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Science in the eighteenth-century home
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A culture of curiosity illuminates the home as an environment uniquely conducive to scientific enquiry in the eighteenth-century British world. Drawing on diverse manuscript sources, from household accounts to life writing, Leonie Hannan shows that scientific practices grew from the conditions and labour of home. In doing so, her study challenges traditional assumptions about the ‘Enlightenment’ and illuminates a diverse population of eighteenth-century scientists. Collectively, they represent a vibrant culture of curiosity that has evaded the historian’s eye. Structured in three parts, the book begins with an examination of the home itself. The second part analyses a series of domestic practices through the lives of diarists, letter-writers, collectors, star-gazers and experimenters. The book culminates with an exploration of what scientific enquiry meant to these people and considers the ramifications of their activities for larger histories of intellectual life. The analysis reveals the way little-known scientists constructed their own investigative authority, staking claim to enquiry as a facet of personal identity. A culture of curiosity offers an intellectual history from below. The findings suggest that lower-status scientists were not just ignored, but their work was also misunderstood with far-reaching consequences. The book therefore argues for a decisive break with dualist framings of knowledge-making, which serve to distort the interpretation of intellectual culture at large. By rejecting the limiting associations of ‘domestic life’, this book re-imagines a culture of enquiry populated by apprentices and housewives as much as Fellows of the Royal Society.

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Gender, writing and the life of the mind in early modern England
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Women of Letters writes a new history of English women’s intellectual worlds using their private letters as evidence of hidden networks of creative exchange. This is the first detailed study to situate correspondence as the central social practice in the development of female intellectual thought in the period c.1650-1750. The main argument of the book is that many women of this period engaged with a life of the mind through reading and writing letters. Until now, it has been assumed that women’s intellectual opportunities were curtailed by their confinement in the home. Women of Letters illuminates the household as a vibrant site of intellectual thought and expression. By using an original definition of ‘intellectual’, the book offers a new and inclusive view of intellectual life: one that embraces a broad range of informal writing and critical discourse and abandons the elitism of traditional definitions of scholarly achievement. Amidst the catalogue of day-to-day news in women’s letters, are lines of ink dedicated to the discussion of books, plays and ideas. Through these personal epistles, Women of Letters offers a fresh interpretation of intellectual life in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, one that champions the ephemeral and the fleeting in order to rediscover women’s lives and minds.

Leonie Hannan

This chapter examines the materials that circulated through the eighteenth-century home and the rooms that accommodated a range of domestic tasks. This was a period in which household material culture proliferated, but it was also one which valued thrift and careful management of resources. Drawing on account books, inventories and letters, this chapter makes the case for the home as a fruitful context for enquiry, arguing that it was an environment that actively fuelled and shaped investigative work. The chapter divides into four main sections; the first two explore the concept of home ‘oeconomy’ and rooms and their uses, taking into account change over time. Next the discussion moves to consider three working rooms in greater material detail: the kitchen, brewery and stillroom. Finally, the chapter considers the spaces around the house, gardens and grounds, that often played a role in provisioning the household. At each stage, the messy extant record of household provisioning and furnishing is interrogated for the insight it can offer into the home as a site for scientific enquiry. The chapter uses examples from a range of locations, including England, Ireland and colonial North America. The analysis roams across social strata, incorporating the urban housing of a provincial capital, compared with modest village homes and large country estates. This approach builds a picture of the diversity, but also the continuities, that existed in household design of this period.

in A culture of curiosity
Leonie Hannan

Chapter 2 considers personal experience as a route to knowledge-making through an examination of tacit knowledge and record-keeping in a domestic context. An opening case study focused on the transfer of tacit knowledge from servant to master concerning bread-making sets out the main challenges of finding evidence of these ways of knowing in the historical record. It also introduces key themes of gender, power relations and material knowledge. The second half of the chapter deals with record-keeping as an intrinsically domestic practice, but one that was foundational for scientific work. To do so, it considers two kinds of record-keeping: that relating to domestic provisioning (mainly drawn from recipe books) and weather diaries. Whilst the latter example relates more clearly to scientific enquiry, this chapter argues that the daily, domestic habits of keeping a note motivated a wide range of record-keeping including that which concerned the natural world. In the ephemera of everyday life, clear and purposeful practices of knowledge-making and transfer are visible. Keeping a record offered eighteenth-century people a level of control over their financial resources and home comfort, but also the possibility to participate in a larger project of collective enquiry.

in A culture of curiosity
Open Access (free)
Leonie Hannan

This chapter examines collecting as a domestically situated practice. It is divided into three sections, focusing in turn on collecting in the fields of natural history, scientific instruments and art, manuscripts and antiquities. Building on the theme of domestic accumulation, outlined in Chapter 1, the discussion here considers three main case studies of collectors. The first example looks at the epistolary networks that facilitated natural historical collecting, illustration and publishing. It shows that naturalists and collectors of divergent means and social standing were in contact with each other to further scientific objectives. The second case study is based on the astronomical instrument collection of Margaret, Lady Clive (1735–1817) and her letter-writing with her niece Margaret Maskelyne concerning this collection, its domestic significance and their shared interest in astronomy. The final example is of the MP and antiquarian collector, James Harris (1709–80), whose notebooks document the way his artefacts, prints and manuscripts were stored, under lock and key, in the rooms of his genteel home in Salisbury Close in England. Taking a subject matter that is strongly associated with the elite and the famous, this chapter underlines the accessibility of natural historical collecting. It also emphasises the way homes of vastly different scales encouraged the collecting of curious objects. Collecting was a domestic practice in this period and collections, large and small, were shaped by the affordances and demands of home.

