m sure these Etsy candlemakers sell other lovely wares, but this batch of candles just didn’t meet my criteria.
In any case, now I know to stick with the traditional candle scents. It’s more pumpkin spice for me this season! And after thinking it over, I’m glad the old-book-smell can’t really be recreated. The physical act of burying my nose in a book and breathing it in is special, and I don’t want anything to take its place.
Griffiths, S. (2014). Why old books smell so good: Infographic reveals complex chemistry behind the comforting scent of yellowed pages. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2647333/Why-old-books-smell-good-Infographic-reveals-complex-chemistry-comforting-scent-yellowed-pages.html
Koch, B. J. (n.d.). Is It More Than “Old Book Smell”? – Articles about rare books, antiquarian books, manuscripts, autographs, first editions, illustrated books,… – ILAB-LILA. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from https://www.ilab.org/eng/documentation/677-is_it_more_than_old_book_smell.html