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Conference to explore history of five senses

by Cindy Weiss - October 24, 2005

A new kind of scholarship – a history of the five senses – will be explored at the inaugural James L. and Shirley A. Draper Graduate Students Conference on Early American Studies Nov. 10-12.

“Coming to Our Senses: Rediscovering Early America” will explore a new field that is an extension of social and cultural history, says Robert Gross, the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History.

“People are more and more interested in the felt quality of life and the five senses,” he says. “Most of the history we write is silent – intangible, impalpable.”

Historians of the senses ask such questions as, “If you were in New England in 1700, what sounds would you hear?” he says. Researchers ferret out details about the customs of the time from sources such as travelers’ accounts and letters.

When Europeans encountered the natives of North America, their physical differences – how people ate and smelled and the foods they tasted – “were dramatically apparent and dominated first impressions,” he says.

The history of the senses is a key element in studying the new codes of behavior and manners that emerged in the second half of the 18th century, Gross says, as Americans began to associate decorum with the social pecking order.

“To be aristocratic was not just to be wealthy, but to have a style of deportment that distinguished you,” he says.

The conference will open at UConn with a keynote talk by Pulitzer Prize-winner Rhys Isaac, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Early American History at the College of William and Mary, an expert on how English and African cultures shaped life in colonial Virginia.

The conference is co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, a national library of American history in Worcester, Mass., and it will conclude with a half-day program there.

Students will be introduced to the AAS research holdings, and will hear a talk by former UConn historian Karen Kupperman, now at New York University. Her most recent book is Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America.

“Coming to Our Senses” was organized by graduate students in the History Department. Co-chairs of the meeting are Patrick Blythe, a doctoral student, and Amy Sopcak, a master’s degree candidate.

Graduate students from around the country will give presentations at the conference.

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