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The Deepest Sense

A Cultural History of Touch

Constance Classen

Publication Year: 2012

From the softest caress to the harshest blow, touch lies at the heart of our experience of the world. Now, for the first time, this deepest of senses is the subject of an extensive historical exploration. The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch fleshes out our understanding of the past with explorations of lived experiences of embodiment from the Middle Ages to modernity. This intimate and sensuous approach to history makes it possible to foreground the tactile foundations of Western culture--the ways in which feelings shaped society._x000B__x000B_Constance Classen explores a variety of tactile realms including the feel of the medieval city; the tactile appeal of relics; the social histories of pain, pleasure, and affection; the bonds of touch between humans and animals; the strenuous excitement of sports such as wrestling and jousting; and the sensuous attractions of consumer culture. She delves into a range of vital issues, from the uses--and prohibitions--of touch in social interaction to the disciplining of the body by the modern state, from the changing feel of the urban landscape to the technologization of touch in modernity._x000B__x000B_Through poignant descriptions of the healing power of a medieval king's hand or the grueling conditions of a nineteenth-century prison, we find that history, far from being a dry and lifeless subject, touches us to the quick.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Studies in Sensory History


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

I am very grateful to everyone who assisted me during the years of preparation for this book. Among my colleagues in the field of the history of the senses I owe thanks to Mark Smith, who proposed I embark on the present study and Richard Newhauser, who responded with such enthusiasm...

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The Inside Story

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pp. xi-xvii

If a history could be written of touch, what would it embrace? Hot fire and cold wind, smooth silk and rough wool, spinning wheels and threshing flails, relics and frolics and the healing touch of a king? A world of meaning can lie within the simplest gesture, a kiss, or the touch...

1. A Place by the Fire

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pp. 1-22

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The Common Touch

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pp. 1-7

Much of medieval life was lived in common with others. This was particularly the case when large groups of people lived under one roof, as in a castle or a monastery, but also held true of people living within villages or settlements. Keeping close to others allowed individuals to reap the benefits of common labor and also provided much needed security...

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A Place by the Fire

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pp. 7-12

In the Middle Ages home was where the hearth was. The fireplace provided families with life-sustaining heat and enabled them to have hot, cooked meals. As we know from Piers Plowman people of the time liked their food “hot or hotter, against a cold stomach” (Langland....

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The Walled City

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pp. 12-15

The typical medieval city was a walled city. The walls were tangible markers of corporate strength and at the same time enclosing arms that protected and contained the city’s inhabitants. In the morning people would stream through the city’s gates to work in the fields outside. At dusk they came streaming back in, gathering together like sheep in a corral...

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Hard at Work

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pp. 16-20

Dawn. Cocks crow, birds sing, and bells ring. Time to stretch stiff limbs, scratch at insect bites, awaken drowsy bedfellows, and leave the warmth of the bed for the cool morning air. On with the coarse, woolen clothing. A hunk of bread washed down by beer makes a peasant’s breakfast. Outside the ground is wet with dew. Time to fetch water from the well, time...

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The Rites of Pleasure

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pp. 20-26

After a hard day’s work the fortunate laborer would enjoy the soft pleasures of bodily comforts. The hardness of the work, indeed, made the softness of the comforts all the more pleasurable. Huizinga noted that, due to the greater ease of modern life, “we . . . can hardly understand the keeness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, [and]...

2. A Touchable God

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pp. 27-48

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A Tactile Cosmology

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pp. 27-29

At its heart, the cosmology of the Middle Ages was tactile. Heaven may have seemed to be all light and music and fragrance but the primordial qualities of the universe were held to be the contrasting forces of hot, cold, moist, and dry. All of these qualities could only be experienced through touch, making touch the only sense open to the fundamental...

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Mystical Touch

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pp. 29-30

According to Christian belief, the God who crafted the cosmos and its inhabitants had himself entered the created world in the form of his son, Jesus. The physical nature of Jesus’ body brought God firmly into the realm of human experience and tangibility. In an astounding juxtaposition of divine power and mortal frailty, the Christian God could be...

