Material Literacy in 18th-Century Britain
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Material Literacy in 18th-Century Britain

A Nation of Makers

Serena Dyer, Chloe Wigston Smith, Serena Dyer, Chloe Wigston Smith

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eBook - ePub

Material Literacy in 18th-Century Britain

A Nation of Makers

Serena Dyer, Chloe Wigston Smith, Serena Dyer, Chloe Wigston Smith

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The eighteenth century has been hailed for its revolution in consumer culture, but Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain repositions Britain as a nation of makers. It brings new attention to eighteenth-century craftswomen and men with its focus on the material knowledge possessed not only by professional artisans and amateur makers, but also by skilled consumers. This edited collection gathers together a group of interdisciplinary scholars working in the fields of art history, history, literature, and museum studies to unearth the tactile and tacit knowledge that underpinned fashion, tailoring, and textile production. It invites us into the workshops, drawing rooms, and backrooms of a broad range of creators, and uncovers how production and tacit knowledge extended beyond the factories and machines which dominate industrial histories. This book illuminates, for the first time, the material literacies learnt, enacted, and understood by British producers and consumers. The skills required for sewing, embroidering, and the textile arts were possessed by a large proportion of the British population: men, women and children, professional and amateur alike. Building on previous studies of shoppers and consumption in the period, as well as narratives of manufacture, these essays document the multiplicity of small producers behind Britain's consumer revolution, reshaping our understanding of the dynamics between making and objects, consumption and production. It demonstrates how material knowledge formed an essential part of daily life for eighteenth-century Britons. Craft technique, practice, and production, the contributors show, constituted forms of tactile languages that joined makers together, whether they produced objects for profit or pleasure.

