Living History

The Elusive Smell of History

WWI Smell 01
On Christmas morning, my nephew (and fellow historian) received a bottle of Jockey Club cologne — a scent used by John F. Kennedy. It evoked memories of 1950s barber shops and the era of Mad Men. The smell of history is a sense that is most often missing from our interpretation of the past. We try to do emotional archaeology, connecting our hearts, as well as our heads, to the past, but neglect the nose. Richard J. Stevenson, writing in The Multisensory Museum, argued, “Olfaction per se is the most emotionally evocative sense.” Trygg Engen, in The Perception of Odors, bluntly states: “Functionally, smell may be to emotion what sight or hearing are to cognition.”

Smell can evoke pleasant memories. Jane Stuart Woolsey, recalling an Easter Sunday during the Civil War, recalled, “I remember the keen impression made by little things. I can smell the lilacs now.” Having read (and edited) numerous memoirs from Civil War nurses, many recalled the scent of death hanging over the battlefields and hospitals. Emily Souder, writing from Gettysburg, covered her ears with a pillow at night, hoping to block out the cries from a nearby hospital. She wrote, “But who shall describe the horrible atmosphere which meets us almost continually? Chloride of lime has been freely used in the broad streets of the town and to-day the hospital was much improved by the same means; but it is needful to close the eyes on sights of horror and to shut the ears against sounds of anguish and to extinguish, as far as possible, the sense of smelling.” Cornelia Hancock, another caregiver, wrote: “A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead upon which the July sun was mercilessly shining and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife.”

As I begin work on a World War I exhibit for the Brown County Historical Society, I turned to the two recent attempts to evoke life in the trenches: Dresden’s Military History Museum and the Imperial War Museum in London. Both tried to recreate the smells of war. I think there is a place in the forthcoming exhibit in New Ulm, and I’ll continue to blog about attempts to accurately reproduce the scents of one hundred years ago.

Performing Place

Granite Falls – A Meandering River Walk from Anne Queenan on Vimeo.

As a board member of the Grand Center for Arts & Culture in New Ulm, Minnesota, I have been working with PlaceBase Productions on a street theatre production. Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord create historic dramas that move, physically as well as emotionally. In our case, that means the audience will walk down Minnesota Street in the heart of the National Register Commercial Historic District (for which I wrote the nomination).

The work of PlaceBase Productions is grounded in the work of Sally Mackey and others in Great Britain, using the concept of “applied theatre” to connect place and story, without the traditional audience/performer dichotomy of a theater setting. While different from living history at a historic site, there is a kinship. It is not bound to the rules that the interpreter stay in period character. In one of Hanson and Gaylord’s productions, the actors might break into song or turn the tables and begin quizzing the audience. They might use non-period props that create a setting or mood. We’re working toward a May 2015 performance of New Ulm’s story. The goal is to activate memories, provoke thought, and promote activity on the street. It is truly community theater.

Here’s a link to PlaceBase Productions.

Whitewater Shaker Village

J. P. Maclean, a historian, set about researching the Shakers in 1903, traveling across southern Ohio. He wrote about his first glimpse of Union Village, a Shaker community located near Harrison, Ohio: “When I caught sight of the first house, my opinion was confirmed that I was on the lands of the Shakers, for the same style of architecture, solid appearance and want of decorative art was before me.” The University of Cincinnati, through their Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, is doing some exciting work in using virtual reality to interpret history. Using tools like Google Sketch-up, students have recreated the exterior and interior of buildings in the Whitewater (Ohio) Shaker Village. While not the revelation that Mr. Maclean had, it opens a new perspective into the “land of the Shakers.”

CERHAS has used the approach to create a fascinating website about ancient Troy, complete with a virtual tour. Visit:

I’d like to see a historic downtown streetscape created for a Main Street Community.

An Evening with the New Ulm Battery

On Saturday evening I had the opportunity to speak at a dinner commemorating the 150th anniversary of the New Ulm Battery. This unique organization defies simple categorization. It began as a state militia unit in January 1863, charged with the defense of New Ulm, Minnesota, following the attacks on the town during U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Of course, we know the rest of the story — that no attack ever took place — but they did not.

No guns were ever fired by this unit in any conflict. After 1871 it no longer held any official connection to the military, but remained an organized and active unit. You can see them at Civil War reenactments (although they are not strictly a Civil War unit), parades, and other special events. Their participation in a performance of the 1812 Overture is certainly unforgettable.

Josh Moniz, a reporter for the New Ulm Journal, asked me why this local organization endured over 150 years while so many had their moment and then faded away. It wasn’t an easy question to answer. New Ulm loves its history and the Dakota War has been a touchstone of community experience. It’s also great showmanship to see the horses pulling the cannons into place, followed by the rituals of firing a round. Thanks must go to a few dedicated people like Frank Burg and John Fritsche who dedicated so much to keeping the Battery alive.