19 Secrets of Public Librarians

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The nation's first free public lending library opened in Massachusetts in 1790 with a collection of books donated by Benjamin Franklin, and public librarians have been helping Americans figure stuff out ever since. Sure, librarians excel at matching the right novel or biography or picture book to the right reader, but their mission is broader, and rooted in a radical idea: Everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, financial status, or any other factor, has a right to information. In honor of National Library Week, Mental Floss spoke to five public librarians to find out what they do behind the stacks to keep these local repositories of knowledge thriving.

1. THEY NEED TO HAVE AT LEAST A MASTER'S DEGREE TO GET A JOB.

A young man handing over a book at a library
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In order to score a job, librarians need a master’s degree in library science, library and information studies, or librarianship—programs in which they learn about cataloguing and organizing, statistics, research, management, and digital reference, among other essential skills. A librarian-in-training may also pick a specialty, like archival studies or rare books. Some librarians go on to earn a doctorate in library science; this degree can open the door to jobs in places like the Library of Congress and corporate research libraries.

2. THEY'RE INCREASINGLY IN DEMAND.

Librarians earn a median annual income of $60,760—about $10,000 higher than the average for all occupations nationwide. And in case you're thinking it’s a dying industry, the Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that librarian jobs of all kinds—not just those in public libraries—will increase by 9 percent by 2026. In fact, a 2017 report by the education and publishing company Pearson found that librarians, curators, and archivists were among the occupational groups with the highest probability of increased demand by 2030 [PDF].

3. THEY CAN HELP YOU WITH EVERYTHING FROM METADATA TO FILLING OUT YOUR TAXES.

Librarians are trained in accessing all sorts of information, not just what you find between two covers. Some of them, like Erica Findley, who works at the Multnomah County Library system in Portland, Oregon, specialize in metadata, which she describes as a fancy word for “how you describe a thing" (technically, it's data about other data). She focuses on making online catalogs easier for patrons to search: “We try to put ourselves in a user’s shoes—what kind of key word are you going to type into the search box?”

Her colleague Katy Ferris specializes in electronic content, and says it’s her mission to encourage patrons to “think beyond the library as a physical space where they can get the latest bestseller.” That means assembling electronic resources—e-books and audio books, digitized objects like photos and pamphlets, streaming media, and online databases.

Not sure how to tell fake news from real news? Ask a librarian. They can also help you research how to fill out tax forms, get career training, find an AA meeting, and apply for citizenship. “People think, ‘Librarians know everything!’” says Michelle Krakowski, an adult library specialist in Contra Costa County, California. “No, but we know where to look for it.”

4. THERE'S PLENTY OF RESEARCH BEHIND THEIR RECOMMENDATIONS.

What does a librarian want most? "To give someone the perfect book,” says Gia Paolini, a Contra Costa County community library manager. That said, no one, or 10, or 100 librarians can read every book published in a year. So, they do their own research in blogs and trade publications like Publishers Weekly, attend training sessions and webinars, and consult librarians-only subscription databases like NoveList.com, which offers book recommendations by librarians, for librarians. Rakisha Kearns-White, a young adult specialist at a large library in New York City, says she belongs to a committee whose members read several books every school semester, then present talks on them to their peers. Still, they read a lot—Kearns-White says "some colleagues read 1000 books a year, which is amazing. I don’t know how they do that."

5. THEY LOVE HELPING TO SETTLE A BET.

There’s a mundane occurrence to delight every librarian. “Especially if there are language barriers, I love when someone musters the courage to ask me a question and we can go back and forth to make sure I connect them to the right resources,” Krakowski says. For Paolini, it’s when “someone comes in nervous, expecting us to be mean, then they tell me, ‘You guys are so nice … and I didn’t know you had e-books!”

But Paolini's favorite thing of all is getting a call at the phone reference desk from a sports bar where two buddies are arguing over player stats: “I’m like, ‘This is great that you’re calling the library to settle a bet!'”

6. THEIR JOBS ARE OFTEN DEPENDENT ON TAXES.

Funding for public libraries is complex and varies place by place, but the bulk often comes from city or county allocations or property taxes, supplemented with state or federal dollars, as well as private donations. The nature of these sources can make them inconsistent from year to year, which means librarians' jobs are often subject to uncertainty. Paolini says the economic crash of 2008 was "awful." She explains, "We’re funded mostly by taxes, so when home values completely crashed we were looking at layoffs and [shortening] the hours we were open.”

