From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

The Sensory Historian in the Jungle: An Interview with Adam Mack



Author Interview

Q: Your book, Sensing Chicago, has just been published by the University of Illinois Press, as part of a series, Studies in Sensory History. This isn’t the first time, however, that you’ve published scholarship on the senses. When and how did you get interested in the field of sensory history?


A: I first encountered sensory history in graduate school, when I was working on a dissertation on the history of American supermarkets. One of the first sources I found was an article on supermarket shopping in one of the mass circulation magazines of the 1950s that had the title, “George Pleasures them with Groceries” (which referred to the   owner of Publix supermarkets, George Jenkins). It was a tongue-in-cheek piece, but its suggestion that male supermarket designers tried to appeal to female shoppers’ senses in erotic ways interested me. Soon I found that suggestion in a whole range of other sources – for example, in trade magazines that instructed merchants how to sell produce by hyping the connections between eating and sex. I ended up publishing an article detailing those themes, “Speaking of Tomatoes: Supermarkets, the Senses, and Sexual Fantasy in Modern America.” Later I followed up with a piece on Whole Foods supermarkets that dealt with the connection between sensory pleasure, eroticism, and liberal political causes in supermarket design.


Q: As part of your work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and the completion of your book, you’ve spoken to a variety of academic and lay audiences over the last few years. What kind of experiences have you had with presenting your sensory work to different kinds of people? Are there common reactions to your work, or any memorable criticisms or compliments?


A: Probably my most rewarding experience has been leading seminars in sensory history for Chicago-area high school teachers through the Newberry Library’s Teachers Consortium. It’s been great to talk to local teachers about how they might use some of the rich evidence from sensory history in their classes, and of course to hear their own stories about sense experience in Chicago. When I talk to Chicagoans about the sensory past, they usually get around to talking about the Chicago River, the stockyards district, and that malodorous combination of the two, “Bubbly Creek.” Back in the industrial age, Bubbly Creek served as a sewer for the meat packing concerns so it bubbled from the decomposing animal matter in it. The amazing thing is that today, the creek still bubbles.


Q: Can you look back on how you decided to write Sensing Chicago? The sensory material in your dissertation about supermarkets was noteworthy enough to merit quotation by Mark M. Smith in his influential guide to the field, Sensing the Past. Why did you switch to a sensory history of Chicago?


A: The quick answer is that I found myself moving to Chicago and lucky enough to work at SAIC. I was familiar with the rich sensory descriptions of the city in Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, The Jungle, which first got me started thinking about a sensory history of the city. Once I looked more broadly for research material, I was overwhelmed with the richness of the evidence. Chicago is a great city to conduct research. The Chicago History Museum, which was a short bus ride from my apartment, has a world-class archive. Plus there are the Chicago Public Library’s collections, to say nothing of all of the sensory-rich fiction that authors like Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others produced on the city. I put aside my work on supermarkets for a time because I thought that it might be fun to write a book about Chicago, and because I received such enthusiastic responses about the project from my colleagues and neighbors in the city. Mark Smith invited me to submit a proposal to the Studies in Sensory History series, and I leapt at the opportunity.


Q: Without giving too much away, what are some of the key moments, personalities, or issues in Chicago’s sensory past that your book explores?


A: I start with the Chicago River in a chapter titled “Smelling Civic Danger.” The chapter is about how the river’s various stinks served as dangerous portents of disease, moral corruption and even economic ruin. In fact, the river runs through much of the book, so to speak. I deal with it again in a chapter on The Jungle and it even makes an appearance in my chapter on the Chicago Fire, which I treat as an intense sensory experience or “sensory overload.” I also deal with sense positive experiences. My final chapter covers the history of Chicago’s White City Amusement Park, which was located on the South Side. Its designers believed that mechanical amusements and other forms of commercial recreation could refresh senses worn down by the sensory assaults of the city — its dirt, stench, and noise, and so forth.


Q: What do you hope readers will gain from engaging your book?


A: My most basic goal is to suggest to readers that Chicagoans cared deeply about the sensory landscape of their city in the time period I study.   It was an inescapable part of urban living. Chicagoans worried about noxious sensations, they argued about their causes, and they worked hard to abate many of the worst ones. For instance, it’s difficult to understand the history of the city’s well-known decision to try to “reverse” the river’s flow in 1871 without attending to the history of the river stinks. I hope that readers will use my book to think about the richness of the history of urban experience in a broad sense, and I hope that they ponder what I have to say about how elites used sensory description and sensory stereotypes to draw categories of difference like social class, ethnicity, gender, and race in the industrial age.


Q: What current of future projects are you planning?


A: My next book is a sensorial history of southern California in the 1950s. I plan to get back to some of the questions I dealt with in my earlier research on supermarkets, and to draw from some work I’ve written since on the sensory history of the suburbs and the mass market. I’ve been interested in writing a sensory history of Disneyland for a long time now, so I think I may start with that. Of course, my daughter, who is 9, is really pushing for a research trip there. So, it’s off to Disneyland for sure.



The following excerpt from the book suggests something of the journey readers can anticipate.



