The Sensational Past

The Sensational Past:
How the Enlightenment Changed the
Way We Use Our Senses

Sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch—as they were celebrated during the Enlightenment and as they are perceived today.


Available at AmazonBarnes and Noble, W. W. Norton & Co., and other book retailers

19th-century engraving of the cat piano, a piano made...well...of cats.

19th-century engraving of the cat piano, a piano made...well...of cats.


Blindfolding children from birth? Playing a piano made of live cats? Using tobacco to cure drowning? Wearing “flea”-colored clothes? These actions may seem odd to us, but in the eighteenth century, they made perfect sense.

As often as we use our senses, we rarely stop to think about their place in history. But perception is not dependent on the body alone. Carolyn Purnell persuasively shows that, while our bodies may not change dramatically, the way we think about the senses and put them to use has been rather different over the ages. Journeying through the past three hundred years, Purnell explores how people used their senses in ways that might shock us now. And perhaps more surprisingly, she shows how many of our own ways of life are a legacy of this earlier time.

The Sensational Past focuses on the ways in which small, peculiar, and seemingly unimportant facts open up new ways of thinking about the past. You will explore the sensory worlds of the Enlightenment, learning how people in the past used their senses, understood their bodies, and experienced the rapidly shifting world around them.

19th-century exotic animal eating club meeting in a model of an iguanodon

19th-century exotic animal eating club meeting in a model of an iguanodon

Endorsements and Reviews

“A fun, historical page-turner filled with one awesome vignette after another on the curious social behavior of the day, Purnell’s book will enchant its audience.”
— Booklist


“[The Sensational Past] thoroughly yet lightheartedly explores the sensory theories of Europe’s 18th-century intelligentsia and how these ideas influence culture, lived experience, and scientific endeavors. . . . As Purnell enlightens readers on the origin of the word ‘restaurant’ or the medical reasons to ‘blow smoke up one’s ass,’ she reveals the many subtle ways we make sense of our world.”
— Publisher’s Weekly, starred review


“A fine companion to Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. . . . [The Sensational Past is a] surprisingly moving . . . lively and edifying narrative with lessons for today.”
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review


“Carolyn Purnell’s insightful survey of the ways Enlightenment thinkers made sense of their world offers exciting new perspectives on how we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch our own. As entertaining as it enlightening, The Sensational Past is a dazzling debut by a talented young historian.”
— Peter S. Onuf, author of The Mind of Thomas Jefferson

“No other history of the Enlightenment is quite like this one! Brilliant insights about the past are juxtaposed with wry comments about how we think today. By finding compelling human-interest stories involving real people, Purnell produces a book that is at once entertaining, erudite, and original.”
— Gary Kates, professor of history at Pomona College and author of Monsieur d’Eon Is a Woman