Sometimes libraries have to get creative to fill budget shortfalls: The Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania raised money to fill some of a $5.5 million funding gap in 2010 by selling seasonal ornaments, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other libraries have been forced to get similarly inventive by hosting fun runs, wine tastings, mini-golf, and even Scrabble tournaments at the library.

The good news, though, according to Paolini, is that despite the occasional politician who thinks libraries waste public money and should be abolished, “99 percent of people [seem to] love libraries and are happy to fund them. We’re not going anywhere.”

7. PLEASE DON'T ASK THEM FOR "BOY BOOKS."

Little boy sitting on a stack of books and reading
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Every librarian has their own set of pet peeves (not reading the posted hours, leaving books randomly in the stacks), but Kearns-White says that one of hers is when people come in and ask for "boy books" or "girl books." Her response: "Our books have no gender—I can recommend a good story about XYZ." Asking for books by gender, she says, "perpetuates unnecessary gender stereotypes and also perpetuates the idea that boys don’t like to read books written by women or starring women, and it’s really not true."

Another pet peeve? Parents who think their kids are reading the "wrong" kinds of books—comic books, say, instead of Shakespeare. In that case, Kearns-White will go above and beyond to get kids the books they want. “I’ll take the kid into a section where the [parent] can’t hear and say, ‘Listen, I can see you don’t like fiction but your mom isn’t going to get off my back about it. I’ll grab a book that seems like it could be remotely interesting to you, while you go get the book you really want. I’ll convince your mom to let you get both.’”

8. LIBRARIAN STEREOTYPES FROM POP CULTURE MAKE THEM ROLL THEIR EYES.

Negative images of librarians abound in pop culture—most recently, in the Netflix series Stranger Things. “The librarian [in one episode] is like, ‘You can’t have any more books because you’ve already got three out,’ and she’s so nasty about it,” Paolini says. “Every single librarian I know would say, ‘I’ll make you a deal.’”

The portrayal of librarians as dowdy spinsters gets another eye-roll, as does a messy library. “The library in No Man of Her Own (1932) with Carole Lombard looks like an apocalyptic nightmare. No librarian would ever let that happen,” Paolini says.

9. THEY WISH YOU WOULDN'T USE BACON AS A BOOKMARK ...

Three strips of bacon on a white background
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Librarians find all kinds of objects wedged between the pages of books—$100 bills, Broadway tickets, condoms, paychecks, love letters, drugs, hatchets, knives, and even a vial labeled “smallpox sample.” Messiest of all, though, might be the food left in books, like crumbled Cheetos, slices of pickles, and whole strips of bacon (both cooked and raw).

10. ... OR LEAVE WEIRD THINGS IN THE BOOK DROP.

People also love to stuff strange items in the book drop, whether it's a dozen doughnuts—how thoughtful?—or a live raccoon. Librarians have also found fireworks, eggs, and dead rabbits and fish, both of which required carefully cleaning the book drop as well as the books that had been inside. Dewey Readmore Books, a library cat from Iowa, was originally deposited as a kitten in the night drop box, then became an international celebrity.

11. THEY NEVER TALK TO MANY OF THEIR PATRONS ...

Between online catalogs, self-serve check-out stations, and e-books and audiobooks that are accessed with the OverDrive app from home, “We never even interact with most of our users,” Ferris says. The surge in online usage doesn’t mean actual books and periodicals have become irrelevant, though; they’re just as in-demand as they ever were. “As librarians, it’s important for us not to dictate what libraries should be,” Krakowski says. Online services “help us support the diverse needs of our communities.”

12. ... BUT IF YOU'RE WEIRD, THEY MIGHT GIVE YOU A NICKNAME.

Librarians meet plenty of characters. Brooke McCarley documented her (brief) interlude working in a library for ThoughtCatlog.com; among her most memorable patrons was a man who gifted her a bag of used teddy bears "in case I could use them." Reddit’s libraries subreddit is also filled with librarians sharing stories about visitors bringing in kittens, reciting erotic poetry, showing up with cotton balls in their ears and noses—and smelling of everything from urine to gasoline. If you're particularly memorable, staff might make up a special name for you—according to redditor Greenjourney, one character at a small rural library has been nicknamed "Prince Valiant" by the staff for his bowl-shaped haircut and "medieval bathing habits."

