The most distracting thing about costume dramas set in any period before roughly the turn of the 20th century -- in my experience, anyway -- is the thought that everything and everyone on screen must have smelled really bad. The most refined lords and gentry on Wolf Hall did not bathe on anything we would regard today as a regular basis.
No doubt there were exceptions. But until fairly recently in human history, even the most fastidious city dweller must have grown accustomed to the sight of human waste products from chamber pots that had been emptied in the street. (And not just the sight of it, of course.) Once in a while a movie or television program will evince something of a previous era’s ordinary grunge, as in The Return of Martin Guerre or Deadwood, where almost everything looks soiled, fetid and vividly uncomfortable. But that, too, is exceptional. The audience for costume drama is often looking for charm, nostalgia or escapism, and so the past usually wears a deodorant.
The wider public may not have heard of it, but a “sensory turn” among American historians has made itself felt in recent years -- an attention, that is, to the smells, tastes, textures and sounds of earlier periods. I refer to just four senses, because the importance of sight was taken for granted well before the turn. In their more polemical moments, sensory historians have even referred to “the tyranny of the visual” within their discipline.
That seems a little melodramatic, but point taken: historians have tended to scrutinize the past using documents, images, maps and other artifacts that chiefly address the eye. Coming in second as the organ of perception most likely to play a role in historical research would undoubtedly be the ear, thanks to the advent of recorded sound. The remaining senses tie for last place simply because they leave so few traces -- which, in any case, are not systematically preserved the way audiovisual materials are. We have no olfactory or haptic archives; it is difficult to imagine a library of flavors.
Calls to overcome these obstacles -- to analyze whatever evidence could be found about how everyday life once sounded, smelled, felt, etc. -- came from American historians in the early 1990s, with a few pioneers at work in Europe even before that. But the field of sensory history really came into its own over the past decade or so, with Mark M. Smith’s How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation and the Senses (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching in History (University of California Press, 2007) being among the landmarks. Smith, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, also convened a roundtable on the sensory turn published in the September 2008 issue of The Journal of American History. A number of the contributors are on the editorial board of the Studies in Sensory History series published by the University Illinois Press, which launched in 2011.
The series’ fifth and most recent title is Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers and Muckrakers by Adam Mack, an assistant professor of history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beyond the monographic focus -- it covers about fifty years of the city’s history -- the book demonstrates how much of the sensory field of an earlier era can be reconstructed, and why doing so can be of interest.
Overemphasis on the visual dimension of an urban landscape “mirrors a set of modern cultural values that valorize the eye as the barometer of truth and reason,” we read in the introduction, “and tend to devalue the proximate, ‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational.” Having thus recapitulated one of sensory history’s founding premises, the author wastes no time before heading to one site that must have forced its way deep into the memory of anyone who got near it in the 19th century: the Chicago River.
“A bed of filth,” one contemporary observer called it, where manure, blood, swill and unusable chunks of carcass from the slaughterhouses ended up, along with human sewage and dead animals -- all of it (an editorialist wrote) “rotting in the sun, boiling and bubbling like the lake of brimstone, and emitting the most villainous fumes,” not to mention drawing clouds of flies. A letter writer from 1862 mentions that the water drawn from his kitchen hydrant contained “half a pint or more of rotten fish.” Many people concluded that it was safest just to drink beer instead.
Laws against dumping were passed and commissions appointed to investigate the problem, for all the good it did. The poorest people had to live closest to the river, so disgust at the stench combined in various ways with middle- and upper-class attitudes towards them, as well as with nativist prejudices.
The horrific odor undermined efforts to construct a modern, rationally organized city. Imposing a grid of streets on the landscape might please the eye, but smell didn’t respect geometry. The same principle applied to the Great Fire of 1871, the subject of Mack’s next chapter. The heat and sheer sensory overload were overwhelming, and the disaster threw people from all walks of life together in the streets in a way that made social status irrelevant, at least for a while. The interplay between social hierarchy and sensory experience (exemplified in references to “the roar of the mob”) is the thread running through the rest of the book. Thinking of the “‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational” -- to quote the author’s phrase again -- went along with assumptions about refinement or coarseness as markers of class background.
The sources consulted by the author are much the same as any other historian might use: newspapers, civic records, private or otherwise unpublished writings by long-forgotten people, such as the recollections of the Great Fire by witnesses, on file at the Chicago History Museum. The contrast is at the level of detail -- that is, the kinds of detail the historian looks for and interprets. Perhaps the next step would be for historians to enhance their work with direct sensory documentation.
A prototype might be found in the work of John Waters, who released one of his movies in Odorama. Audience members received cards with numbered scratch-and-sniff patches, which they consulted when prompted by a message on the screen.
On second thought, it was difficult enough to read Mack’s account of the Chicago River in the 19th century without tickling the gag reflex. Olfactory realism might push historical accuracy farther than anyone really wants it to go.