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Gestures of Piety

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pp. 31-34

For most people the role of touch in religion did not primarily concern mystical experience or theological commentaries but embodied practice. It was through the practice known as the laying on of hands that believers were admitted to full communion, priesthood was conferred, and rites of healing performed. Everyday religious practice involved a number of essential ritual gestures: crossing oneself, bowing, kneeling, placing one’s...

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The Cult of Relics

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pp. 35-41

The most highly valued form of religious touch was that which brought one in direct physical contact with holiness. Hence, anyone reputed to be saintly, from Bernard of Clairvaux to a zealous flagellant, was likely to be an object of devotional touch. The desiring touch of the masses, in fact, might be directed not only at reputed saints, but at any striking public figure, especially one who met with a dramatic death. This occurred...

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Corpus Christi

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pp. 41-43

An eminently tangible source of supernatural power in the Middle Ages was the Eucharist, which was understood to be, in some mysterious way that theologians struggled to elucidate, the actual body of Christ. For those who doubted the real presence, accounts of eucharistic miracles told of hosts that bled or transformed into flesh or a living body. One tale told of a....

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Ordeals by Fire

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pp. 43-46

The importance of entering into physical contact with a sacred person or object in the Middle Ages, beyond the satisfaction of thereby acquiring firsthand knowledge of it, lay in the popular understanding of the nature of touch. Medieval philosophy confirmed what bodily experience made evident: the action of touch is reciprocal, one cannot touch without being touched...

3. Painful Times

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pp. 47-68

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Suffering Bodies and Healing Hands

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pp. 47-51

Pain—caused by hunger and thirst, heat and cold, injuries, overwork, and illness— was a commonplace of premodern life. In many cases there was not much people could do about it: work was hard, winter was cold, illness was often incurable. Worst of all, food, the heart-warming, belly-filling stuff of life, was all too commonly scarce. Described by Saint...

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Blind Touch

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pp. 51-56

Blindness was a not uncommon condition in the Middle Ages, when malnutrition, disease, and injury resulted in the loss or severe impairment of sight for many. Interestingly, blinding seems to have been one of the preferred punishments for overthrown monarchs. Where the outright execution of a king might be seen as too offensive to God and man, blinding served...

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Leprosy, the Black Death, and Dancing Mania

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pp. 57-60

The most stigmatized illness of the Middle Ages, and one that was incurable as well, was leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease). Leprosy had a particularly close association with the sense of touch. While it could produce painful sores, it could also result in the loss of the sense of pain, together with a general deterioration of the sense of touch. The leprosy of King Baldwin...

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The Uses of Pain

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pp. 60-64

Pain and illness have clearly been a profound and often unavoidable part of human experience for most of history. However, if people could not hope to master pain in the centuries before the development of modern medicine, they could and did become masters of the uses of pain. And the uses of pain were many: instruc...

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The Torments of Hell

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pp. 64-68

The death of a condemned sinner did not constitute the end of one’s suffering in traditional Christian thought. It was, indeed, only the prelude to the worse and unending pains awaiting sinners in Hell. The notion that the seriously sinful would be subjected to an eternity of pain...

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Sorrow and Compassion

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pp. 68-70

Frequently exposed to pain as they were, did people of earlier eras become inured to it? The expectation that this would happen was certainly behind many traditional practices, such as the blows and beatings that formed a customary part of military training. Was suffering indeed so commonplace that only exceptional pains could make an impact on the imagination?...

4. A Woman’s Touch

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pp. 71-92

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Male and Female Bodies

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pp. 71-74

Hot, dry, cold, and moist. The same qualities thought to shape the cosmos in premodernity were also believed to shape the bodies of men and women. The creation of a human being involved the union of cold matter, provided by the mother, with hot seminal spirit, contributed by the father. If the father’s semen had been sufficiently “cooked” or concocted the...

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A Woman’s Touch

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pp. 75-76

Hot, dry, cold, and moist. The same qualities thought to shape the cosmos in premodernity were also believed to shape the bodies of men and women. The creation of a human being involved the union of cold matter, provided by the mother, with hot seminal spirit, contributed by the father. If the father’s semen had been sufficiently “cooked” or concocted the...