in A culture of curiosity
Open Access (free)
Leonie Hannan

Observation was a key scientific practice, but one that has been overshadowed by interest in the history of experiment. Close observation was also central to the refining of techniques of domestic provisioning and represented a practice familiar to many. Whilst it has been argued that scientific attention has special qualities, which strain the human body through repeated and precise movements, this was also true of many facets of home production. The chapter opens with a discussion of the naturalist, Gilbert White’s (1720–93) sensory practice and moves on to consider a central example of two Dublin apprentices who pursued their mutual fascination with astronomy. An intense period of star-gazing was captured in the letters of one apprentice to the other, as he attempted to guide his pupil in the skills of calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Through their example, a wider community of urban, working people become visible – individuals who engaged with astronomy in the context of demanding trades or professions. This chapter illuminates the depth of engagement with science that was possible in the context of crowded living conditions, a heavy workload and limited access to instruments. Despite such constraints, their letters reveal the abundant motivation, agency and expertise of these unrecognised eighteenth-century scientists.

in A culture of curiosity
Open Access (free)
Leonie Hannan

The main focus of this chapter is on the experimental work of breeding silkworms, and the central examples include a postmistress in Kent, England, an apothecary in Pennsylvania and a range of other working and leisured women – all of whom conducted their experiments from home. An activity that sat at the juncture of naturalism and commercial interest, silkworm breeding was taken up by many women across Britain and Ireland in this period. Championed by learned societies, institutional records attest to widespread participation in this pursuit. This chapter offers detailed insight into how experimental work occupied domestic space. Firesides, the pigeon-hole of a cabinet, a garret windowsill and even a hat box were all put to service in the project of silkworm cultivation. The individuals discussed here, most especially women with responsibility for the labour of home (by hand or order), were well positioned to experiment with silkworm rearing in terms of their skills, schedules and command of household space and material culture. In their fascinating testimony, these silkworm experimenters describe not only their activities, but also their motivations and aspirations. Drawing on the archives and transactions of societies dedicated to the development of ‘useful knowledge’, accounts of silkworm breeding reveal the elaborate networks of knowledge exchange that operated through, but also beyond, eighteenth-century institutions.

in A culture of curiosity
Leonie Hannan

Chapter 6 considers the relationship between personal experience and knowledge by examining the way intellectual authority was constructed by non-elite scientists who operated below the radar of ‘Enlightenment science’. The analysis builds on the case studies explored in Chapters 4 and 5 by directly addressing questions of motivation, mastery, self-confidence and personhood. Silkworm-breeding women are considered for their construction of authority and ownership of expertise. Astronomer apprentices offer insight into the mastery working people could achieve through engagement with, and participation in, cheap print culture. Here, the act of enquiry is understood as a commitment that had a strong and sometimes fraught relationship with the sense of self. The decision to enquire could be an emotional one. For the people discussed here, negotiations around issues of social status, role and responsibilities were of crucial importance not only to their ability to pursue scientific activity but also for the value they placed upon that activity both for themselves and wider society. The chapter’s case studies give an authoritative voice to the variegated expertise that could be sharpened at home. The confidence of these individuals was bolstered by membership in multiple communities of enquiry in ink, print and person. Taken together, their testimonies indicate widespread and assertive participation in scientific knowledge-making by a diverse population of individuals.

in A culture of curiosity
Leonie Hannan

This final and concluding chapter offers an assessment of how the book’s findings change the way we understand science in the eighteenth century. In particular, the chapter offers a critique of the way the language historians use to describe enquiry acts to constrain and distort our view of enquiry itself and the people who engaged in it. Here, the eighteenth-century home is viewed as a dynamic, creative, communicative and connected place and the analysis strives to escape the diminishing connotations of ‘domestic’, based as they are on hierarchies that scholars have long rejected. Drawing on the philosophy of eco-feminist, Val Plumwood, the chapter argues for an approach that affirms unacknowledged historical actors, redefines their significance in relation to the hegemonic and, in doing so, reconstructs a sense of the whole that avoids the pitfalls of dualist thinking. The chapter also tackles questions concerning gender, status, labour, the home and the everyday in terms of cultures of knowledge. It considers how the experiences and knowledge of the people who populate this book can be understood in terms of wider currents in intellectual life in this period. The chapter argues that the activities of many people whose names do not grace the pages of history books animated the search for natural knowledge in this period. Collectively, they constituted a culture of curiosity. They conducted this complex project from the comfort of their very many different homes.

in A culture of curiosity
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Cultures of enquiry in the eighteenth-century British world
Leonie Hannan

This chapter introduces the book’s main questions and themes and explains why the activities of a range of eighteenth-century, domestic experimenters have been overlooked by historians. The book’s research sits at the juncture of several fields, including histories of science and medicine, social and cultural history, gender history and material culture studies. This chapter therefore situates the research in relation to these relevant bodies of scholarship and highlights the key insights that prepared the ground for this book’s findings and argument. Divided into sections, it deals with the making and sharing of knowledge in this period (including popular access to information and networks of exchange) and also the work of the home. The latter incorporates a discussion of household labour, space, materials and things and the question of how ‘Enlightenment’ science was accommodated by the home and makes the case for seeing domestic practice as a route to enquiry. Finally, the chapter provides a synopsis of the structure and content of the book as a whole.

in A culture of curiosity