Pine Fresh: From the Therapeutic Pine Forest to Toilet Duck


Edward Lear, 1812–1888, British, A View of the Pine Woods Above Cannes, 1869 (Watercolour and gumming with pen in brown and blue ink, and scraping out, over graphite on thick, rough, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

We have all come across pine as a scent used in everything from those tree shaped car air-fresheners to toilet cleaner. But how did we get from the smell emanating from a tree or a forest of pines to a cleaner that ‘freshens your bathroom with a refreshing Pine scent’?*[1] Somehow we have developed a shared understanding that when we smell the scent of pine, like that of lemon, we agree for the most part that it means ‘clean’, or in the advertising words relating to Ajax Pine Forest All Purpose Cleaner, that the ‘pleasant pine fragrance signals cleanliness’.[2]

One of the fascinating things about the senses is that we imbue them with meaning and understand them through a shared cultural history. Mark Smith has described how ‘the taste of a lemon is far from historically or culturally constant and how it tastes, its meaning, its salivating sharpness or margarita, Jimmy Buffet-laden signature, is dependent on many factors, the not least of which is history.’[3] In terms of smells, as Jonathan Reinarz argues, aromas in particular have ‘always been an integral part of peoples’ lives, possessing distinctive and often shared meanings’.[4]

Most work on pine traces a lineage back to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, of AD 77-9:

It is a well-known fact that forests planted solely with trees from which pitch and resin are extracted, are remarkably beneficial for patients suffering from phthisis or who are un- able to recover their strength after a long illness: indeed it is said, that in such cases to breathe the air of localities thus planted, is more beneficial even than to take a voyage to Egypt or to go on a summer’s journey to the mountains to drink the milk there, impregnated with the perfumes of plants.[5]

The use of pine nuts for various diseases are featured in herbals across the centuries and generally the use of pine was seen as valuable for lung conditions.

The use of the pine forest itself as a therapeutic sensescape however seems to only emerge in the nineteenth century. Eva Eylers has demonstrated, in Germany pine forests became therapeutic landscapes that were often viewed as imbued with health qualities in contrast to the city.[6] She argues that, ‘rather than to act upon the city, with all its overcrowding and sanitary problems the response was to look for a cure outside it. And with the conviction that cities were true breeding grounds for disease came also the theory that there were places of health outside the city.’[7] This is something we also see in the UK throughout the nineteenth century – as specialist hospitals, asylums and sanatoria are moved further out to rural locations, often on hills and away from urban polluted centres. It is also clearly a transnational phenomena, particularly of the Northern hemisphere, as many countries, including North America, developed similar ideas regarding the use pine woods for patients with lung conditions during the nineteenth century.[8]


34 Hailey sat under pine trees Bristol University

Patients taking the air at Hailey Open-Air Sanatorium from Charles Reinhardt, A handbook of the open-air treatment and life in an open-air sanatorium : a concise account of the modern open-air treatment for consumption and other tuberculous diseases, with detailed descriptions of open-air sanatoria in the British Isles (London: John Bale, 1902, Wellcome Collection)

It is perhaps not surprising then that Alpine and forested locations become seen as ideal places for treating tuberculosis patients during the nineteenth century.[9] Dr Hermann Brehmer opened the first German sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in the mountains of Silesia in 1854 and Otto Walther’s sanatorium was situated soon afterwards in the pinewoods of the Black Forest. Eylers argues that the ‘theory of the “immune place” served as the impetus for the justification of the sanatorium, which was to be situated far from the damaging city environment in natural surroundings, ideally in the dry air of an unspoilt mountain region’.[10] In Germany forests, including pinewoods, also became part of the development of a new national identity in the nineteenth century. There are certainly connections between the revival of folk ideas and the symbolism and use of forests for health in this period, which can also be related to political and cultural shifts in national identity.

As countries such as the UK took up the open-air therapies and ‘immune places’ theory as pioneered in Germany and Switzerland, they also took with them the concept of the therapeutic pinewood. As late as 1902, The Lancet was reporting an address given by C. Theodore Williams, Consulting Physician To The Hospital For Consumption And Diseases Of The Chest, Brompton, in which he stated that, along with the usual considerations of sloping ground etc:

It [the hospital] should be surrounded by extensive grounds, partly wooded, with fragrant pine groves, providing dry shelter and permitting exercise in all weathers, and partly with open spaces which should be carpeted, not with rank grass, but with the crisp herbage of the mountain side, abounding in thyme and other sweet-scented plants.[11]

Here the fragrant pine is included alongside other sweet smelling plants as important therapeutic agents.

