Q&A with Sensing Chicago author Adam Mack

Sensing Chicago - Adam MackAdam Mack is assistant professor of History in the Department of Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He recently answers some questions about his Studies in Sensory History series book Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers, and Muckrakers.

Q: What new dimensions can sensory studies bring to our historical understanding of urban life?

Adam Mack: I think sensory studies can change our understanding of the history urban experience. One insight that I hope readers take from Sensing Chicago is that people cared deeply about the sensory landscape of the city—the way Chicago looked, sounded, smelled, and felt. One infamously stinky example is the Chicago River, which served as a repository for the city’s human and industrial waste in the industrial age. The river reeked, but the complaints about the smell involved more than aesthetic objections or simple discomfort. Many Chicagoans feared that the river stinks spread deadly diseases; they thought that the dirty water would discourage personal cleanliness; and they worried that moral and cultural decay would follow. Part of the reason that the city tried to “reverse” the river’s flow in 1871 was because they associated the foul smells with civic danger.

Q: What is unique about Chicago as a subject of sensory history?

Mack: I don’t think it will come as a shock for students of Chicago’s history to learn that the city was often characterized as dirty, loud, and ill-smelling. I open my book by quoting the journalist John Callan O’Laughlin who claimed that Chicago “stood preeminent among the big cities of the western world” when it came to stench, noise, and grime. Of course, other industrial cities in the U.S. and around the world had noxious environments, but Chicago was a special case. Partly that’s because of the breakneck pace at which Chicago grew, compressing the growth of other cities in time and space. Also, as the urban historian Asa Briggs observed, Chicago was America’s “shock city,” the place where people went to see—and hear, smell, touch, and taste—the industrial future in action. Chicago’s sensory landscape served as a tangible expression of the problems and prospects of metropolitan age, and visitors often said as much, which makes for a rich body of evidence for sensory historians.

Q: How is it possible to reconstruct this history? What kind of sources were available to you?

Mack: Historians have resisted thinking and writing about sensory experience because it is supposedly so elusive—impermanent, fleeting, etc. In the introduction to my book I try to address these concerns by explaining that historical actors “recorded” their sensory experiences in print. I found this type of evidence hiding in plain sight—in newspapers, municipal reports, contemporary fiction, and visual art. The point is to take historical actors’ descriptions of their perceptions seriously, and on their own terms. I say in my introduction that I deal with the point where experience meets description. I study those descriptions to see what they reveal about the world view of particular historical actors, including what they thought about the major issues of the day, including class conflict and urban reform.

Q: You’ve already mentioned the Chicago River, but how did Lake Michigan factor in the sensory experience of Chicago in the 19th century?

Mack: Lake Michigan is a great example of the history of smell can alter our understanding of the city’s physical landscape in experiential terms. Lake Michigan often foregrounds pictures of Chicago’s skyline, then and now. It’s clearly an iconic aspect of the city’s visual landscape. But the lake’s visual power doesn’t mean that it overshadowed the Chicago River in the city’s broader sensory landscape. As I said above, the river stunk, and the stink blew across the city. The river is far smaller than the lake, and it is sometimes hard to see from downtown, but its smell couldn’t be missed.

Q: How would you characterize the Chicago Fire of 1871 as a “multi-sensory event?”

Mack: There is much to say about the fire as a disaster that assaulted people’s senses. Although the fire raged at night, the flames rendered parts of the city as bright as day; the sound of the falling buildings often reminded survivors of the battles of the Civil War; and of course the heat singed the skin. Witnesses often claimed that the fire was impossible to describe, but they tried to describe it nonetheless, and I think their descriptions can teach us much about the history of the disaster. For instance, elite survivors claimed to have delicate senses, ones uniquely strained by assaults to the senses, and they used these claims to receive special treatment from relief authorities.

Q: What efforts were made to stem the sensory assault caused by the city’s industrial pollution and its industrial slums?

Mack: There are many, but I might identify George Pullman’s infamous company town as a good example. Pullman believed that he could create better—more efficient, punctual, loyal—workers by literally moving them from working-class neighborhoods in Chicago to the Town of Pullman, where he controlled the sensory landscape. Pullman’s clean streets, its well manicured lawns, and the lack of noxious smells were supposed to improve the character of his workers, much as other elites believed that exposing working-class people to fine art might uplift their cultural sensibilities. Pullman’s ambitious company town failed, of course, and I think that’s partly because he gave workers so little say over the decisions that shaped the town’s landscape and residential policies. Sensory paternalism, you might say, failed miserably in the Town of Pullman.


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