What Causes ‘Antique Book Smell’?

If you’ve ever wondered what gave antique books (or really old newspapers and magazines in your dentist’s waiting room) that particular kind of instantly recognisable smell… well, the the Compound Interest blog has explained the chemistry of it all in a new infographic.

Antique Books | Old Book Smell

The Chemistry Behind that Old Book Smell

As you would expect that old book smell comes from the combination of chemicals used in the publication process, but it’s not just one material that’s responsible. In fact, as you’ll see in the image below, it is actually the unique combination of compounds that are formed as the organic matter contained in the paper breaks down over time.

The Compound Interest Infographic | Old Book Smell


As you can see, the compounds include Benzaldehyde, used most commonly as almond flavouring and Vanillin, a vanilla bean extract used in a variety of sweet foods like chocolate and ice cream.

Old books can also be influenced by their environment, the smell of tobacco smoke, baking and cooking or the presence of pets can leave books with a smell as rich and distinctive as the text inside. The Demeter Fragrance Library actually offer a scent called ‘Paperback’ which aims to recreate that old book smell in a perfume “…with a sprinkling of violets and a dash of tasteful potpourri.”

If you are fortunate enough to own some valuable antique books or just wish to take care of your beloved literature, there are steps you can take to preserve them and ensure they last as long as possible. The National Library of Scotland has a list of handy tips. The Library of Congress recommends a cool, relatively dry location, away from any radiators or vents with minimal exposure to light and regular dusting. Also avoid leaving books at an angle, straight up or flat down is best.

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