The unique scent of mothballs meant winter was here

Jacques Kelly

November 19, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

Unmistakable seasonal smells accompany these increasingly cold November mornings. The fragrance from a pot of oatmeal that bubbles on the kitchen stove. The dry, faintly chemical odor of the heating system escapes from old iron pipes. And one of fall's most potent perfumes, the smell of mothballs on winter clothes that have been stored during the warm weather months.

The truth is that the odor of camphor isn't around as much as it used to be. Only a few years ago, it was easily detected in the Lyric Opera House lobby, especially at the season's first performance of the Baltimore Opera Company. The woolen clothes of opera buffs reeked of moth flakes.

The same was true of music lovers at the first seasonal performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra when Maestro Eugene Ormandy brought his players to Baltimore. The audience pulled out their winter finery, which had been stored in trunks and closets filled with paradichlorobenzene, the active ingredient in moth-proofing products.

But the opera crowd always seized the prize in both costuming and chemicals. There was a certain relationship between some of the more outrageous outfits sported by opera-goers and the accompanying smell of mothballs.

Baltimore opera crowds, impervious to the changes of fashion, tended to wear favorite outfits season after season. They made their outfits from buying sprees at the old Hochschild-Kohn department store in the early 1950s. By the middle 1970s, thanks to excellent moth-proofing, the clothes were still serviceable, if out of style.

Occasionally, some of the patrons, feeling that opera was an occasion for festive evening raiment, dressed in the spirit of the vocal production. It was not unusual to see Carmens, Mimis, Fausts and Marguerites strolling down Mount Royal Avenue after the final curtain calls. In the cold November air, they left in their wake a balmy mixture of toilet water and moth repellent.

My own family thoroughly believed that no home was safe without pounds and pounds of moth flakes and mothballs liberally distributed throughout the basement, closets and packing trunks and cartons.

Each November, the cold-weather garments had to be dug out from under an avalanche of white crystalline moth flakes. Many a day I reached for a nickel in a coat pocket and produced a handful of shrunken mothballs.

Those windy pre-Thanksgiving mornings called for a woolen muffler. We stuffed these Scottish plaid scarves, mittens and gloves in an old sewing chest in the front hall. All too often, you'd yank out a glove and with it, a backfire of powdery moth flakes. And try putting on that glove, only to cut your middle finger on an undissolved moth crystal.

Mother and Grandmother both held that killer moths could gobble a whole neighborhood over a summer. As proof, they pointed to a lidless trunk where they had stored Woodrow Wilson-era fur muffs, hats and scarves. They had wrapped this finery with newspapers and moth balls.

Some years later, the fur had come back into style. Mother and Grandmother went to the trunk to retrieve their furs but found only newspaper and a few strands of silk linings. Somewhere in Baltimore there were some fat moths with an appetite for raccoon, fox, seal, Persian lamb and chinchilla.

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