The Smell of Home: Making Scent Memories

Across a dark parking lot, the bright neon lights of the theatre beckon. Tickets are bought, the wallet goes back in the purse and the glass door is opened. At that moment, the buttery smell of popcorn wafts through the air. Popcorn in theaters has a particular smell. It conjures up images of good times with friends, special dates and years of movies, laughter and tears. All from sniffing the smell of buttered popcorn.

The sense of smell is often our first physical response. It alerts us to fire before we see the flame and lets us know when it’s time to change the toddler’s diaper. But more than any other sense, smell is also closely connected to the parts of the brain that deal with emotion and learning.

This type of learning is the kind that associates with something else and creates memories. It is linked to the brain’s emotional center.

The first time you smell a new scent, you associate it with a person, an event or even a moment. Thus, smell can suddenly bring on a flood of memories. This explains why not everyone feels the same about every scent, and why they may not even understand the origin of the emotions evoked by a smell. After all, we were probably very young the first time we smelled all those new scents.

In our own homes, we can create the scent memories of our choosing. Imagine the power we hold as home makers to influence memories with the sense of smell.

Even as a person we create scent memories. One of my older sons gave me a long hug during a very stressful time several years ago. As he held me close he breathed deeply and said, “You smell like Mom.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was probably smelling sweet milk as I was still nursing a baby at the time, but after all, he had grown up with me nursing babies so that is his scent memory of me. Not a bad one at that.

Here are some ways to build pleasant memories with the sense of smell in your home and life:

Personal Scents

Perfume, cologne, body splash, whatever you want to call it. Lotion, creams and more. One woman remembered her grandma when she smelled Jergens lotion. My husband thinks of his mother when he sniffs Windsong perfume.

Why not have a signature scent that will help others recall fond memories of you?

One of my favorite scents is Be Delicious by Donna Karan. I use the perfume and hand cream to layer the scents. You could stock up when your signature scent is on sale or on seasonal clearance, so you’ll have a good supply. Why save it for a special occasion? You’ll feel special using it every day.

Maybe you want your signature scent to be soap. Even the scent of essential oils will create memories for your home and yourself.


You can change candle scents with the seasons to create a mood. Springtime scents are light and fresh, like lemon and honeydew melon. Winter tends towards richer scents like cinnamon and pine. You can even find food-scented candles for atmosphere-in-a-pinch. Circle E candles has one called “Creamy Cinnamon Vanilla” that smells just like fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. Mmm….and no calories.

Cleaning Supplies

New earth-friendly cleaners are being developed, or you may have your old favorites. Whatever the mixture, make sure it leaves your home smelling clean and fresh.


Who can forget the smell of fresh homemade bread baking in the oven? Fresh-brewed coffee and anything with cinnamon are homey smells. Chili, spaghetti and roast are yummy comfort food smells. Have you ever returned home cold and hungry, and just the SMELL of dinner cooking comforted and cheered your soul?

Even though we must all be exposed to scents that are unpleasant or that bring up negative associations, in our home life we can make an effort to provide smells that are warm and comforting. It’s part of setting the stage and creating atmosphere in the background of family life.

The little things add up, and most of them are within our power.

We’d love to hear your ideas for building scent memories!


  1. Hello Charlotte,
    thank you so much for your lovely post. It is so true that scents create the most wonderful and comforting memories. I grew up in a household with a wood fired range and oven. That smell of burning pine and freshly brewed coffee and a hot steaming kitchen, mum cooking lunch and we all had to come home from school for lunch, it’s just unforgettable. I still like to have food cooked for my family, we sit together at the kitchen table. And now we’ve got a fireplace where we can cook casseroles on it. Yes, and the other thing is animals have their particular smells as well, I love smelling a cat for instance. I could go on forever, I suppose.
    Again, thank you so much for your post. Love them all. Liz.

  2. Anonymous says:

    And thank YOU, Liz, for sharing. I could just smell the coffee and pine!

  3. Gayle Armstrong says:

    One of our favorite smells as a family is pot roast. It is so heavenly when walking in the door after church… it just smells like, “Welcome Home!” 🙂

  4. I remember the smell of my mother’s hands and forearms. She used Vaseline intensive care lotion out of the yellow bottle. I’ve had this memory a long time. She died of cancer when I was 10 yrs old (I’m 43 now) and I can’t remember what she sounded like but I remember her smell. Unfortunately that lotion is not produced anymore so it has to remain a memory.

    How about laundry. One of my favorite scents are clean, line dried (outside clothesline) sheets. My children associate the smell of liquid “Spring Fresh” Downy softener with Grandmas house. Her clothes always smell so good!

  5. Lauri Day says:

    I remember the smell of my grandma was a rose scented lotion. Everything in her home especially her bedroom smelled of roses. I also loved it when she washed our bed linens. She used to starch and iron ours. That smell and feel of them was pure comfort.
    Thanks for taking me back in time 🙂

  6. Anonymous says:

    Looks like these comments are proving the theory of the link between smells and memory!

  7. Before we adopted Emily from China, we sent her some things. One item was a stuffed animal. Before mailing him, I wore him, tucked inside my clothes, for two days. It seemed silly but I thought it might pick up my scent/perfume. Little did I understand how important smell would be to our little girl. She would smell everything: food before eating, clothes before putting them on, sheets, people, etc. It was a comfort to me that when she took a very obvious whiff of me at our first meeting, that she was smelling something familiar :).

  8. I have a memory related to the smell of food: My brother came to visit last year and we had a small party for him and I made my specialty Pernil (roast pork).  He and my mom came to pick me up and my brother was holding the box with the roast.  Of course the car soon filled with the smell, but my brother kept flapping the box lid to wave the smell even more!  I get a smile every time I think of it and whenever I make the pernil I think of him.

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