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Información

Año
2020
ISBN
9781501349621
Edición
1
Categoría
Betriebswirtschaft
Categoría
Konsumverhalten
1
Introduction
Serena Dyer and Chloe Wigston Smith
All goods are made or touched by someone. Processes of production were vital to the flourishing eighteenth-century ‘world of goods’, its textiles, ceramics, wood and metal objects.1 The skills and knowledge of the makers who transformed lengths of wool into fashionable coats, or intricately hand-carved wooden bedframes from pieces of mahogany, have often been minimized in narratives of the Industrial Revolution and its technological innovations. The looming figure of the factory and the roar of its machines, has diminished the manual work of human hands and positioned production as a masculine, professional and mechanized process.2 Yet, as this volume argues, making practice, skill and knowledge were not only widespread, they were fundamental to men, women and children alike. They mattered to individuals and also to communities, provincial and urban. Manufacturing and making took place not only in workshops and factories, but in the drawing rooms, shops, parlours and backrooms of Britain. This collection upsets the familiar delineation of women’s craft and men’s production and makes the case for a flexible and inclusive approach to material practices. Crucially, the chapters in this volume contend that maker’s knowledge was integral to the ways in which eighteenth-century people navigated the material world.
This volume sees making knowledge and skill as evidence of ‘material literacy’ and calls attention to the competence, knowledge and understanding of the material world which coursed across eighteenth-century society. Material literacy, we suggest, incorporates three categories of maker and making activity. Firstly, those who held the needle or chisel, and acted as active producers, physically moulding and shaping the material properties of the goods they produced. Secondly, those who guided and advised, acting in partnership with other professional or amateur makers. Finally, those who did not directly contribute to production, but who mobilized their knowledge of making to comment upon, judge and inform their own activities as consumers and owners of material objects. In recognizing these pathways by which individuals encountered and engaged with making, the term ‘material literacy’ encompasses the diversity of eighteenth-century material knowledge. Similarly, it celebrates the fluidity with which individuals moved between distinct types of material activity, highlighting the ways in which different making practices coexisted. Our attention to the range of eighteenth-century making is reflected in the interdisciplinary chapters gathered here. The array of scholars represented, from the disciplines of history, art history and literature, as well as museum professionals, demonstrates the multiple ways in which making knowledge could be accessed through image, practice, object, sociability, text and instruction. Material literacy cuts across conventional disciplinary boundaries, bringing a range of perspectives, sources and practices into view.
Making occupied not only professional workshops and factories, but also those spaces traditionally associated with commerce and sociability, such as shops and homes. The painting The Ladies Waldegrave (1780) by Joshua Reynolds, the cover image to our collection, shows a group of elite sisters within the domestic interior. Occupied by a variety of material practices, the women are intently focused on their manual work. Lady Charlotte, on the left, holds a skein of silk taut between her hands, offering it up to her sister, Lady Elizabeth, who fixes her steady look on the silk threads that she is winding onto the small card in her left hand. Lady Anna, on the right, turns her head away from us and towards the tambour frame nestled in her left arm, intently focused on the silver hook in her right hand. Further evidence of the sisters’ material and textual literacy rests on the table, where a book balances on a pair of scissors and is partially covered by an embroidered silk workbag, possibly also the handiwork of the sisters. Diverging from the usual tea-tables and outdoor scenes of many conversation pieces, these women perform their femininity not through conventions of sociability, but through their manual material labour.3 Their making practices, framed as female accomplishments, position material literacy as a domestic and artistic pursuit.4 Reynolds’s portrait invites us inside the domestic interior of making, as the women’s gazes look either inwards or downwards to their work, and away from the glimpse of greenery and blue sky on the right.
Women’s decorative efforts and amateur handicraft – often considered as the domain of the leisured and genteel – have frequently ringfenced making as the preserve of elite, leisured and distinctly domestic feminine hands. Scenes of feminine accomplishment, captured by The Ladies Waldegrave, have long stood as a synecdoche for the handiwork of eighteenth-century Britons. This collection, however, broadens the horizons of not only the age, gender and class identities of makers, but also the settings in which they started, pursued, completed or set aside their projects and products. It shows how making was experienced by eighteenth-century Britons, elite, middling and labouring. Many of our makers did indeed complete their work in refined domestic settings, by the comfort of a fire or in lushly appointed drawing rooms, as the group portrait above illustrates. Other professional makers, however, relied on workrooms and built environments for their respective trades. But, crucially, divisions between the home and the workspace were never steady nor consistent for makers, as our contributors show. Crafts, and the toxic chemicals required for them, could be fashioned at home in the drawing room or kitchen, as well as in purpose-made laboratories, ateliers and work rooms. Dressmakers stitched garments and accessories in the windows of their shops, turning their making to the full view of customers and passers-by, rather than secreting the creative process to backrooms. Makers from across the social spectrum took their work outdoors, from chairmakers and wheelwrights to genteel ladies. Lady Salisbury’s watercolour of the Misses Van, for instance, depicts one sister intently focused on her needlework, her gaze cast downwards to the cloth in her hands, her bright red housewife of tools and materials resting in her lap. The sisters sit in a garden: industrious feminine activity is framed by the tree and foliage that surround them, fastening manual skill to the pleasures of nature (Figure 1.1). Examples from literature reaffirm these practices. In Charlotte Lennox’s novel, Euphemia (1790), the eponymous heroine recounts an excursion into the woods of colonial New York, in which she and her friends take tea in ‘a little valley, surrounded with lofty trees’; there ‘Miss Bellenden produced her netting, Louisa her flower-piece, Mrs. Benson and I our plain-work, and Clara her book.’5 Material literacy is distributed across age and social status: the younger, unmarried women pursue decorative work, while the married women execute the practical plain-work of household management. The bookish Clara has brought Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782), which she reads out loud to her industrious friends.6
