Making Sense of U.S. History

Mark M. Smith

“What are you working on these days?” This predictable question was asked of me by a friend and fellow historian a couple of decades ago.

“The history of the senses,” I answered. My friend looked quizzical.

“Odd, for you. And a bit dry, isn’t it?”

“How so?” I was curious. Was my new project already stale?

“Well, I mean, counting has never been your strong suit, really. And hasn’t the census been done to death?”

I remember shaking my head and laughing. “No. The senses. Not the census.” He smiled but I got the impression he was only marginally more enlightened by my answer.

When I first began in the late 1990s to think seriously about the ways that sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches functioned in the past, the “field” of sensory history was new enough to court linguistic confusion. It also demanded a lot of unpacking to audiences unfamiliar with the subject. Even the terminology was a bit plastic. Some historians working in the area referred to “the history of the senses” and the history of sense perception; others—myself included (especially after the above mentioned conversation)—talked of “sensory history.” Both are used still, although sensory history seems to have become the preferred shorthand.

Sensory history—the “sensory turn,” as it has been referred to—has enjoyed such rapid evolution and maturation over the past couple of decades that it seems a good time to give a brief overview of the state of the field, especially for Americanists who are increasingly examining their topics from a sensate perspective and are helping expand the remit of sensory history in ways that were barely imaginable not long ago.

What is sensory history? At its base, sensory history stresses the role of the senses—including explicit treatments of sight and vision—in shaping peoples’ experiences in the past and shows how they understood their worlds and why. It is very careful not to assume that the senses are some sort of “natural” endowment, but rather locates their meaning and function in specific historical contexts. Sensory history generally is less inclined to reject vision in favor of the other senses or to define itself against a field or subject. Instead, sensory history is positioned within the coordinates of multiple fields. At its most powerful, sensory history is explanative and allows historians to elucidate, by reference to both visual and non-visual senses, something that makes little sense if understood exclusively as a scopic phenomenon. Sensory historians rarely argue that attention to the sensate radically reinterprets what we already know about a place and time. Rather, they tend to claim that attention to the sensory past allows us a deeper appreciation of the texture, meaning, and human experience of that past, and that this can help us reinterpret, through deeper interrogation and understanding, established historical narratives in modest but important ways. In short, sensory history fulfills one of the prime mandates of historical inquiry: to expand understanding of the human experience.

Sensory history, then, is both field and habit and offers all historians a way of thinking about the past and of becoming attuned to the wealth of sensory evidence embedded in any number of texts, evidence that is quickly apparent once—and ironically—looked for.


It is worth saying a few words about the origins of sensory history, not least because some of the interventions by the field’s earliest practitioners still (and properly) resonate and inform some recent scholarship on the senses in U.S. history. This is especially important because some of the earliest scholarship raised important methodological questions about how to study past senses, issues that are now becoming increasingly important to sensory historians, especially those seeking to apply their insights to museums and the public.

Sensory history is in large part a product of the Annales school. As early as 1942, Lucien Febvre highlighted the necessity of thinking about the non-visual senses to understand lived experience in sixteenth-century Europe. Robert Mandrou furthered the claim and argued, a la Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, that the sense of sight gradually subordinated hearing—and by implication the senses of smell, taste, and touch—as the preeminent arbiter of truth and reliability, courtesy of key developments including the print revolution and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on perspective.

But it was the later work of Alain Corbin that arguably cemented the idea that the senses were an important, even essential, part of understanding past human experiences. Starting with his 1982 study of olfaction in eighteenth and nineteenth century France, which was followed by his seminal study of bells and sound and a thoughtful meditation on sensory methodology, Corbin’s work, more than that of any one historian, helped popularize the history of the senses and raised important methodological questions. For example, Corbin worried that earlier treatments of the sensate came perilously close to decontextualizing the meaning of sensory experience. Corbin insisted that the way people in the past understood and attached meaning to, say, smells and sounds, had to be framed in the context in which those smells and sounds were experienced and not presented as universal sensory experiences that transcended the context of their production and consumption. Equally important, Corbin’s work stressed that the modern era, highly indexed to the eye though it was, had not erased the relevance of the other senses; smells, sounds, touches, and tastes still mattered both during and long after the print revolution and the Enlightenment. Corbin’s work has proven extremely influential among historians of all persuasions, Americanists included.


