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Sense and the City

How did 18th-century urban dwellers make sense of their loud and stinky worlds? Historian Carolyn Purnell explains.

Urbanites navigated narrow streets by touch, sound, and smell. (Thomas Bowles/Wikimedia Commons)

City dwellers are subjected to an onslaught of stimulation: the roar of rush-hour traffic, the scent of garbage day’s distinctively prickly perfume, the spectacle of an out-of-towner trying to swim upstream against a school of pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk. While this sensory overload might not always be pleasant, it does help us make sense of where we are and what’s happening around us.

That’s nothing new. In her new book, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses, historian Carolyn Purnell unpacks the sensory world of 17th- and 18th-century Europe, from the darkened stalls of Les Halles market (known as “the Belly of Paris”) to the coffee houses where image-conscious urbanites tried to sip themselves genteel. CityLab asked Purnell about the way sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound shaped daily life, and how city dwellers’ sensory worlds have changed as urbanization rolled along.

When we think about the sensory elements of living in a city today, they’re often somewhat unpleasant: the sight of smog, the sound of wheezing buses, the smell of garbage piled high. What kinds of sensory observations came up most often in your research? How did people perceive their urban environments during the time period you studied?

People in the 18th century, like today, tended to pay attention to their sensations only when those sensations were particularly good or particularly bad. That means that in order to access the routine, normal, and accepted sensory worlds of the past, one really has to read between the lines. With that in mind, the most common sensory observations that I encountered fell into two main categories: complaints about urban noise, and rapturous descriptions of new foods and beverages.

Cities were growing by leaps and bounds in the 18th century, and the architecture and layout of Paris had developed haphazardly in response to these quickly changing demographics. Acoustics were not a central planning concern. Buildings were tall and streets were narrow, trapping ambient noise. Artisans clustered together, making the heavy ringing of hammers, calls of vendors, and noises of animals thick and concentrated. Cobblestones were uneven, meaning that wheels and hooves made a clatter, and walls were not built to keep out neighbors’ din.

This cacophony seemed even more terrible to 18th-century urban inhabitants, many of whom had moved from rural areas. Not only were they dealing with new and profoundly loud noises, but for the first time, they also were dealing with the noises of thousands of people. The city wasn’t necessarily louder than it is today, but the urban environment was very dense, and people were unaccustomed to tuning it out.

On the more pleasant end of the spectrum, people gushed about the array of new sensory experiences that were available in cities, particularly in the realm of food and drink. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a vast array of new products became available to European consumers. For the first time, people sipped coffee, drank hot chocolate, slurped tea, consumed sugar, and indulged in herbal liqueurs. Urban populations were large enough to support the sale of these luxurious commodities and the development of new spaces dedicated to them, like cafés.

An 1895 painting by Léon Lhermitte depicts the cramped corridors of Paris's Les Halles market. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the book, you talk about how people relied on their other senses to navigate the darkened spaces of Parisian markets in the years before street lights glowed on every corner. Can you tell us a little about how touch and smell were sometimes perceived to be more reliable than sight, and how they collaborated to help people get around dense urban environments?  

It seems like an odd concept to think about shopping in the dark or moving through a city only by the dim light of the moon, but before reliable street lighting, this was the lot of the thousands of people who worked in the hours that, today, we’d refer to as the third shift. For those people—bakers, wholesale market vendors, and the shopkeepers who catered to these populations—touch, smell, and hearing were much more important than eyesight. Many people navigated through cognitive memory, kinetic memory, and proprioception, and in the markets in particular, sound guided them to their trusted sellers, who would shout their bargains and prices.

The city was not designed for easy circulation; that was one of the main projects of 19th-century urban development. Instead, it was a place that required social interaction, touching, and an attention to bodily detail.