Similar arguments to those applied to health institutions were also used to promote places as health resorts in the late nineteenth century. Dr Horace Dobell in his 1885 book, Bournemouth and its surroundings, devotes whole chapters to the role of pine trees in health. For example he writes:

During my London practice, when advising patients with pulmonary complaints to visit Bournemouth or Arcachon, I, like most other physicians, always did so with a definite belief that one of the advantages common to these two places was the presence of pine trees.[12]

He argued these advantages were mainly due to ‘the balsamic emanations from the pines’.[13]

Bournemouth sanatorium for consumption and disease of chest

Bournemouth: Sanatorium for consumption and diseases of the chest (Lithograph by Day & Son, Wellcome Collection)

In 1872 and 1873 The Lancet devoted several columns to accounts of foreign spas and baths by Dr John Macpherson. He recorded a number of visits to different spa places including those at Gernsbach near Baden, which according to him had become popular due ‘to its extract-of-pine baths and inhalation rooms, and its surrounding pine forests’.[14] As part of these accounts Macpherson outlines the various ways in which pine products are utilized alongside immersion in the forest itself through pine baths and other inhalations. An early antecedent of the ubiquitous pine car freshener seems to be described here, as he records that, ‘the balsam of the mountain pine, as prepared at Reicherhall, is said to be the most agreeable of all, and it is sufficient for purposes of inhalation to steep a piece of paper in it and hang it up in the room. It is a generator of ozone.’[15] At the same time others including Charles Kingzett, a chemist in Britain, and John Day, an Australian physician, developed preparations using pine as both an antiseptic and disinfectant. Day advised that hospital wards ‘should be lined with fresh pine boards, so that the natural timber emanations would react with oxygen to produce hydrogen peroxide, and thus hinder the spread of disease.’[16]

From the start of the twentieth century though there was a gradual move away from a belief in the curative nature of the forest itself beyond the products which could be produced from the trees. Eylers notes that at the Tuberculosis Conference of 1899 in Berlin, Dr von Unterberger, argued ‘that with the “Haus Sanatorium”, the house or home sanatorium, TB therapy could be administered in “every hospital, and every house”’.[17] She also describes how, ‘the holistic approach, […] where the natural site was regarded as the very key to the patient’s recovery, was dissected into single elements and reproduced elsewhere – temperature, light etc.’[18] With these component elements ‘the doctor suggested that the alpine environment with its real pine woods could be replaced by small pine trees in containers and pine tree branches in vases. Their smell should be increased by sprinkling scented oils … onto them whenever their natural scent had faded.’[19] The natural environment then was to be brought indoors, broken down into its constituent parts and enhanced if necessary. From being an immersive experience in the forest, the therapeutic nature of the pinewood became reduced to what could be brought indoors.

With the development of treatments, including antibiotics for diseases such as tuberculosis, the pine tree lost its significance as an essential part of the therapeutic environment by the mid-twentieth century. However its role as a scent and marketing tool in products denoting cleanliness continues within our domestic and institutional spaces, and this should not be underestimated. In 2014 Pine-Sol in the US stopped using natural pine oil in its products due to a shortage and replaced it with an artificial substitute.[20] The response was immediate condemnation from many consumers, which suggests that the connection via smell to the natural pine forest still has meaning, even if the association to the real forest environment with its own sensescape has perhaps become obscured.


* With grateful thanks to those who encouraged these ideas as they were sparked and developed during the International Network of Hospital Historians meeting in Malta in 2017 and those who commented on my paper at the Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference at Liverpool in 2018.

[1] Marketing description for Pine Fresh toilet duck


[3] Mark Smith, ‘Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History’, Journal of Social History, 40(4), 841-858

  1. 848

[4] Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (University of Illinois Press, 2014), p. 18


[6] Eva Eylers, ‘Planning the Nation: the sanatorium movement in Germany’,

The Journal of Architecture, 2014, 19(5), 667-692

[7] Ibid, p.670

[8] Kenneth Thompson, ‘Trees as a Theme in Medical Geography and Public Health’, Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1978, 54(5), 517-531, pp. 521-523

[9] Harriet Richardson, Pine Trees,

[10] Eylers, p. 670

[11] C. Theodore Williams, ‘An Address on the Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis by Hygiene’, The Lancet, June 14 1902, p. 1675

[12] Horace Dobell, The medical aspects of Bournemouth and its surroundings (London: Smith, Elder and Co.,1885), p. 67

[13] Ibid.

[14] John Macpherson, ‘Notes of Visits to Foreign Baths’, The Lancet, 6 July 1872, p. 4.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ian D. Rae, ‘Ozonised Oils as Disinfectants’, Ambix, 2006, 53(1), 3-20, p. 8

[17] Eylers, p. 677

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 677-8



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