Remembering the Days: An 1840 sensory experience of campus

Remembering the Days podcast — Episode 15

Join us for a time traveling excursion to 1840 and a sensory experience of campus life in the 19th century.


A sensory experience of campus

This might be the biggest flight of fancy we’ve taken thus far on Remembering the Days, where we explore the history of the University of South Carolina. I’m inviting you to become a time traveler with me — virtually speaking, of course. And, hey, in this era of COVID-19, we’ve gotten used to doing things virtually.

Our time traveling destination will be the campus of South Carolina College, the precursor of the University of South Carolina, in the year 1840. To go back in time we won’t need Scotty to beam us up, but we will have to engage all of our senses — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. And trust me, there was a lot to smell in 1840.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today, we’re gonna take one flying leap back in time on memory lane.

Mark Smith is coming along as our historical tour guide. Mark is a Carolina Distinguished Professor of History who has written several books about the sensory experience of the past — basically thinking about history with the five senses in mind. Just remember that we’re going to bring our 21st century sensibilities to mid-19th century sights, smells and sounds, so this could be interesting. OK, get ready, dust off your sense of imagination because we’re taking off.

We’re here on the Horseshoe. It looks sort of the same as I remember it from 2020; lots of trees and there’s the Maxcy Monument, but — phew! — what’s that smell? Oh, there it is, watch your step — fresh pile of horse manure. (horse whinnies)

And that’s gotta be chickens or some kind of poultry behind those buildings over there. (sound effects of chickens, turkeys)

It is 1840 — horse and carriage is the main mode of travel — and all the professors live here on the Horseshoe with chicken coops nearby.

Hey, I’m catching a whiff of something else that’s quite aromatic. Mark, help us out.

Mark Smith: As far as I’m aware there weren’t any sewage systems on the campus, at least until the 20th century, which lent the campus a certain pungency in a different way.

I get it — outhouses. In 1840, outhouses are across campus and the whole city of Columbia. Indoor plumbing won’t show up in a big way until the early 1900s.

Speaking of basic technology, there is no air conditioning in 1840.

Mark: The absence of air-conditioning. Well, that has all sorts of implications, the first is, you don’t hear air conditioning because it doesn’t exist. The second is body odor, so if it’s hot and there’s no air-conditioning, you’re going to sweat more. And that means people are going to smell more, at least to our noses. But to their noses, it didn’t register or at least not in the same way it would register with us.

OK, we’re not going to bother visiting a classroom today. I think we’ve smelled enough for now.

But, man, it’s so quiet here you can hear the insects chirping. I didn’t notice until just this moment, and of course it should be obvious but there isn’t any mechanical noise, no traffic, no sirens. Just kind of a natural buzz across the Horseshoe. 

Mark: Well, you wouldn’t have heard cars, you wouldn’t have heard airplanes. You wouldn’t have heard any electromagnetic noise whatsoever. You’d have heard no industrial noise as we would appreciate it. You would not have had the ability to cut out sounds on campus as people do today with earpods. But you would have heard voices. Now they would have been male voices, almost exclusively. And you would have heard some things that you can still hear today, the bell, for example. You can still hear bells in the city of Columbia, and you could have heard the bell at the University of South Carolina, South Carolina College.

There was a bell that called students to class in Rutledge College, which back then was one of the tallest features of the campus.

Mark: It’s important to recognize that the visual landscape of the university would have been quite different in terms of height. And that’s really a function of technology. Look around the university now and you will see turrets piercing the sky — there are large buildings. They jut, they make a statement about authority, they’re also a function of limited land usage and you certainly wouldn’t have seen anything as high. But it doesn’t mean that people didn’t think that buildings on their campus weren’t high because it’s all relative. 9:40 So, yeah something 250 feet wouldn’t have been there at the time, but something that was 50 feet would have been considered quite tall.

Time traveling is making me kind of hungry. We could go to the Steward’s Hall to grab a bite. In 1840 that was roughly the equivalent of the dining hall in Russell House — all the students went there to eat.

But, frankly, the food wasn’t all that good back then. There are stories about students at South Carolina College around this time who were constantly complaining about being served biscuits with worms and rancid meat. There was actually something called the Great Biscuit Rebellion that happened here in 1852 — some historians think it was the first instance of student activism on a college campus in America. Half of the students actually left the college in their protest over the crappy food.

Mark: So I suspect that these moments of rejecting food are about two things. First, that they found the taste abhorrent and b. they didn’t think it fit in their station, that bread with worms in it was entirely inappropriate for a young gentlemen as well as it being just wretchedly distasteful.

But for me, the interesting question is what was it about this repulsion against this food — why, was it just because it was horrible or did it also say something about ‘We need to be treated differently.’

Well, the young men who attended South Carolina College in 1840 certainly expected to be treated differently. As white males born into mostly wealthy families, they were among the most privileged individuals in the Palmetto State at that time. Regrettably, the college wouldn’t admit women or people of color until many decades later.

There’s a few students over by the Maxcy Monument, and it looks like they’re shaking hands. That’s a custom that doesn’t appear to have changed much, though few of us 21st century time travelers are shaking anyone’s hand in this era of COVID-19.

Mark: So handshaking is something that was reserved between men of a similar class, especially white men of a similar class. It doesn’t mean to say they never shook hands with lower-class white men — they did — but largely this was something limited to the elites. And how one shook one’s hands mattered. There was a conveyance of masculinity in the shake of one’s hand.

Well, we don’t need to shake on it. We’ve already sealed the deal by using all five senses to virtually experience the South Carolina College campus in 1840.

Pardon the pun, but we’ve only scratched and sniffed the surface today, so if you want to learn more about sensory history, check out one of Mark Smith’s books. You might like The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, or his latest book, entitled, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History.

In the meantime, stop by campus sometime if you can — there are plenty of sensory experiences here every day that might transport you back to your own student days. No time travel required.

For the University of South Carolina Office of Communications and Public Affairs, I’m Chris Horn, see you next time on Remembering the Days.