According to a great deal of 18th-century thought, sight, especially when it came to commerce, could be deceptive. Think of the great piles of apples in grocery stores today. These stocks are culled, such that only the visually appealing apples remain. But just because an apple looks perfect doesn’t mean that it will taste good. Eighteenth-century shoppers emphasized how, in many cases, it was important to use their non-visual senses to discern the value of goods. Feeling for rotten spots, sniffing for ripeness, and tasting for freshness would have been better indicators of goods’ worth.

If a person trusted their eyesight in the market, it was likely that they would be duped. Two Dutch travelers warned that visitors should never buy any furniture or clothes from unknown vendors because the sellers had “marvelous skills in restoring and patching up old things so they seem like new.” Without multi-sensory evidence, or better yet, interpersonal systems of trust, you couldn’t confidently purchase goods.

Later, in the 19th century, when food adulteration practices were rampant, this became even more important to common people. The truth of goods was not in their pleasing appearance but in the trust that one could have in vendors.

To navigate the stalls of Les Halles market, depicted in this 1863 engraving, shoppers had to rely on their senses of hearing, taste, and smell. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In your chapter about café culture, you write: “A delicious food or beverage had more than just the power of giving a person pleasure or making him momentarily happy. It had the power to affect her personality on a deeper level, altering her emotions, intelligence, and identity in one fell swoop.” How was food and drink central to aligning oneself with a particular urban class or group?

On one level, the things that one consumed had symbolic value. The historian Rebecca Spang has written about the first restaurants, which, surprisingly, didn’t refer to the places we know and love, but to places that served restorative broths called restaurants. Delicate, sensitive people with fragile constitutions needed food suited to their condition, and Spang shows that urban individuals would often consume these broths in public as a way of signifying to others that they were, indeed, refined and sensitive. Just like a person might select PBR or champagne at a party today, basing the choice on the attributes they want to convey to others, 18th-century urban dwellers symbolically aligned themselves with particular social groups through the things they consumed.

But the connection between consumption and identity in the 18th century went deeper than this symbolic level. Based on the prevalent medical theory at the time, he mind and body were closely connected, and every sensory experience had the power to directly change a person’s temperament, habits, and desires. For example, eating too much red meat would heat the blood, causing anger—and in excessive quantities, it could even cause a person to go into a murderous rage. Coffee could stimulate the brain, inspiring creative philosophical solutions to problems. Sugary pastries could sweeten the temperaments of even the surliest ladies. Consuming was, in this period, both a symbolic and physical way to align oneself with like-minded people.

Unsurprisingly, though, many of the foods and beverages suited to refined, sweet, and intelligent people would have been too expensive for common people to consume, drawing good character and wealth closer together in the popular imagination.

Paris’s café culture started to grow during the Enlightenment, at least a century before Jules-Alexandre Grün captured these drinkers and their tiny dogs. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

What parallels struck you about the relationship to urban life today?

We tend to think of sensory experience as personal and individual, but by focusing on sensation, it really became clear to me how much of urban daily life—and sensations—are intended to facilitate social interactions.

In the grand scheme of history, it’s relatively new to have millions of people living in the same space. As we have adjusted to these new social forms, we have also adjusted our sensory expectations. We have developed new cultural expectations for what constitutes acceptable noise limits, space boundaries, and odors. If you were plopped down in an 18th-century city, much of it would feel foreign. The particular smells, sounds, and patterns of movement would likely perplex you. But on a fundamental level, many of the conundrums of living in an 18th-century city were same as those in cities today: how to build community in the midst of an immense population; how to live as comfortably as possible; how to balance the public and private aspects of life; how to be entertained; how to find one’s way in crowded spaces; and how to deal with the simultaneous chaos and order of urban life, which can be, in turns, frustrating and inspiring.

The specifics of sensory experience may change, but both then and now, sensations help people find their social places, both by establishing boundaries and drawing humans closer together. Ultimately, the senses not only help us navigate the world, but they also help us navigate each other.

The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses, $27 from W.W. Norton & Company.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.