Coming to (the History of) Our Senses: A New Methodology and Category of Analysis for Drug Historians?

by Kyle Bridge

Published April 2016


In the late-nineteenth-century United States, social reformism was in the air. In fact, it seemed that nary a Progressive could stick their nose anywhere without sniffing out something in need of improvement. This was often true in the most literal sense: historian Mark Smith noticed that contemporary reformers frequently recorded their visceral reactions to the conditions they hoped to change. One characteristically wrote that “the filth and smell [were] intolerable” in urban immigrant dwellings (842). But was it really intolerable? After all, people lived through it every day. To understand why the slums were “intolerable” to some, Smith turned to an extraordinarily useful but little-known historical subfield called sensory history. In a brilliant 2007 essay, “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense,” he elaborated on the concept and cautioned historians not to take descriptions of sensory experience at face value. Anyone using the above quotation uncritically, even for narrative immersion, runs the risk of presenting “the past on the terms set by the reformer’s nose and all of the prejudices and values inhered in that nose” (842). In other words, historians must question bias in their subject’s interpretation of sensory experience just as they would any other historical source such as diaries, newspaper accounts, or legal testimonies.

The central goal of sensory history is to contextualize why sensory inputs were experienced in particular ways by particular people and to show how the meanings they made from those experiences influenced subsequent behavior. On the one hand, sensory history entails a method of inquiry for source material, evident in how Smith approached the olfactory biases of his Progressive. On the other hand, sensory history encourages practitioners to consider the construction of the senses, which are neither neutral nor constant. In another example, Smith revealed an interesting point of historical divergence between people in the United States and Great Britain: the flavor wintergreen. In the 1960s, one experiment exposed the flavor to Britons, who as a group disliked it. US readers who salivate at the thought emulate their forebears, who loved the flavor when they were similarly exposed in the following decade. The opposing trans-Atlantic opinions on wintergreen can be explained by evaluating what Smith called the “historical specificity” of the subjects’ tastes. Smith labeled their responses “learned preferences” since many 1960s-era Britons maintained a living memory of World War II and associated the scent with wartime medicines. Meanwhile, Americans had for decades been consuming minty candies (Herz 162; Smith 848).

The takeaway from these examples is manifold. Seemingly-neutral descriptions of sensory experience must be interrogated for meaning, and the meaning of sensory experience can help explain behavior. More broadly, historians should not necessarily focus on sensory inputs, or even how they typically affect brains and bodies, but instead how historical actors interpret that sensory input and translate it into action. Having introduced sensory history as both a method and category of analysis, in this essay I hope to identify some ways that it might be applied to my own field of drug history. Another little-known specialization, this subject holds enormous potential for exploring sensory experience and its behavioral implications.

For drug historians, the applications of sensory history methodology might seem obvious, but a brief overview of the field is in order for the uninitiated. Drug historians are usually preoccupied with policy (Musto), policing (Baumohl), commerce (Gootenberg), treatment and rehab (Travis), and social and medical attitudes toward addiction (Hickman, The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days). These subjects have some obvious appeals, namely copious historical documentation and contemporary relevance as societies around the world question the logic of complete drug prohibition. Another avenue is historical epidemiology, or tracing the prevalence of drug use and addiction in the past (Courtwright, Dark Paradise). Yet, historians tend to overlook individual users and their drug-induced experiences. As it stands, when historians—or anyone, for that matter—engage the sensory elements of drug use, they often deploy the language of science; one might describe in clinical terms the comparative or synergistic effects of different substances for polydrug users (Courtwright, Dark Paradise 165). But relying on the biology of sensory experience tells us less about individual drug using behavior than analyzing how people have interpreted their drug-induced experiences, and how that shaped their thoughts and actions.


Fig. 1

For example, consider an individual named Lester Martin. Beginning as a young adult in the mid-1970s, just before his brief stint in the Air Force was cut short by a joint he allegedly left in a vehicle on base (a charge he still disputes), Martin was an avid polydrug user. “I had a motto,” he remembered. “If it was good I liked a lot of it, if it wasn’t good I didn't want any of it” (Bridge). What was good to Martin? When he entered rehab in 1987, he could remember trying twenty-three substances, but stimulants were always his favorites. Throughout the prior decade his drug of choice had been cocaine—first powder, then crack. Curiously, however, Martin disliked opiates. “I didn't like shooting up heroin. Tried that one time, didn't care for it” (Bridge). Martin's almost cavalier dismissal of heroin may seem strange to contemporary readers. The current, ongoing opioid crisis has proven that heroin and other opioid use—and addiction—is capable of crossing age, class, racial, and gender divisions; the stereotype of addicts as young, male minorities from inner cities is practically an antiquated notion (Kolodny et al.).

