A Short History of "Scratch and Sniff"
Oh those heady "scratch-and-sniff" days, when it seemed like everywhere you turned there was a sticker on your arm, covering up a fresh scab, that smelled like a tangerine.

And then -- even down at your local bookshop -- there were books about cookies, books about watermelons, and books about fresh popcorn, each plastered with smell-pregnant stickers that revealed hidden essences and secret miasmas.

You go down to the bookstore now and it's all memoirs and politics. No stickers. No one cares what a health care referendum smells like.

Yeah, you remember being happy with your "scratch-and-sniff." You remember scratching those press-board books and holding them up to your nose and saying "this doesn't smell anything like cinnamon toast or hot chocolate, but I like it. I like what they have done for me up there in publishing."

Scratch-and-sniff is a joke, these days. A depleted idea that did not have a chance to get a deep hold anywhere.

But think: could you use "scratch-and-sniff" in your own fictional works? Could you make S&S on your own, in your own house, out of of your own household chemicals and smells?

"Give me fire, Prometheus! Give me fire!"

Fine, fine: I'll tell you what I know.


"Scratch-and-sniff" was invented in the early 1960's, right around the same time LSD was getting big. Scientists were trying to come up with a better way to make carbon copies of documents when they accidentally hit on the "S&S" process.

Here's what happened: this organic chemist named Gale Matson was working for the 3M corporation (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) and she was trying to figure out a way to suspend ink inside tiny, tiny bubbles. She patented a micro-encapsulation process that used a particular kind of plastic called "polyoxymethylene urea" and then she turned over her process to the marketing department, which was a bunch of folks sitting around in newly-standard marketing department "swivel chairs."

They spent all day "swivelling" and "loosening" their ties.

They didn't gave a damn about carbon paper. What they cared about was getting smells into people's hands, for the marketing purposes of perfume companies and other people who traded in scented commodities.

Scratch-and-sniff debuted in 1965, and in 1981 the first peel-apart perfume strip was also born.

Smelly magazines! Smelly stickers! The modern age you know and love!


You make S&S like you make rain. You mix your smell together with oil and a catalyst, and if you mix it fast enough and in the proper proportions, the oily plastic forms around the scent, hardens into microscopic balls, and seals up like a raindrop around a microscopic dust mote.

The oil dries, and then you've got millions of balls of scent packets. If you scratch them, they bust, and you can smell the scent inside. You can smear the concoction on sheets of paper and even print with it.

The plastic balls last as long as plastic does. According to some scientists, that means they last forever. You can smell things from the past! The future could smell you!


The kids book market went big for S&S, but then slowly the bottom dropped out, and the gimmick disappeared. It was spent, like lunch money wasted on ice cream and condoms. Publishers decided that scratch-and-sniff was only interesting as a wheeze, a rare bit of oddity that didn't have legs when it came to art. You saw people having scratch-and-sniff burning parties, where kids would get out big reams of sticker-books and burn them on their front lawns, dancing around them and reveling in the heady stink of millions of scent-balls all bursting at once. It was glorious, albeit short-sighted. A black market sprang up for alcohol-scented scratch-and-sniff. The feds raided warehouse after warehouse on the Canada border. People went to jail, lives were lost, children were orphaned, children wrote sad poems. Scratch-and-sniff became a thing you whispered about inside the thresholds of houses where you were smoking cigarettes to kill your sense of smell forever. To forget.


There are some people who have never given up. Some people are still cranking out utterly creative things when it comes to S&S.

Here are some fine fucking applications of this tech that you can get today if you have money:

-- Smell your way through history!

"Greek Grime," "Tudor Odours," "Victorian Vapours." These books collect the smells of the past and teach history to children through the S&S medium.

Here is the back of "Victorian Vapours," which is all you really need to know about this to see that today, at least, you have been outgeniused by author Mary J. Dobson:

"Victorian Vapours plunges you straight into the odorous world of the last century. Take a boating trip on the stinking River Thames, wander through the city slums, visit the wonders of the Great Exhibition or inhale the filthy factories of the industrial revolution--even peep inside the privy at the bottom of the garden--to discover the disgusting truth about everyday life in Victorian Britain."

I remove my hat, sweep it along the ground, clap, and bow.

-- Scratch and sniff for dogs!

I hope this book is just page after page of the assholes of other dogs. Because that would be phenomenal. You could bring a date over and leave it casually in plain sight.

"What's that book with the funny dog on the front?"

"Oh, that's my book full of scratch-and-sniff dog assholes. So.....................do you want to make-out?"

You will have a future!

-- Stickers for your ebook reader that make it smell like an old book!

The number one thing that people say bothers them about ebooks is that they do not smell like mildew. They hug their shoulders and kick at the ground and say: "I'll never like ebooks. They just don't smell right!"

Nostalgia is a sticker, baby. A sticker you can buy!


One of the reasons why S&S did not take off big is because there is no give-and-take language to it. You can receive smells from the smell-companies, but you can't give away your own creations to your friends and family unless you have millions of dollars. It takes factories and machines and whole operations to make the smells you want to smell. Imagine if every time you wanted to sing a song you had to deal with a woman wearing glasses who first had to check your credit.

However. Someday "scratch-and-sniff" will hit the masses, and we will be able to microencapsulate smells on our own. That day, you will see and smell some changes around here.

The first iteration of this necessary thing will be print-on-demand smells. You send in your smell, and they send you back your stickers. They will have a catalog to pick from, but they will also be able to "smell match" your sample like they can "color match" you at the paint store.

Maybe in the far, far future there will be little kits put out by some enterprising perfume company that will let you make smells from the privacy of your own home. You will be able to make scratch-and-sniff tags as easy as recording music or taking snapshots, and you will be able to communicate with them in useful and fantastic ways.

Imagine: the smell of spoiled milk as a warning sticker in restaurant kitchens.

Imagine: the smell of gas as a warning sticker next to fire alarms.

Imagine: stickers on restaurant menus that let you "pre-taste" the food you are considering.

Imagine: fine literature with forgotten smells embedded in the cover. Ambergris, lavender, porkchop, baby vomit. The "smell" edition will be the one people buy. College professors will REQUIRE the "smell" edition.

It will be a trend to start signing things with squares of your personal smell. Your smell-square will have your name on it, and then if you scratch it, it will have your scent. Maybe your armpit. Maybe a cup of black coffee.

A pocket gas chromatograph would look like a blood sugar calculator for diabetics. There would be a dish on the front where you swab the sample of what you want to replicate. Then it scrambles molecules together based on 70,000 synthetic algorithms, and a printer in back spurts out your jolly product.

"Hey Joe, you want to know what you smell like?"

"Nah, what's that Sally?"

(You scrape the bottom of your shoe with a Q-tip. You stick the end into your S&S Sticker-Tape Machine. The machine snorts and buzzes and prints out a ten-strip. You write "JOE" in stickers on the diner table.)

"Scratch and sniff, Joe!"

"Is this art, Sally? Or malice?"

"We are moderns, Joe. What is the difference?"


Posted by miracle on Wed, 14 May 2008 08:44:25 -0400 -- permanent link

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