SNIFF the air of Baltimore's old harbor area, and if you're a stranger you may be surprised. Rather than the industrial stench you might expect in such surroundings, the air is laden with the scent of spices, an olfactory benison as delightsome as that bestowed by the factories of Grasse, the Mediterranean town that is one of the great perfume centers of France.

Baltimore's perfumer is the McCormick & Company Inc. spice mill on the waterfront. From the mill's windows waft the odors of cinnamon, of cloves, of pepper and cardamom and dozens of other aromatics.

McCormick is pleased with its 24-karat redolence, and it wants to be sure that the public is getting the odiferous message. When the Tall Ships sailed into the Baltimore harbor two years ago, the spice-laden air made McCormick's presence known to half a million visitors, but not with the emphasis a senior officer of the company thought sufficient. Fling open the harborside windows, he commanded, as he ordered the cinnamon processors into full operation. Fans strategically located by the mill's windows blew the cinnamon-scented air out to the visitors, and the aroma blanketed the area like spindrift in a high wind.

Recently I followed my nose after getting into Baltimore, and ended up at McCormick's Light Street plant and offices. Inside, one is whisked to the top of the nine-story structure and into a reception room with a sweeping view of the inner harbor. Off to one side of the polished tile floor is a gallery-like room that is a facsimile of a 16th century public English tea room where hostesses in costumes that match the architecture serve tea, a major McCormick product, to guests throughout the day.

McCormick is a curious combination of an old-fashioned company with the easygoing politeness that characterized many enterprises decades ago and a high-powered pioneer of innovative management policy. What the company did in the depths of the Great Depression really accounts for its current prowess.

The company started to operate in 1889 when Willoughby McCormick instituted Bee Brand flavoring extracts and fruit syrups, along with an insecticide that for some time was the mainstay product of the firm. (A two-foot likeness of a honey bee still adorns one side of the company's Light Street building.)

By the early 1900s, the company had developed a spice business: buying, processing and selling aromatics. Fire struck and nearly put McCormick out of business. But it recovered, and in 1921 built the nine-story structure on Light Street that continues to be the enterprise's main spice processing plant for many products, and houses several parts of the corporation's offices. The lion-colored building, right on the inner harbor of Baltimore and hard by the U.S.S. Constellation, represents a link with the past when the spice trade was the glamour enterprise of worldwide sailing and selling.

The company needed more space, and so it built new and larger corporate headquarters in Hunt Valley, about a half hour's drive from the middle of Baltimore. But the Light Street building remains the flagship.

After the stock market crash of 1929. Willoughby McCormick took the course of many other small businessmen: he retrenched, and was ready to cut salaries and the work week when he died in 1932. The McCormick family retained control of the company, and so Willoughby's nephew, Charles P. McCormick, took the helm. Instead of cutting salaries, he raised everybody's pay, cut the work week by several hours and cut employes in on the profits. Profits rose impressively despite the depression.

In addition to the immediate benefits, Charley, as he became known to most McCormickites, instituted a plan that was called multiple management. Under this program, men and women down the line in the company hierarchy became members of what in effect was a junior board of directors; membership rotated periodically. These juniors were drawn from all parts of the firm, and all fields of action for the board were fair game. If an accountant, for example, had recommendations on sales, research or personnel, he had his say.

McCormick employes began to feel that McCormick was really their organization --Charley thought participation was a basic necessity for an employe, along with fair pay, security and other factors.

The program paid off: McCormick went from a small firm to one with sales of a third of a billion dollars.

Everyone concerned has made money. Salaries are so good that no union has been able to organize McCormick; bonuses and stock purchase plans have sweetened take-home pay. The heirs of the first McCormicks own some 16 percent of the voting stock, and thus have control. Yet it is important to note that the bulk of the common stock ownership rests with former and present employes.

McCormick's stock, traded over the counter, sells at about $14 a share at this writing. Such a price is a little better than 10 times earnings for the previous year, and it pays about 36 cents a common share in dividends. It is impossible to judge McCormick's financial performance against such competitors as French and Durkee since they are divisions of larger companies. But McCormick obviously is doing well, and a large part of the success it has enjoyed stems from Charley McCormick's multiple management concept. One of the reasons for this was expressed recently by a senior officer and board member who said, "McCormick recognizes the worth of people, and appreciates the value of the trust in them that comes from giving them responsibility." He paused for a moment, then added, "We're not just a factory."

Most of the Light Street building is devoted to the reception, storage, processing and packaging of spices from the world's every corner. Tea always comes by ship through the port of Baltimore, and much of the pepper, too. Other spices, bought through brokers and dealers in New York, arrive less romantically by truck. Except for tea and vanilla, which are handled at Hunt Valley, almost everything goes through the Light Street plant.

But first, samples of every shipment received go through the quality control laboratory, which in common with the rest of the plant has the sanitary gleam of an operating room. Roger Lawrence, head of the laboratory, depends on scientific tests to determine, for example, the essential oil content of an herb or spice, which carries its flavor. But he also uses his eyes and nose as detectors.

Some of the best sesame seeds come from Mexico, he says. They should be light-colored, and shiny. Reports on sesame, say McCormick's spicy historians, go back 3,000 years to the days when the Assyrians wrote their version of the creation of the universe. They discovered that sesame was endowed with a property that has lightened the burdens of man (and woman) through the ages: it could be made into a drink with a kick. Sesame seed wine slaked the thirst not only of ordinary mortals, but also of the gods who were about to create the universe, noted the Assyrians. The wine lubricated the lucubrations of the gods as they planned the genesis.

This Assyrian creation myth, set out on tablets now in the British Museum, is the first recorded story of the use of spices. Even before the Assyrians, however, people were wrapping food in leaves to protect it from ashes in open-fire cooking. Sometimes, they discovered, the leaves imparted a pleasing flavor, and so they tried using other aromatic things --zomes, seeds, nuts, arils, buds, stems, stigmas and fruits -- in their cooking. These aromatics became known as spices and herbs.[WORDS ILLEGIBLE] spices differ from herbs, the words are commonly used interchangeably.

When Lawrence is looking at a spice sample, he spreads it out on a sheet of white paper, and then compares it with a control sample. McCormick has about 100 of these control samples.

Lawrence agrees that the quality of herbs such as laurel and oregano is indicated by their color: they should be bright green, dust-free, no fading, resembling the leaves of the growing plant. The leaves should be clear of stems. Even an amateur can spot good bay, or laurel, leaves, from their pungency. And the best leaves will bend considerably without breaking, owing to the large amount of essential oil in the leaves.

Technicians at McCormick's laboratory sometimes do what a consumer can do for himself: put about a half-teaspoonful of, say, tarragon, in the palm of one hand and rub it with the thumb of the other hand. This will release the essential oil that carries the scent and taste. But this is only a preliminary kind of McCormick testing. Intricate chemical analysis follows.

McCormick is also interested in appearances. Take cloves, for instance. Robert Murphy, plant manager, pointed out that inspectors pick out only those with bright-colored buds for sale as whole cloves: a clove must look right when it studs a ham. The failures are ground up -- the taste is the same.

McCormick is just as particular about the rest of its line of some 200 spices and allied products. T. Carter Parkinson, a director, executive committee member, executive vice president and the man who runs the grocery products division, says forcefully, "We'll go into any customer and cut our spices with all competitors." In this case the verb "cut" means to lay out the spice and let the grocer compare.

Parkinson boasts of the uniform quality of McCormick's products, noting that cosmetic considerations make some of the same things more expensive. He says that "If someone buys cinnamon sticks in a can they may not be of the same size -- some shorter than others. Those in a jar will be uniform, and of course it costs the company money to select and cut the sticks." But the product is the same.

Thomas Miller, McCormick's cinnamon expert, notes that the best cinnamon formerly came from Saigon, a source cut off by the Communist regime. Miller pointed out that there are some 200 or more kinds of cinnamon and cassia (a cinnamon relative) plants. He thinks that the Tamghing from mainland China and the Korintiji from Indonesia are two of the best, and McCormick buys them --both have a 2 1/2 to 3 percent essential oil content, which gives them proper authority.

McCormick spice history and other sources note that centuries ago the Arabs had hammerlock on the spice trade, and they tried to hide the source of their wares. Cinnamon, they claimed, was gathered by huge birds that made their nests out of cinnamon sticks, cementing the sticks together with mud and pebbles and plastering them to unscalable rock walls much like swallows' nests. The Arabs said they lured the birds to the ground with pieces of meat which when flown to the nests broke them down from the weight. When the nests crashed to the ground, the Arabs would dart in and gather the cinnamon.

Both the ancient Greeks and Romans adored spices. They made perfumes with the aromatics and offered them to their gods, used them for bed breath, lack of appetite and other ailments. They also used them as aphrodisiacs.

Pliny wrote about spicy cure-alls that employed honey, polenta, wine, rose oil, asses' milk, vinegar, pitch, pomegranate juice, women's milk and axle grease. Parsley was thought to prevent intoxication and credulous tosspots wore wreaths of the stuff.

Pepper was the brightest star of the spice firmament. One main reason was that putrid meat was common, but pepper and other spices disguised the smell. Contrary to some popular conceptions, however, pepper is not a meat preservative, that is, an element that inhibits or prevents spoilage.

By the fifth century pepper had attained the value of precious metals on the Continent. When Alaric, king of the Goths, agreed to lift the siege on, Rome, he demanded as part of the ransom 3,000 pounds of pepper. Later, pepper became currency. Many English towns kept their books in pepper, rather than in sterling, and citizens paid their taxes in pepper. A well-heeled man was called a pepper sack. When peppercorns were sold, they were counted out, pip by pip, as if they were black pearls. dock wallopers in London were required to sew up their pockets so they couldn't hide spices, especially pepper, in them.

The processing that leads to a tin or jar (same contents) of McCormick pepper or other spice begins on the seventh floor of the plant. There, peppercorns go through a machine called a stonerater, which jiggles the spice and small stones, the latter being sluffed off. A device named a scalperater plucks off stems. In both of these a magnet pulls out bits of metal, a precaution for which every spice user should be grateful. Mills grind the spices, and finally a sifter with a fine mesh turns out the dust that accumulated on the raw material while it was growing and being harvested. The finished spice finally ends up in the packaging department on the bottom floor.

Although about 75 percent of McCormick's business is still directly related to spices and extracts, it is vigorously pursuing the manufacture of synthetics against the day when it expects supplies and costs will force the use of artificial flavorings. Richard Hall, McCormick's vice president for science and technology, says that the company can produce a brown sauce that is the equivalent of one made in a French kitchen by a professional chef.

Hall may be right, but I doubt that haute cuisine is endangered by those at the test tubes. I still think that the beguiling scent and taste of things such as saffron in an authentic bouil-labaisse, and the authoritative aroma of basil, fresh or dried, with tomatoes raw or cooked, will never be duplicated except in the fields and hills where long may they grow.