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Smell Pods

Smell Pods

In our current exhibition Growing up in the Tropics, we bring the varied world of Far North Queensland through smell pods. These are manmade and natural smells of the tropical environment, from subtle to overwhelming.

Come along and guess which pod hides which smell. What memories does each evoke for you?

For this online blog, Museum Curator Daniela Vavrova asked the exhibition collaborator, long-term museum volunteer, teacher, and sewing expert Glenys Lonie, how she came up with those particular scents we have on offer.

Mulgrave Sugar Mill, Photograph by Owen Wittick Cairns NQ, Postcard No 2203 printed in Saxony
Mulgrave Sugar Mill, Photograph by Owen Wittick Cairns NQ, Postcard No 2203 printed in Saxony
Image of Sunlight Soap Bar in vintage wrapping
Sunlight Soap, image sourced from eBay
Brylcreem, image sourced from Google images
Calamine Lotion
Calamine Lotion, image sourced from Wikipedia

How did it all happen, Glenys?

When I began talking to people what they remember, I got an incredible response. It’s as if the world could be remembered through smell. Many of the smells people recalled were actually very negative. They were stinks or they were sharp reactions. Because we are a museum, the smells have got to be relatively stable and they also have to be safe. So I ended up picking things that were commercial products already passed by the food safety laws. Naturally, most of these things can go from being nice to not nice overnight. So I had to find something that would not change. It could fade, but would not change its smell. It also had to be containable and not offensive, surprising but not shocking.

All the smells are in white cloth. When you lift the lid, you see the white colour. The idea is, Glenys underlines, that colours change what you think. White cloth does not influence what you are looking at. They are all unidentifiable except for the smell.

Have you thought of the unattainable smells which you would like to have here, like rain falling on the road, smell of toads, mangroves, or the mud? 

Yes, absolutely, but I did not know how to gain that smell of mud and keep it. It is actually sulphur dioxide. So it is about its movement that you smell. It’s volatile.

What about Calamine Lotion, Brylcreem, and Sunlight Soap?

Calamine Lotion was like band aid. Kids were covered in it. It has a cooling effect and dries the skin. It fixed all their problems of itchiness after being bitten by insects. 

As for Brylcreem, every man and every boy to look decently dressed had their hair slicked down with it and it went everywhere. It was on bus windows, pillows. It was on anything they touched, and it’s very hard to remove.

Sunlight Soap was used for everything. It was used for washing clothes, cleaning, personal hygiene, any washing up, simply for everything.

And what about the sugar cane and other natural smells?

Brown sugar is very particular for Far North Queensland. It’s the smell of a sugar mill. Also molasses, Golden Cane syrup, used to be put on bread, pancakes. It’s a daily smell and it’s a smell that permeates everything. 

Frangipani, another scent, we could not have a real flower in the museum. The Frangipani sap is poisonous, so I used scented soap. It was very hard to get a natural soap. Mango, however, is pure, the mango soap among the smells collection. I had to hunt for it, the natural soaps!

Sawdust from a butcher shop, Image by I Grew Up in Mortdale 2223
Sawdust from a butcher shop, Image by I Grew Up in Mortdale 2023

Then, the sawdust in butcheries depended on what sawdust they had. It was about keeping the butchery clean. It prevented a slippery floor and injuries. Knives and slippery floors do not go together. It is not a continuous smell. Here – in Far North Queensland it was hard to get the pine sawdust. I ended up using commercial Cedar, commercial Tea Tree and commercial Pine. Saturdays after the butchers closed, they used to clean the shop. On Mondays sawdusting was done again. 

Frangipani flower
Sunlight Soap, image sourced from eBay
Mango fruit
Mango fruit, image sourced from Google images
Jar of beeswax furniture polish
Beeswax furniture polish, sourced from Google

Beeswax for furniture, Glenys continues, represented a good domestic smell. A household was well run when Beeswax was around. Domestic Goddess Paradise. It creates a glow.

What about the smelly sock tree pod. Initially, I imagined it to be an actual tree and the various smells hanging on it? I was wondering about that smell pod. What is in it? What does it represent? It definitely is a very effective stink.

We needed something that is very pungent. I came across a group of timber workers who told me about all the trees they cannot forget about for their dank smell of underground. Smelly Sock tree or Cassia fistula has been included into the show. The smell is about the tree pods breaking open when they hit the ground and so the seeds are released and can germinate. Inside the pods is this strong musk smell. I found a commercial product and included it with my son’s smelly socks.

Cassia fistula, commonly known as golden shower, purging cassia,Indian laburnum, or pudding-pipe tree,
Cassia fistula, commonly known as golden shower

Everybody smells things differently. Some people cannot smell anything. Some people smell everything. There were also differences between men and women when I asked the museum volunteers and visitors. Some said “There is nothing here, nothing to smell.” If someone is unwell, for example, it changes what you smell. It is totally on the spot. It depends on the mood.

What about the humidity, here in the tropics? Does it intensify the smell?

The humidity changes your perceptions of smell. Moisture affects it significantly. There is a bigger array of smells near the forest. There is flowering, decay, all affected by the amount of moisture. Air-conditioning in the museum helped to contain the smell better, stabilise it more. Also, the calm environment in the gallery affects your perceptions. 

We would like to know what do you recall as a typical smell from your childhood? And what do the aromas we have on offer trigger in your memory? Please send us a message at

Thank you, Glenys, Daniela, and Janice Wegner

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