It is also worth noting some of the other key, early work that helped establish sensory history as a serious endeavor. The critical work of anthropologist David Howes and cultural historian Constance Classen cannot be overstated; in joint and independent publications since the 1980s, both scholars have done a great deal to explain how and why the sensate past is important to understanding the full range of historical experiences. European historians, particularly those of medicine, also helped establish the senses as important to historical inquiry and published several key works in the 1980s and 1990s. And, certainly, social historians, environmental historians, historians of religion, media, technology, and the law were also central in pioneering some early work on aspects of sensory history.

Sensory history began to capture the interest of American historians in the late 1990s and a number of monographs appeared in print in the early 2000s. Studies of sound, hearing, listening—what some described as historical acoustemology—led the way with at least four monographs on various aspects of the history of sound appearing in print in a three year period, 2000–2003. Why historians elected to write about sound before turning to the other senses remains unclear and was probably a result of multiple factors including the availability of much earlier and important theoretical work on soundscapes by R. Murray Schafer; an interest in engaging the “great divide” theory regarding the putative shift from orality to the eye most famously associated with media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong; the influence of European historiography, which attended first to sound, hearing, and listening, itself partly influenced by the established work by musicologists; and the particular interests of some sub fields—such as the history of religion and the history of science and technology—which emphasized the importance of sound as a way to further interrogate key developments in those fields. Regardless of the particular reasons, we saw books published on the history of sound and hearing during the Second Great Awakening in 2000; the auditory history of slavery, free labor, and antebellum sectionalism in 2001; a history of American architectural acoustics and modernity in the early twentieth century in 2002; and the history of sound and acoustemology in colonial America in 2003. Since then, other works in a variety of forms including articles and monographs have expanded our understanding of how sound (and silence) shaped a number of developments in American history, from the experience of the enslaved to the settlement and conquering of the antebellum West. Sound, in other words, is still a very popular way to access the sensate past for historians, second only to histories of vision and seeing.

While Americanists—not unlike historians of Europe and other areas—have tended to focus on histories of sound, they have also begun to take the other senses of smell, taste, and touch seriously. And I fully expect that one of the key developments in the field over the next few years will be the increasing attention paid to these senses in U.S. history. When that time comes, historians will have a thin but helpful historiography to work from. As in the past, a good deal of this historiography will come from Europeanists and, increasingly, self-described sensory historians working in transnational histories. Their work is necessarily broad, ranging in time and place with an often implicit comparative analysis and their principal aim is to show—very much in tune with Corbin—how the senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight changed over time and functioned according to the economic, cultural, and political imperatives of particular societies.

That said, future work on smell, taste, and touch in U.S. history can build on some pioneering insights by U.S. historians. Connie Y. Chang, for example, has written persuasively about the role smells played in generating social conflict in California and, moreover, has offered a number of insights on how Americanists might approach and further the history of olfaction. U.S. historians interested in the history of taste have more to draw upon, thanks to a number of published and forthcoming works on the history of food, as well as helpful overviews on how Americanists might think about investigating the history of taste. Much less work has been done explicitly on the sense of touch in the American context, and this sense in particular seems ripe for investigation. It appears likely that future work by Americanists on hapticity and tactility will likely draw on transnational histories of touch as well as important work done by Europeanists on gender and tactility.

In recent years, American historians have added to their histories of individual senses by highlighting the importance of multisensory experience. We now possess work on the history of colonial America which endeavors to take account of all the senses; a monograph on the sensory history of race-making, slavery, and segregation in the American South; an effort to capture the experience of the American Civil War through all the senses; and, most recently, a sensory tour through nineteenth and early twentieth century Chicago which connects the smells, touches, and sounds of the city to the Chicago River, the Great Fire of 1871, and the 1894 Pullman Strike in ways that helps us better appreciate the meaning those events held for contemporaries. I suspect that future work will be along similar lines and will also move towards a more intersensory understanding of the past, one which attempts to show how the senses worked together in less discrete fashion.

Whatever the specific trajectory of sensory history, scholars working in the field will have benefitted from its popularization in recent years. Whereas early practitioners of sensory history were working in something of a vacuum, sometimes with little awareness of the sort of sensory histories being written by other historians, today, thanks to a number of roundtables in high-profile historical journals, the establishment of specialized journals (most notably the interdisciplinary journal, The Senses and Society), and book series devoted to sensory studies and sensory history, the amount of information on the sort of sensory histories being written and the types of questions being asked is much greater than it was even a decade ago. This proliferation of information about the field of sensory history is helpful and welcome not least because it will help future practitioners make better sense of American pasts.