Non-elite women's production, consumption and use of 'natural knowledge' (science and technology), 1740-1810

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: History


Recent historiography of 18th century science and natural knowledge has concentrated on elite women and their cultivation of intellectual and scientific pursuits, like botany, as forms of "polite knowledge". Work on the staging of 'popular' science, Fyfe and Lightman (2007), Coppola (2016), has focussed on production and the producer rather than the audience or consumer. The result has been to render non-elite women's engagement with natural knowledge invisible. My PhD addresses this gap in scholarship, emulating the approach of Mukerji (2007) Hunter/Hutton (1997) and Leong (2018) who have uncovered 17th century women's everyday experience of science and technology, from household recipes to expertise in irrigation. My research reveals that between 1740 and 1810 provincial women of the middling sort acted as technicians in occupations rooted in scientific knowledge, as artisans aiding the production of scientific equipment and as consumers of scientific lectures. They were readers of articles on natural philosophy and pedagogical figures in children's scientific texts. I suggest this was driven by domestic economy, financial need, religious belief and self-improvement within the context of a colonial empire, rather than by "polite knowledge".

My research draws on Golinski (1998) and Smith's (2017) constructivist work on knowledge making. It considers the interface between technological knowledge, founded in practical experience, and the codified knowledge of expert scientists and asks how women of the middling sort constructed and ordered natural knowledge within and beyond the household. In reconstructing women's experience I juxtapose printed, archival and material sources, including reports in the York and Newcastle Courants, periodicals like the Ladies Diary, popular texts like Newton for the Ladies (1738), account books and wills of silk dyers and brewers, individual diaries and material objects. Surveying the sources I have identified two towns of polite resort and their nearby minor centres as case studies: York, and Beverley and Bath and the rural manufacturing area of Taunton.

Four chapters will use complementary methodologies:

Chap. 1 reconstructs the social practice of women who produced and/or engaged with natural knowledge through their work as brewers, dyers and stocking frame knitters. It discerns their skills and the expectations of their knowledge, using wills bequeathing their equipment, trade and farm ledgers detailing the tools and process of dyeing and brewing, recipe books and 'how to manuals' including James Martin's An Essay on the Art of Dying (1791) and Joseph Collyer's The Parents and Guardian's Directory (1761)

Chap. 2 examines women's participation in, and response to, lectures, demonstrations and spectacle. It reconstructs their experience, drawing on advertisements for events, newspaper reports, audience images, demonstration equipment, Benjamin Martin's lecture notes and the diary of a York woman I have identified as attending his presentations. It considers the role of science in self-fashioning and women's impact on the construction of popular science.

Chap. 3 analyses women's engagement with natural knowledge through periodicals and texts, like Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry (1805) designed to introduce science to women readers. It considers the reader imagined by this material and assesses the expectations and purpose of this knowledge, re-examining puzzles in the Ladies Diary for scientific rather than mathematical content and analysing scientific material in 'woman facing' periodicals.

Chap. 4 assesses the level, purpose and function of scientific understanding in poor schools and its role in defining gender. It analyses curriculum content and the rhetoric of books created by women of the middling sort for poor children, e.g. Sarah Trimmer's An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature (1780), and unpacks the concept of the female interrogator.


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