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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.
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.