13. THEIR JOB CAN COME WITH UNEXPECTED HAZARDS.

A senior librarian reading to small children
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Librarians get yelled at, hit on, and insulted. “Sitting out there at a desk opens you up to all kids of micro-aggressions,” Kearns-White explains. But even on an average day, programs can go a little … sideways. “I remember holding up a big tarantula and all the kids screaming,” Paolini says about her years running programs as a children’s librarian. “We also lost a boa constrictor once.”

Most public libraries have a code of conduct in place so librarians can eject anyone who’s intoxicated or acting abusively. These behaviors can lead to suspensions, although, Paolini says, “Most of us look at being in this space as a human right. You’d have to be an incredibly bad person—tried to hurt children or something—to get banned for life.”

14. SOMETIMES PATRONS JUST WANT TO TALK.

Some patrons need validation for their parenting skills, or a sympathetic ear to complain to. “Since public libraries are one of the few spaces you can go where nothing is asked of you, you get a lot of folks in crisis looking for help,” Ferris explains.

Other resources librarians may provide, depending on the needs and desires of their patrons: summer lunch programs for low-income kids; maker spaces; musical events; and access to on-site social workers.

15. THEIR GOAL IS TO MAKE LIFELONG LEARNERS—OF PATRONS, AND THEMSELVES.

A librarian helping two patrons at computers
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Between 1883 and 1929, steel mogul Andrew Carnegie funded thousands of public libraries around the world—including 1795 in the U.S. “The history of the Carnegie free libraries is still with us,” Krakowski says. “This is one of the few places in the world where you can walk in and go through the stacks, and there’s no gatekeeper."

It’s just this freedom and openness that attracts so many librarians to their profession. “We love information, and most of us are lifelong learners,” Krakowski continues. “What I love most is when people ask me questions from a different sort of life context [or background]. I’m excited to say, ‘I never thought about that! Let’s find out together.’”

16. SOMETIMES THEY NEED TO WEAR COSTUMES.

A large part of a librarian’s job is to get libraries recognized as community resources. For Krakowski, that means forging connections with organizations involved in animal services or workforce development, for example. “They may have experts who provide specialized services to the community, and we can support them by bringing certain [tools] into the library,” she says. For job development, that might mean things like training seminars, books about how to make a career change, and linking to national databases of jobs, like the U.S. Department of Labor's CareerOneStop.com

Children’s librarians also get requests to read at daycare centers and schools—and often, to dress up like characters such as Pete the Cat or one of the Wild Things. “Sometimes you think, ‘I didn’t go to library school for this,’” Paolini says. But that kind of outreach gives librarians the opportunity to introduce the library to new readers, promote summer reading programs, and get kids to sign up for their own library cards.

17. THEY HAVE A CODE OF ETHICS.

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In 1939, the American Library Association, the leadership body for professional librarians, adopted a 28-point Code of Ethics, which has been foundational to the mission of librarians ever since. It’s been amended three times since it was first adopted, and cut from 28 points to 8, but its basic tenets remain the same—serving as a mission statement of “general ambition” in dealing with censorship, privacy, and how a librarian should juggle her private views when they differ from those of her employing institution. Privacy especially, Krakowski says, is "an important thing to think about now, with discussions about the privacy of information and user data. Librarians are at the forefront of this, and understanding what privacy is, since we see people as individuals—not data sets.”

The Code of Ethics are just guidelines, however—they're not legally binding, so violating them won't get a librarian fired.

18. THEY MIGHT HIDE THE OFFICE SUPPLIES.

Most librarians are highly educated professionals who take their job very seriously. That said, they're humans, too, and the Tumblr Librarian Shaming collects some anonymous confessions from librarians who have behaved less-than-perfectly. That might mean getting garlic butter on the books, refusing to check out DVDs that are hard to find, transferring phone calls from abusive patrons to other libraries, or hiding the tape dispensers ("because people think that using ‘a little bit of tape’ means taking about a foot").

19. THEY DON'T WANT YOUR OLD MAGAZINES.

“We love to talk to you and answer your questions, so please interrupt us, and don’t think of us as scary,” Krakowski says. “You are our first priority, and libraries would not exist if not for you!”

There is one notable exception to this rule, however. “Please do not ask us if we want your moldy, outdated set of Encyclopedia Britannicas, or your mother’s collection of Better Homes and Gardens,” Paolini notes. The answer to that question will always be a resounding “No!”

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

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iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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