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Women’s Work

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pp. 77-81

Women’s work was understood to be above all housework. The very bodies of women were said to be made for the job. The inherent coldness of the female body seemed to make it advisable for women to stay warm indoors. Their soft flesh, broad hips, and narrow shoulders were taken as further evidence that women were designed to stay at home, leaving hardened...

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Texts and Textiles

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pp. 81-85

One skill that a number of women plied contrary to convention was that of writing. Writing had the social advantage for women that it could be undertaken within the feminine domain of the home. When contrasted with the quintessential male instrument of power, the sword, the pen might even seem demurely...

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Mystical Raptures and Pain Craft

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pp. 85-90

In Catholic countries the religious life offered women the one socially acceptable alternative to housekeeping. Women certainly did not have all the possibilities for religious vocations available to men: they could not be priests nor preachers nor hold office in the Church. What made a religious life socially acceptable for women was that it was a cloistered life. The...

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The Witch’s Touch

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pp. 90-92

The female witch was the symbolic inverse of the female saint. Whereas female saints counteracted or spiritualized all the qualities associated with women, witches (generally thought of as female) put those qualities to demonic ends. Women were said to be gluttonous by nature. Female saints, by contrast...

5. Animal Skins

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pp. 93-114

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Animal Bodies

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pp. 93-97

While the senses were typically considered feminine in nature when opposed to male rationality, when considered on their own they could be assigned feminine or masculine connotations. Touch, taste and smell were generally held to be the lower senses and thus were readily linked to the lower sex—women. Similar associations were made between touch, taste...

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Animal Companions

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pp. 98-102

Not everyone was unsympathetic to animals in premodernity. Some, like the prioress in The Canterbury Tales, who “would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap,” had a strong sense of empathy for the animals who lived in their midst. Many others had affectionate relationships with at least some animals—at times, no doubt, even with animals...

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Beasts, Wild Men, and Slaves

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pp. 103-108

Given the very different roles of animals and humans in the Christian world order it was important to establish clear distinctions between the two groups. Many of the distinctions employed dealt with perceived physical differences between animals and humans. One of the most apparent differences was that humans had hands, while land animals had paws or hooves or some variation thereof. (Water dwellers were usually deemed too alien to...

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Animal Souls

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pp. 109-117

The most significant difference between humans and animals was not held to be based on the possession of hands or paws, fur or hair, nor on any physical or social distinction. It was based on the possession of the faculty of reason. Humans were said to be rational, animals were said to be irrational. This was...

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Experimentation and the Campaign Against Cruelty

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pp. 117-122

While there might be considerable divergence as to the rational capacities of animals, it was generally accepted that animals, as sentient beings, could suffer. Touch, the common medium of all the inhabitants of the Earth, was also the me...

6. Tactile Arts

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pp. 123-150

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The Aesthetics of Touch

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pp. 123-125

Medieval literature evidences a keen appreciation of the tactile world. In Chaucer’s “The Legend of Good Women,” the narrator kneels upon the meadow with its “small, soft, sweet grass.” In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain enters the deep forest where “hazel and hawthorn were densely entangled, thickly festooned with coarse, shaggy moss” (1992: 43). Indeed, both...

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The Feel of Art

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pp. 126-132

Another way in which the sense of touch was evoked in art was through representations of tactile contact and bodily movement. Though their depictions are often stylized, medieval and Renaissance paintings convey an immense amount of information about customary modes of touch, posture, and movement (see Quiviger 2010: 105–24). We see people holding hands...

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Crafty Ladies

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pp. 133-136

While touch would increasingly be dismissed as a valid mode for the appreciation of art in modernity, it nonetheless remained significant within the related field of craftwork. This was particularly the case with the often overlooked field known as “ladies’ work”—the term used for the craftwork undertaken by women to adorn their homes and families. Ladies’ work...

