Scratch and Sniff Books: '80s Fad or the Future of Children's Literature?
Scratch and sniff books are a criminally underutilized resource.
I set out to write a history of scratch and sniff books, but I found a baffling lack of information. Am I the only one to wonder how this book format came to be and why it never had its moment in the sun alongside scratch and sniff stickers? Or is this a closely guarded secret of the ivory tower, gated from such bookish plebes as myself? Regardless, I’ve pieced together what little I could find online, in scholarly articles, and through crowdsourcing to put together an explanation and timeline. What is the appeal of scratch and sniff books? How did they come to be? And do they have a future?
A Prelude to Scratch and Sniff Books
While humans are not generally known for our sense of smell, our noses are able to detect one trillion odours. Smells also have a strong association with memory, able to bring us back to a long-forgotten moment in childhood in an instant. We already consume books with our eyes, our ears (through audiobooks), and even our hands (both with traditional books and with touch-and-feel books). So why not involve our noses, too? After all, if we want to remember what we read, why not involve the sense linked with memory?
Of course, if you’re reading a physical book, that is inherently a multisensory experience. Bookworms are insufferable in our need to comment on how good books smell, whether you prefer fresh printed pages or an aged vintage fragrance. You can get book smell scented candles or perfume, as well as merch that proclaims you are a proud book sniffer.
This obsession with the smell of books isn’t new, though. In 1992, the French National Archives in Paris had its distinctive scent synthesized and bottled. It is appetizingly described as a “mixture of decaying leather and paper, mustiness and sweat,” which is supposed to remind the smeller of our own mortality (“The Multisensory Experience of Handling and Reading Books” by Charles Spence).
While scratch and sniff books may seem like a gimmick, the incorporation of smell into text is something we’re accustomed to in magazines, where perfume and cologne samples may be included between pages. It’s also been used in advertising, including in The Los Angeles Times in 2007, when they featured a scratch and sniff advertisement for upcoming movies, including one for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium that smelled like cake (Spence).
Even in the 1950s, some periodicals were printed on scented paper, and one excited author talked about the future of “best smellers,” where cookbooks could be printed on pages which have scents to match the recipe (Spence). Sadly, we have yet to reach the golden age of best smellers, though there is at least one scratch and sniff cookbook: The Scratch + Sniff Bacon Cookbook by Jack Campbell from 2018.
The most common kind of adult scratch and sniff books have a common theme: drugs, including alcohol.
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