How would anyone go about offering an explanation for Martin’s preference? He did not report nausea, constipation, or any of the other unpleasant physical symptoms of novice opioid use. The next step is to evaluate what assumptions informed his interpretation of the experience. In Martin’s case, it is important to note that he was an African American man born in 1955 who reached adulthood in the 1970s. In the second half of these formative years, he was no doubt aware of the last great heroin use epidemic, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, which initially and disproportionately affected minorities. The number of black users fell off within a decade, once the consequences of addiction and sharing needles became widespread social knowledge, and it retained a stigma for decades. Martin could remember a time when the worst “drug problem” in his neighborhood was “the guy who was a wino or a drunk,” before significant numbers became “strung out on heroin,” which brought increased drug trade and more thorough police scrutiny to his community. It is thus not surprising that he “didn’t care for” heroin; Martin’s experience was just as historically specific as the wintergreen-eschewing Brits.


Fig. 2. Asian Heroin. Wikimedia Commons. 2005.

An enormous body of interdisciplinary literature holds that drug experiences are circumstantial (Zinberg). Set and setting matter in what historian Isaac Campos calls the “psychoactive riddle” of drug effects (7-38). But one historian has called sensory experience a “black box” for its nebulous but potentially tremendous explanatory power toward understanding individual and epidemic drug use (Spillane). To that end, questioning why Martin disliked heroin can explain more than his own discriminating tastes. Among other factors, it can reveal the bases of hierarchies within drug-using communities.

In the 1980s, Martin and his cocaine-using social group learned that one of their friends used heroin as well. “It was like he was different from us now . . . he was in a different class” (Bridge). Martin’s assumptions influenced not only his own experience but the way he interacted with others in an already socially marginalized network. The takeaway from this example is that drug consumers have sensory experiences based on learned preferences, and understanding the construction, causes, and consequences of those experiences can open new research directions in drug history.

Still, some readers will remain skeptical of sensory interpretation vis-à-vis a biological approach. This is understandable: cultural norms might alleviate the first, harsh draw from a marijuana pipe and influence the way users interpret their experience, but substances are typically processed by bodies in predictable, measurable ways. While neuroscience and related fields allow for some engagement with sensory experience, their practical application for historical analysis remains contested. Even the position of senior drug historian David Courtwright, one of the most avid proponents of incorporating hard science into drug history, might best be described as a cautious embrace. (“Take a hit of neuroscience,” he once opined. “Just don’t get addicted.”) Courtwright acknowledged science as “history’s last taboo” for good reason (“Addiction” 140). The laboratories that produce much of our “knowledge” about addiction are isolated from the lived realities of drug users (Campbell), as frustrated clinicians and even some steadfast researchers attest (Heilig). As a field, what might be called “addiction studies” cannot fully embrace a conceptual model of the condition (particularly the disease model, which serves as the reigning but nonetheless problematic paradigm) (Satel and Lilienfield 49-72). Furthermore, technologies such as MRI or PET “brain scans” are representations mediated, if not by the whims of scientists, then by quantitative value thresholds in statistical computing (Hickman, “Target America”). There is also the simple fact that we cannot load the long-dead drug users of years past into an MRI machine to test our hypotheses.


Fig. 3. 3-D Structure of Cocaine. Wikimedia Commons. 2014.

But sensory history has something even for those unconcerned with relative sensation and interpretation. A more traditional school of sensory history is committed to simply describing what people saw, smelled, heard, tasted, and touched in the past. Public interest in “authentic” portrayals motivated (and continues to motivate) museum curators, historical re-enactors, and some academic historians to impart the experience of the past in the language of the present. One such academic, Peter Hoffer, just over a decade ago asked, “Can we use our senses to replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost?” (2). Unsurprisingly, he replied, “I think the answer is yes.” Hoffer dubbed a major stumbling block of sensory history the “lemon problem” and addressed it in the form of a question: “I can taste a lemon and savor the immediate experience of my senses; I can recall the taste . . . but can I use words and pictures to fully understand what I am saying or, rather, to get at the reality behind my words?” (4). He answered in the affirmative, and ultimately settled on the assumption that contemporary readers “have the same perceptual apparatus” as their ancestors. (8). Smith called Hoffer’s methodology “conceptually flaccid” (842), but the lemon problem may not be a fruitless endeavor for drug historians. There is room to portray the novel, pleasurable, enlightening, and sometimes miserable sensory experience of drug use, much like there is room to reconstruct the experience of the Battle of Britain for London museum patrons (Noakes) or to act out the memories of US civil rights activists on a Southern stage (Valencic). Working out the “marijuana problem” or “LSD problem” would be a welcome addition to social drug knowledge, informed as it is by a mélange of informal social transfer between users, dominant cultural stereotypes, and official misinformation campaigns. This pursuit also lends itself well to graphic history, a new and popular medium (Bland). Nonetheless, focusing on how people understood sensation will allow historians to better understand the choices made by drug-using individuals and groups. Careful attention to how users actually experienced, internalized, and acted upon their highs will likely reveal much more than how they felt at the time. It may clarify decision-making processes by groups and individual users, and might even unravel cultural assumptions about the rationality of their behavior.

