Travel Books

Remembering the Days: An 1840 sensory experience of campus – UofSC News & Events

Remembering the Days Podcast – Episode 15

Posted On: Oct 16, 2020; Updated on: October 16, 2020
By Chris Horn, [email protected], 803-777-3687

Take a trip back to 1840 with us and experience life on campus in the 19th century.


A sensory experience of the campus

This could be the greatest flight of the imagination we’ve taken so far at Remembering the Days, where we explore the history of the University of South Carolina. I invite you to become a time traveler with me – virtually, of course. And hey, in this era of COVID-19, we got used to doing things virtually.

Our time travel destination will be the campus of South Carolina College, the forerunner of the University of South Carolina in 1840. To travel back in time, we don’t need Scotty to beam ourselves, but we must all engage our senses – see, hear , touch, taste and smell. And believe me, there was a lot to smell in 1840.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re taking a flying leap in time.

Mark Smith comes along as our historical tour guide. Mark is a respected professor of history in Carolina who has written several books on the sensory experience of the past – basically history with the five senses. Remember that we will transfer our 21st century sensibilities to sights, smells and sounds of the mid 19th century. So this could be interesting. OK, get ready, dust off your imagination, because we’re taking off.

We’re on the horseshoe here. It looks something like what I remember from 2020. lots of trees and there’s the Maxcy Monument, but – phew! – what kind of smell is that? Oh there it is, watch your step – fresh pile of horse manure. (Horse neighs)

And that must be chickens or poultry behind the buildings over there. (Sound effects of chickens, turkeys)

It is 1840 – horse-drawn carriage is the main means of travel – and all professors live here on the horseshoe with a chicken coop nearby.

Hey, I’m sniffing something else that’s pretty fragrant. Mark, help us.

Mark Smith: As far as I know, there were no sewage systems on the campus until at least the 20th century that otherwise gave the campus a certain sharpness.

I see – outbuildings. In 1840 there are outbuildings across campus and throughout the city of Columbia. Indoor installations will not start to emerge on a large scale until the early 1900s.

Speaking of basic technology: in 1840 there was no air conditioning.

Mark: The lack 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 is hot and there is no air conditioning, you will sweat more. And that means people will smell more, at least up to their noses. But it didn’t register for her nose, or at least not as it would register with us.

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

But man, it’s so quiet here that you can hear the insects chirping. I didn’t notice it until then, and of course it should be obvious, but there is no mechanical noise, no traffic, no sirens. Just some kind of natural hum over the horseshoe.

Mark: Well, you wouldn’t have heard any cars, you wouldn’t have heard any planes. They would not have heard any electromagnetic noise at all. They wouldn’t have heard any industrial noise as we would appreciate. You wouldn’t have been able to turn off noises on campus the way people do with earplugs today. But you would have heard voices. Now it would have been almost exclusively male voices. And you would have heard some things that you can still hear today, like the bell. You can still hear bells in the city of Columbia, and you might have heard the bell at the University of South Carolina, South Carolina College.

There was a bell calling students to class at Rutledge College, which was one of the highest features of the campus at the time.

Mark: It’s important to realize that the university’s visual landscape would have been very different in terms of elevation. And that’s really a function of technology. Now look around the university and you will see towers piercing the sky – there are tall buildings. They stand out, they give a statement of authority, they are also a function of limited land use and you certainly wouldn’t have seen anything that high. But that doesn’t mean people didn’t think the buildings on their campus weren’t tall because everything is relative. 9:40 So yeah, something 250 feet wouldn’t have been there at that point, but something that was 50 feet would have been considered pretty big.

Time travel kind of makes me hungry. We could go to Steward’s Hall for something to eat. In 1840 this was roughly the same as the dining room at Russell House – all students went there to eat.

But honestly the food wasn’t that good back then. There are stories of students at South Carolina College around this time complaining constantly about being served biscuits with worms and rancid meat on them. There was actually something called the Great Biscuit Rebellion here in 1852 – some historians believe it was the first time students got active on a college campus in America. Half of the students left college in protest of the crappy food.

Mark: So I suspect that these food rejection moments are about two things. First, that they found the taste abhorrent, and b. They did not believe that it would fit in their ward, that bread with worms was completely unsuitable for a young gentleman, and that it was just miserable unpleasant.

But for me the interesting question is what this rejection of this food was all about – why, was it just because it was terrible, 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 men who were born in mostly wealthy families, they were among the most privileged people in the Palmetto state at the time. Unfortunately, the college would not accept women or people of color until many decades later.

There are a couple of students at the Maxcy Monument and it looks like they’re shaking hands. This is a custom that doesn’t seem to have changed much, although few of us 21st century time travelers shake hands with anyone in this era of COVID-19.

Mark: So handshaking was something reserved for men of a similar class, especially white men of a similar class. That doesn’t mean they never shook hands with lower-class white men – they did – but for the most part this was something that was restricted to the elite. And how you shook hands was important. It was a handshake of masculinity.

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

Excuse the pun, but we just scratched and smelled the surface today. So if you want to learn more about sensory history, check out one of Mark Smith’s books. Perhaps you like the smell of battle, the taste of siege: A Sensory Tale of the Civil War, or his latest book, “Feeling the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History”.

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

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

Share this story! Let friends on your social network know what you read about

Topics: Faculty, History, College of Arts and Sciences

Show More

Related Articles