Book Reviews
Book 30

R.W. Moncrieff Odour Preferences
Grampion Press London 1966

Copyright Tony Burfield © August 2004

This book has been present in the bookshelves of many of the aroma companies I have worked for, yet I have rarely seen it mentioned or quoted in print ever since it was first published. It is an interesting exercise now to look at it again, and try to gauge its place in perfumery literature.

The title page in the book has a sketch of a spotted dog sniffing around in the grass – perhaps this says, in a way, more about the contents, than the obligatory illustrations of perfume bottles on the fly-leaf cover! The first thing to say is that Moncieff certainly worked hard – the book is an academic labour of love spread across its 322 pages of text (357 with index). The book is divided into sections with very long titles, according to the fly-leaf: concerning the arrangement of a large group of odours by several people according to their preferences; analysis of odour preferences into sex, age and temperament groups, variation of odour preferences with sex; variation of odour preference with age; variation of odour preferences with temperament; odours with markedly diverse effects; development of trends into general findings; comparison of findings with the prior art. One wonders who edited the fly-leaf, because this description covers the six chapters of Part I of the book (The search for trends: a study of the odour preferences of a few people towards a wide range of odours) but doesn’t expand on the chapters in part 2 and part 3 of the book (Development of the trends: a study of the preferences of many people towards ten dissimilar odours & Comparison of findings with the prior art). Running through the book and noted at the end of every chapter is a set of rules of odour preference, which are collated in full (124 rules) at the end of the book. 

In essence, this book, to me, represents a snapshot in time. It appears to be culturally quite reflective of prevalent attitudes in the middle 1960’s – thus we have Rule 120: “the use of perfumes by men is still regarded doubtfully, but there is agreement that if men are to wear perfume, the preferred scents are eau-de-Cologne, lavender and pine”. However there are many interesting conclusions arising from pieces of experimental work: Rule 76 relates to the fact that pleasantness and unpleasantness cannot be experiences simultaneously. This would seem to be concluded from a piece of ingeniously employed olfactory apparatus (depicted in splendid Victorian line-drawing style) where a small tube delivers air-streams containing different odours into each nostril.

Chapter 13 on the classification of odours brings us some new old models (if you see what I mean) not discussed in previews book reviews in this series. Bain’s classification and Zwaardemaker’s classification we might already know, but Henning’s Prism (from his book “Der Geruch”) is discussed over several pages which relates six classes of odours in an merging manner. I might have to read the pages a few more times to fully comprehend the idea, but a critique of the theory by is also presented by A. Findley. I was somewhat surprised to see that the critique is dated 1924, so maybe there was a fairly long fallow period for Moncrieff in the explanation of odour perception, especially since one of the final theories in the chapter - the Crocker-Henderson theory - is noted from 1927. Moncrieff gives only one rule at the end of this particular chapter, bemoaning that there is no theory that provides the reason for the difference between pleasantness and unpleasantness.

In Chapter 7, pages 102 to 133 relate tables of preferences divided by sex and temperament; Chapter 8 is similarly loaded with findings on reproducibility of data. It is interesting to speculate that in 2004, the technology of odour chemical production and aromatic material manufacture is more sophisticated and refined than it was in 1966. It is a fair proposition to speculate whether the improvement of the odour quality of modern aroma materials would, of themselves, provoke a different outcome to the experimental preferential findings conducted in the book, in addition to the fact that our cosmopolitan way of life and changes in taste and preferences reflect a different age with a different set of reference points.

Other snippets are definitely part of another age. An interesting subsection on Russian perfumes in a Perfume Preferences chapter, describes a type of recognisable perfume based on isoeugenol and hydroxycitronellal – described as a romantic evening perfume (perhaps with quite a lot of scratching? – both aroma chemicals are now identified as allegens!).

The book is possibly eclipsed in notoriety by the largest investigation of odour ability ever attempted, by Gilbert and Wysocki in 1987, who conducted a survey across more than 1.5 million participants using readers of the National Geographic magazine, who were asked to identify and describe six different aroma chemicals. The survey revealed things such as the decreasing ability to perceive odours with increasing age, and high levels of anosmia to androstenone and to the musk chemical Galaxolide. To be fair, Moncrieff had established his Rule 96 twenty-one years earlier, saying that old people are prone not to notice smells, even dangerous ones such as escaping gas. But the influence of big numbers may well mean that Gilbert and Wysocki will be remembered by history rather than Moncrieff….

But one can only admire the dedication of Moncrieff, who’s passion for his subject, I think, escapes from the yellowing pages of this testimony still…..