The South is home for me, but to my students in Minnesota, it’s an exotic place from which I am an ambassador. So when Dylann Roof massacred congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last month and students began asking me about the killings and the debate they reignited over the Confederate flag, I did not know whether they sought my analysis as a scholar of the Confederacy and its legacies or my feelings as a transplanted Southerner. My uncertainty deepened because the questions came between semesters, from men and women who had taken courses with me last spring and would do so again in the fall. Did the timing of the questions change my relationship to the people who asked them, and therefore inform which part of me -- the professor or the person -- answered?
The difference between my answers depends on whether I want my students to embrace or reject the polemic through which we discuss the Confederacy, its cause and its symbols, ascribing them to represent either virulent hatred or regional pride and nostalgia. In a “Room for Debate” feature on June 19, The New York Times pitted former Georgia Congressman Ben Jones’s views of the flag as “A Matter of Pride and Heritage” against three authors who emphasized the flag’s postwar uses as a banner for Jim Crow violence, reactionary resistance to integration and civil rights, and the most obdurate hate groups in the contemporary United States. Governor Nikki Haley invoked a similar framing in her speech calling for the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the state capitol grounds. The governor presented the flag’s dual meanings on an almost equal footing; which interpretation a person chose, she implied, depended on their race. For white people, the flag meant honoring the “respect, integrity and duty” of Confederate ancestors -- “That is not hate, nor is it racism,” she said of that interpretation -- while “for many others … the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
In asking the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds, the governor posed the meaning of the Confederate flag as a choice, and she refused to pick sides because she understood the sympathies of those in both interpretive camps. Because many of those who honor the state’s Confederate past neither commemorate nor act out of hate, in the governor’s logic they are not wrong -- merely out of sync with the political needs of 2015.
As a person, I want my students to take sides in that polemic, to know that Confederate “heritage” is the wrong cause to celebrate in any context. I want my students to know that the Confederacy was created from states that not only embraced slavery but, as Ta-Nahisi Coates has demonstrated beyond refutation, proudly defined their political world as a violent, diabolical contest for racial mastery. I want them to understand that the Civil War rendered a verdict on secession and, in the words of historian Stephanie McCurry, on “a modern pro-slavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”
I want them to scrutinize, as John Coski has done in his excellent book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Symbol, the flag’s long use by those who reject equal citizenship. I want my (overwhelmingly white) students to grasp why the flags of the Confederacy in their many iterations -- on pickup trucks, college campuses and statehouse grounds -- tell African-Americans that they are not, and cannot be, equal citizens. I want them to feel the imperative in the words of President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, in which the president claimed that only by rejecting the shared wrongs of slavery, Jim Crow and the denial of civil rights can we strive for “an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
As a historian, I want more. I don’t want my students to simply choose sides in a polemic between heritage and hate; rather, I hope they will interrogate the Confederacy’s white supremacist project on more complex terms. A simple dichotomy of heritage or hate misses something essential about both the Confederacy and the social construction of racism: then as now, you don’t need to hate to be a racist. Many Confederate soldiers held views that cohered perfectly with the reactionary, violent and indeed hateful lens through which Dylann Roof sees race. After the Battle of Petersburg, Major Rufus Barrier celebrated the “slaughter … in earnest” of black soldiers and relished how “the blood ran in streams from their worthless carcasses.”
But others, like Confederate officer Francis Marion Parker, grounded their commitment to white supremacy not in jagged words of hate, but in the softer tones of family. Explaining his reasons for going to war in a letter to his wife and children, Parker promised that “home will be so sweet, when our difficulties are settled and we are permitted to return to the bosom of our families, to enjoy our rights and privileges” -- that is, slaveholding -- “under the glorious flag of the Confederacy.”
I want my students to see that men and women of differing temperaments and qualities supported the Confederacy’s white supremacist project and justified their support through a variety of ethics, appeals and emotions. I want them to overcome rhetorical paradigms that allow modern-day defenders of Confederate heritage to divorce the character of the men who fought for the “Lost Cause” from the cause itself. I want them to think critically about how otherwise honorable, courageous men as well as vicious, hate-filled racists came to embrace a cause informed, in the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, by “the great truth that the Negro is not the equal of the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
I hope my students will draw a bit from both of my answers, bringing careful scrutiny of the past into dialogue with the urgency of the present. As they do so, I hope they will think a bit about what historical meaning is and why history demands their scrutiny. If history becomes a mere servant of contemporary “truthiness,” reduced to selective anecdotes deployed as weapons in polarizing debates, then we are merely choosing camps in a contest of identities. Such one-dimensional choices leave space for those who equate the Confederacy with nostalgia and a kind of inherited pride to use the Confederate flag as shorthand for who they are and where they come from without any mention of race or white supremacy. Yet if historical interpretation remains antiquarian and refuses to speak to the present, it leaves us self-satisfied in the illusion that we have transcended the people and societies we study. One day generations yet unborn will scrutinize us and find us wanting, too. If we critique the people of the past and the choices they made not only with an eye to distancing ourselves from their worst extremes but also with a sense of how easy, how normal and how justifiable unequal citizenship can appear to be, the tragedy in Charleston and the history it invokes may teach a resonant lesson.
David C. Williard is assistant professor of history at the University of Saint Thomas, in Minnesota.