Just as our collection unfolds around makers working in a variety of spaces, it considers also the decorative handicrafts – so synonymous with feminine making – as part of a broader rubric of making knowledge and skill. This comprehensive approach encompasses skills which enabled women and men not only to make, but to alter and mend existing material possessions. Maintaining objects – in terms of both individual things and bodies of objects – required a knowledge of making beyond the initial process of production. While women maintained the bulk of household linens, men also altered and adjusted garments.7 Material literacy ensured the maintenance and preservation of objects throughout the lifecycle, and not only at the key moments of production and consumption, as Ariane Fennetaux deftly demonstrates in her work on pockets in this volume. Reworking and recycling added layers of meaning to objects which demanded ongoing and active material literacy.8
image/webp
Figure 1.1 Mary Emilia Cecil, Marchioness of Salisbury, The Misses Van, 1791, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (see Colour Plate 1).
The diverse varieties of material literacy can also be observed in the experience and skill which makers and consumers used to apprehend and understand both domestic and imported goods. Material literacy was essential to eyeing the bright, rich dyes that saturated Indian textiles, especially calicoes, in the early eighteenth century and to feeling the paper-thin muslins of the later eighteenth century. Did a piece of porcelain hail from China or was it manufactured in Chelsea? What makers’ marks or patterns would help to identify the real from the fake? Which techniques could amateur makers acquire to imitate imported goods, as Hannah Robertson advised in her craft manual (discussed in Chapter 4)? Consumers had to exercise careful discernment and close scrutiny to navigate the world of eighteenth-century goods, especially when shopping by correspondence. As Robbie Richardson examines in his chapter on steel and perceptions of savagery, gaps and weaknesses in material literacy could lead consumers and collectors to misidentify objects under inspection.
We know that material literacy, like textual literacy, was never a zero-sum game, but instead ranged up, down and across a person’s age, class, experience and dexterity. A person’s material literacy could change over the course of a lifetime and it could surpass, sit comfortably alongside or trail behind their textual literacy. Far more women could make their marks in thread than in ink.9 Material literacy involved a combination of manual know-how that depended on several senses; hands, eyes, ears all contributed to the various stages of transforming raw materials into finished objects.10 Such skills often benefitted from literacy and numeracy yet reading and writing were not prerequisites for manual praxis. Histories of the reading public have documented the gender gaps for reading and writing, where rates, in England, for men (40 per cent in 1700) far exceeded those for women (25 per cent in 1700).11 Over the eighteenth century, literacy rates for English men rose steadily (to 60 per cent in 1795), but expanded rapidly for women, almost doubling by mid-century to around 40 per cent and rising to 50 per cent by 1830.12 As J. Paul Hunter notes, some women could read but neither write nor sign their names, and ‘men were more likely to be engaged in occupations and tasks that put a premium on the ability to sign’.13 Material literacy, however, was equally available to women and men and for some types of material literacy, women’s knowledge and skills exceeded those of men. At the same time, maker’s knowledge was shaped by amateur and professional practices: a male tailor would have possessed techniques and training in drafting collars and pad-stitching lapels that would not have fallen within the remit of even the most accomplished domestic needlewoman. Still she would know things he did not. The rolled hems and whipped gathers which went into the construction of caps and handkerchiefs were undoubtedly feminine practice.
It would be all too easy in stressing the literacy and close reading skills of eighteenth-century Britons to overplay analogies to reading that turn on the legibility and illegibility of objects and maker’s knowledge. In addressing this range of manual practices, we are keen to resist the temptation to set material literacy against reading practices. Skill in one area did not overwrite expertise in the other. Busy hands did not lead to idle minds. Material endeavours offered opportunities for ‘covert power and … radical expression’ in ways not dissimilar to reading and writing.14 In fact reading was often a crucial part of material literacy, as the chapters here show, communicating the advantages of knowledge to novices and experts alike, and providing sources for craft inspiration. Women, in particular, often engaged in literary pursuits during making: reading aloud and literary conversations were frequent partners to making; this is the case especially for those elite enough to possess the leisure time to engage in non-commercial making. In Lady Salisbury’s watercolour (Figure 1.1), one sister stitches while tilting her head towards the other sister, who holds an open book in her hands. Making could be combined with other leisure pursuits, such as reading, visiting and tea-taking, that maximized and mixed the activities of women’s time. It was also subject to the stresses of the time-poor: making contributed to the numerous accomplishments that women, in particular, were expected to excel in, but that competed with other domestic and sociable duties. We see this in the unfinished and abandoned projects that many makers left behind, but that were nonetheless preserved in their partially completed conditions. These projects bear the traces of their finishing points, with beginning and middles that indicate what was to come, but that were permanently interrupted by other duties and distractions. In this sense, making, particularly its temporal conditions and constraints, evokes Christina Lupton’s insights into the divided time of eighteenth-century readers, where women ‘in particular complained of the buzz of social obligation and communication from which they find it impossible to protect themselves’.15
At the same time professional makers found moments to combine making with reading, and several of our contributors address the increasing availability of print sources that supported and expanded access to maker’s knowledge. From recipe books for the kitchen to voluminous, illustrated encyclopaedias, eighteenth-century Britons could improve their material literacy not only through verbal, practical training but also through text and image. Reading held out the potential to distract the attention of makers; too much print, especially the kind of stories that diverted makers from the task at hand, held the potential to damage profits and productivity.16 In William Hogarth’s 1747 series, Industry and Idleness, plate 1 shows ‘The fellow ’prentices at their looms’, with ballads stuck on the walls of the weaver’s workshop (Figure 1.2). Tom Idle’s shiftless and dismal future finds expression in a ballad of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel Moll Flanders, which has been pinned to the loom’s back beam, against which Tom Idle dozes, mouth agape. By contrast, the diligent Francis Goodchild centres his gaze downwards to his loom, ignoring the ballads, ‘The London Prentice’ and ‘Whitington, Ld Mayor’ stuck to the wall behind him. In such scenes, texts appear as part of the worker’s day, a feature of their workspace. The printed pages’ content and placement serve as further moralizing emblems of how the apprentices will approach their acquisition of material literacy and the degree to which they will, or won’t, in Tom Idle’s case, absorb knowledge and manual expertise from the master wea...

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