Working with Paper. