Sensory History: A Primer


Everyone loves lists. The editors of Tropics of Meta have shown how much fun lists of scholarly books can be. Alex Cummings identifies ten books crucial to the study of media history, and Ryan Reft adds nineteen that explore U.S. military history (war and society). Both lists provide a pleasant introduction to excellent scholarship in important but sometimes misunderstood fields.

In the same spirit, here’s a gentle invitation to ease your way into another fascinating but somewhat mysterious field, sensory history. Although there is nothing new about the explicit study of the five human senses (Aristotle shaped basic ideas about the role, meaning, and uses of the senses that still pervade the Western world), sensory studies emerged only recently as an academic field of study. Since the 1990s, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, art historians, literary scholars and many others have produced ever more imaginative explorations of how our senses work in social and cultural context. What we understand through looking, listening, smelling, tasting and touching varies from culture to culture. Historians for the last fifteen years have joined sensory studies and have demonstrated that our perception and experience is different today from past generations or centuries. Sensory history has become one of the tools of scholars working on many topics in America, Europe, and the world.

But, you ask, what the hell is sensory history? How can historians get at the sensory experience of past worlds, and what difference does it make? The following list offers some choice places to look for your answers.

Sensing the Past

Mark M. Smith, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (2007)

This is the overview of the field by the most prolific U.S.-based sensory historian, a specialist in the nineteenth century South who draws on examples from around the world.

Sensing Changes

Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (2010)

Parr’s Canadian history is outstanding, particularly on issues of nuclear radiation, pollution, and changes in senses of place. Though deeply researched, it’s far from a dry academic account.

How Early America Sounded

 Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded (2003)

What did the Puritans think when they heard thunder or the war whoops of Native Americans or the music of Africans? If historians still tend to treat colonial New England as a tale of the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness,” Rath gives us “The Howling Wilderness.” It’s a lot more fun.

Foul and Fragrant - Corbin

Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (1986)

Cummings lists Corbin’s work on sound, Village Bells as foundational for media history, and it belongs on this list, too. His study of smell, however, has been even more influential for sensory historians. No one has made a more ambitious case for the persistent importance in modern times of olfaction. Moreover, Corbin’s work paved the way for the outpouring of sensory history after 2000.

Gutenberg Galaxy

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

This is the outlier on the list, both because of its early date and the fact that it’s not a proper history. However, when the Canadian media theorist McLuhan published this bold argument about the birth of “typographical man” and the connection between technology, literacy and culture, he launched his own meteoric rise to cultural influence and formed some of the basic questions sensory scholars still grapple with today.


How Race Is Made

Mark M. Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (2006)

The racial obsessions of white southerners found numerous non-visual expressions, as Smith demonstrates in a concise but vivid account. Arguably it’s the most provocative sensory history so far.

History of the Senses

Robert Jütte, A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace (2005)

Few have been willing to tackle the task of writing an overall history of the senses across time and space, and Jütte’s effort is heavily loaded with German examples, but remains essential. Read it to learn why it matters that before the world wars, “Germany was rather behind the times with regard to vibrators.”

Eyesight Alone

Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (2005)

Jackson Pollock can’t have all the fun. The New York art world lionized the abstract expressionist when the critic Clement Greenberg anointed him, and this massive biography explores the processes of “Becoming Greenberg” and the “Tyranny of the Eye.” It’ll change the way you see paintings during your next visit to the museum.

Audible Past

Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (2003)

Not the easiest read, but certainly one of the most authoritative and exhaustively, imaginatively researched. Sterne’s expertise in the technologies of sound reproduction and the emergence of new cultures of listening makes this work of enduring importance.

Soundscape of Modernity

Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933

Wonderfully illustrated, Thompson’s book explores technology, place and space, the creation of harmonious new sounds and the struggle for noise abatement in the big city. This is the place to read about “the Big Noise.” 

Bonus: Two forthcoming books will certainly land high on this list:

Smell of Battle

Mark M. Smith, The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War (September 2014)

Adam Mack, Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers, and Muckrakers (2015)

Mack, a cultural historian at the School of the Art Institute, explores the role of the senses in the rise of Chicago from the Civil War through the end of the First World War, a period encompassing such milestones as the Great Fire and the Haymarket Affair. His manuscript for the University of Illinois Press captures the way Chicagoans of different classes coped with the sensory shocks of rapid urban growth and industrialization, and it includes a fascinating sketch of the sensory biography of Upton Sinclair at the time he composed The Jungle.

Upton Sinclair - The Jungle