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Touch in the Museum

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pp. 136-146

In the late seventeenth century English traveler Celia Fiennes recorded a visit she made to the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford: There is a picture of a Gentleman that was a great benefactor to it being a cavalier, the frame of his picture is all wood carved very finely with all sorts of figures leaves birds beasts and flowers . . . there is a Cane which looks like a solid heavy thing but if you take it...

7. The Modern Touch

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pp. 147-174

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Petrarch’s Vision

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pp. 147-174

On April 26, 1336, Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux in Provence to see the view. It might not seem that noteworthy an event to a modern mind but it was one of those moments that marked the beginning of the end for the medieval way of understanding the world. Petrarch, who has often been called “the first modern man,” knew he was doing something...

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The Decline of Sacred Touch

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pp. 148-152

The sense of touch first fell from grace in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve took hold of the forbidden fruit after being expressly warned by God that it was hands-off. The second fall of the sense of touch—which was less of a fall than a gradual displacement from social centrality—began...

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New Sensory Worlds

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pp. 153-157

Many developments contributed to the changing relevance of the tactile sense, and indeed of all the senses in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The old feudal relationships and contracts, so often sealed with a kiss and a handclasp, were becoming obsolete as more complex and impersonal social networks evolved in the growing urban centers. The dissolving of traditional....

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The Persistence of Touch

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pp. 158-164

As charges of treason and tyranny were being brought against Charles I of England in 1649 the king rapped the prosecutor on the shoulder with his cane and called on him to stop. The cane broke, its gold tip falling to the floor. The prosecutor, heedless of the king’s command, carried on. No one bent a knee to offer the golden head of the cane back to the sovereign and Charles was obliged to stoop and pick it up himself. This seemingly trivial incident was taken to...

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The Finishing Touch

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pp. 165-166

On October 7, 1793, in the city of Reims, the sainte ampoule, the vial that contained the wondrously aromatic balm used to anoint French kings and said to have been brought by a dove from heaven to Saint Remi in the fifth century, was publicly smashed by an official of the new Republican assembly. The tiny bottle, kept in a red velvet bag in Saint Remi’s...

8. Sensations of a New Age

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pp. 167-170

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The Drill

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pp. 171-177

Ironically, or perhaps necessarily, the very period when the fully fledged modern individual was finally appearing on the scene was also the period when modern institutions—schools, prisons, armies, workhouses—that promoted the social conformity of individuals were reshaping society. These limited the possibilities for the new emphasis on individuality to result...

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The School, the Prison, and the Museum

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pp. 178-182

With the institution of compulsory education in the nineteenth century (the eighteenth century in Prussia), the drill extended its reach. One trait the school had in common with the army and the factory (to which it was sometimes attached) was a strict adherence to a standardized set of bodily practices. Indeed, for many of its proponents, the greatest advantage of...

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The Feel of the City

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pp. 183-185

Morning in a modern city was a very different experience from morning in a medieval city. In his poem “The Art of Walking the Streets of London,” John Gay described a typical morning scene in eighteenth-century London: Now industry awakes her busy sons, Full charg’d with news the breathless hawker runs: Shops open, coaches roll..

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The Electric Creed

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pp. 183-186

Near the end of the century a new source of power, one that would further increase dependence on and interconnection through industrial networks, began to transform the cityscape. This was electricity. One of the perceived advantages of electricity was that, as a clean form of energy, it promised to reduce the amount of smoke and soot in the atmosphere. These had...

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Touch at Home

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pp. 186-191

The nineteenth-century middle-class home was distinctive in its ostentation of all those technological conveniences developed by modern industry: plate-glass windows, running water, smokeless fireplaces, gas lighting. It was also distinctive in its specialization of domestic space. In contrast to the multipurpose rooms of the past, each room in the modern house..

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The Stuff of Dreams

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pp. 191-199

Many of the goods on display within the mid-nineteenth-century home came from an important new commercial and cultural venue: the department store. The great stores of the nineteenth century—Le Bon Marché in Paris, Harrod’s in London, Marshall Field’s in Chicago, among others—were a dominant feature of the urban environment...


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pp. 199-220


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pp. 221-227

back cover

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p. 258-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780252094408
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034930

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Studies in Sensory History