The scented novel: early twentieth century book publishing in the USA


Jot 101 perfume book Brentano's_Booksellers_1916In the May 1909 issue of Bookman,the correspondent ‘ Galbraith ‘ in his ‘ American Letter ‘ compares the brash exploits of American publishers to the more sedate efforts of their British confreres.

American publishes and booksellers are remarkable in that they apploy the same ingenuity and audacity to book advertising that it is customary to use in the selling of soap and breakfast foods. Where the English publisher inserts in the newspaper a genteel announcement to the effect that “ So and So is Mr Such and Such ‘s finest book , and is really a remarkable story, the American publisher charters a full page in a popular daily, and prints upside down in the middle of it, something well near as striking as this:


                                               “YOU ARE A LIAR

                                               if you deny ‘So and So’

                                                    is the finest Novel

                                                        Ever Printed !”


Moreover, Galbraith contends, publishers don’t miss a trick when it comes to marketing gimmicks. When the American edition of Gaston Leroux’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (published originally in France in 1908) appeared in 1909, the  publishers Brentano’s , decided to perfume ( it was not said how they did it) ‘ every copy of the book with an almost overpowering fragrance so strong…that one may handle the book at a shop with gloves on, go back through the air of the streets to find one’s fingers still smelling strongly…’


A search through Abebooks produces several copies of this particular edition, though nowhere does it mention that it was once perfumed. As far as we know here at Jot HQ, The Perfume of the Lady in Blackis the sole example of a book steeped in fragrance by the publishers as a means of selling it, but we do know of at least one LP which was treated in a similar way by its record company, Stiff Records, as a promotional gimmick. When you scratch ‘ n’ stiff a particular part of the outer sleeve of ‘The Akron Compilation’  it gives  out a delectable stink of carbon disulphide, a poisonous chemical used to harden rubber.


It was all part of the promotional campaign devised by Stiff to shop window new acts such as Rachel Sweet and Jane Aire and the Belvederes, all of whom hailed from Akron, Ohio, ‘ the rubber capital of the world’. Even today, over forty years after the album was released, you can still savour on your finger the perfume of industrial Akron by scratching and sniffing this section of the sleeve. [R.M.Healey  ]


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