Of course, sensory history methods are not the final answer for drug historians, but questioning historically specific sensation adds another analytical layer atop social, environmental, and biological perspectives on the persistent phenomenon of altered consciousness. Historians have already done excellent work piecing together the historical contingency of drug use epidemics; in a representative 2010 article, Caroline Acker questioned how crack cocaine found purchase among the urban poor in the late 1980s. She noted, respectively, the biological, social, and environmental layers: “route of administration, a market that made individual dose units easily available at low prices, and multiple dimensions of disadvantage,” including urban deindustrialization and marginalization. The only reference to sensory experience—crack’s “powerful but fleeting euphoria”—was tagged onto a litany of structural factors (79). Considering the senses in our analysis is a step toward a fuller understanding of drug use in history. I raise this point in the same vein as Howard Kushner, who called for historians to assume a more comprehensive “cultural biology of addiction,” or an analysis predicated upon incorporating relevant hard-science hypotheses without forgetting the problematic paradigms that inspire them (19-20). Courtwright cautioned historians against becoming addicted to a subfield but they should make it a habit to try to uncover how users experience drug consumption, and its potentially enormous explanatory power.


Works Cited

Acker, Caroline Jean. “How Crack Found a Niche in the American Ghetto: The Historical Epidemiology of Drug-Related Harm.” Biosocieties 5.1 (2010): 70-88. Print.

Baumohl, Jim. “Maintaining Orthodoxy: The Depression Era Struggle over Morphine Maintenance in California.” Altering American Consciousness. Eds. Sarah W. Tracy and Caroline Jean Acker. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2004. Print.

Bland, Alastair. “Guzzling 9,000 Years of History with ‘The Comic Book Story of Beer.’” National Public Radio. 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.

Bridge, Kyle. Author interview with “Lester Martin” [pseudonym]. Recorded 22 Feb. 2014.

Campbell, Nancy D. Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2007. Print.

Campos, Isaac. Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2012. Print.

Courtwright, David T. “Addiction Science, History, and the ATOD Paradigm: A Reply to Hasso Spode, Ian Tyrell, and James Mills,” The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 20 (2005): 138-140. Print.

---. Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.

Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008. Print.

Heilig, Markus. The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Herz, Rachel S. “Influence of Odors on Mood and Effective Cognition.” Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition. Ed. Catherine Rouby et al. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Hickman, Timothy A. The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days: Narcotic Addiction and Cultural Crisis in the United States, 1870-1920. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2007. Print.

---. “Target America: Visual Culture, Neuroimaging, and the ‘Highjacked Brain’ Theory of Addiction.” Past and Present (2014): 207-226. Print.

Hoffer, Peter. Sensory Worlds in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.

Kolodny, Andrew et al. “The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Crisis: A Public Health Approach to an Epidemic of Addiction.” Annual Review of Public Health 36. (2015): 559-574. Print.

Kushner, Howard I. “Toward a Cultural Biology of Addiction.” Biosocieties 5.1 (2010): 8-24. Print.

Musto, David. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Noakes, Lucy. “Making Histories: Experiencing the Blitz in London’s Museums in the 1990s.” The World War Two Reader. Ed. Gordon Martel. New York: Routledge, 2004. 422-434. Print.

Satel, Sally and Scott O. Lilienfield. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Basic, 2013. Print.

Smith, Mark M. “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History.” Journal of Social History 40.4 (Summer 2007): 841-858. Print.

Spillane, Joseph. “Re: NANO submission.” Message to Kyle Bridge. 18 Sept. 2015. E-mail.

Travis, Trysh. The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. Print.

Valencic, Brittany. “‘Gator Tales’ Examines Past Struggles of Black UF Students.” The Gainesville Sun. 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

Zinberg, Norman. Drug, Set, and Setting: The Basis for Controlled Intoxicant Use: New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. Print.



Fig. 1. Quotation excerpt from text of Lester Martin. JPEG. 2016.

Fig. 2. Monniaux, David. Asian Heroin. Wikimedia Commons. JPEG. 2005.<>

Fig. 3. Fuse809. 3-D Structure of Cocaine. Wikimedia Commons. GIF. 2014. <>