Already by 1869 a journey down the Chicago River tested the hardiest of noses. In August an official “smelling committee” set about an inspection tour, a civic ritual that forced them to brave the waters at the hottest time of the year, when the combined stench of the riverside slaughterhouses, rendering concerns and distilleries reached its noisome zenith. The committee included the acting Mayor, the city’s Sanitary Superintendent, the Health Officer and other medical officials as well as an observer, Mr. Stewart Kingsbury from Centralia, who the Tribune reported, “had heard a great deal of the fame of Chicago as a watering place, and wished to test the properties of its waters,” though for exactly what purpose it did not say.

The trip started out on a pleasant enough note, with moderate winds and temperature, as the party departed on a tug waiting in the main branch to journey southward to Bridgeport. Passing under the Madison street bridge, the group saw “patches of oily scum” floating on the top of the water near the city’s gas works but noted only a moderate stench. The same held true when the party chugged past a number of sewer outlets that emptied directly into the river. Here the reporter noted that the water carried sewage of “admirable stenches,” evidence of the city’s antebellum decision to use the river as a receptacle for Chicago’s household waste.

When the inspectors reached Van Buren Street farther south, the situation grew worse. The Tribune reported an unknown odor, one that “baffled the efforts made by the noses of the gentlemen to analyze it.” Off the port bow, the committee watched a group of boys swimming in the ambiguously smelling water, having left their clothing behind. Another group of boys dressed themselves on the bank, their skins “tinged by the black water.” While the young bathers might have found relief from the summer heat, the newspaper reporter reminded readers that the boys found no cleanliness.

The men next encountered “the supreme odor known as the Twelfth Street smell,” a fetor “thick enough to cut.” The Sanitary Superintendent, perhaps mindful of Mr. Kingsbury’s untested nose, passed around cigars. The tobacco smoke probably helped to disguise the “Sixteenth street smell” that followed (“a big one”) though it could not have shielded the party from the sights that accompanied the next olfactory assault, the consistently termed “Eighteenth street smell.” The water stood calm, darkly colored and filled with garbage as well as discarded timber from a rail yard. A dead pig floated past. Here debate ensued, as some members of the inspection committee argued that the bloated carcass was, in fact, a cat that had been seen in the North branch two weeks past. “The smell was somewhat similar,” they observed, and the cloud of insects that hovered over the expired animal looked familiar.

Reaching the mouth of a South Branch slough, the tug turned its screws to unleash the stink as fully as possible:

“The water came up thick and black. The surface was covered with a filthy froth and bubbles of gas, while a terrible stench rose over the inky water. . . . It was positively sickening. There was a strength and substance in it.”

Two women standing near the bank covered their noses with their shawls, but still the tug stirred the dark mixture. “Again and again the screw was put in motion,” the reporter wrote, “and the black froth ran in small waves along the side of the slough, while the stench rose higher and higher and stronger and stronger.” The party remained only a few minutes, but already Mr. Kingsbury had developed a headache and, the Tribune remarked, “began to lose confidence in the healing powers of Chicago waters.”

The tug retraced its route to finish the journey in the North Branch, but Mr. Kingsbury found only meager relief. Even before it passed the riverside glue factories, the party smelled their foul signatures. They soon came upon a defunct slaughterhouse, one whose malodor lingered: “The smell originated from heaps of old hams that have lain in the river for years and are in a state of decomposition.” Next came the stench of distilleries, Hallihan and Hulls, in this case. It included “two acres of decaying swill,” a byproduct of the distillation process fed to cows in nearby sheds who then polluted the water with their own noxious exhalations. The smelling committee could report some progress, however. Since their last inspection, the distillery had treated the swill with lime and heavy oil, giving it a “somewhat thinner” stench. In addition, the “creeping things that looked so disgusting on the last visit” seemed disbursed by the lime, although “hordes of flies hovered over the foul spot.” The optimistic notes continued at the end of the voyage. After four hours on the river – the “Chicago Styx” according to the newspaper – the party landed back at La Salle Street. Here the Tribune, no doubt in keeping with its regular prodding of city officials to clean up the waters, noted that the “river is greatly improved since the last inspection.”[i]

The Tribune’s campaign to prod municipal officials to clean up the Chicago River reflected a fear among the city’s elite that the foul conditions that brought on Mr. Kingsbury’s headache threatened the civic health of the metropolis. As the newspaper’s reform-minded readers well knew, the river acted in concert with other receptacles of industrial and household waste to befoul Chicago’s physical environment. The grimy streets and alleys, the clamor of wagons and streetcars, the smoke that perpetually hung over the city, and the awful smell of the offal left to decompose in the river, registered on the senses to foretell disease, moral chaos and even economic ruin.


[i]“The Chicago River: A Second Inspection of Its Smells,” Chicago Tribune, 21 August 1869, 4 (all quotations).


From Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers, and Muckrakers by Adam Mack. Copyright 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission from the University of Illinois Press.




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Categorised in: Interviews, Miscellaneous, THE SENSES, TRAVEL

1 Response »


  1. Senses of Place, MoS 2015 | MATTERS OF SENSE

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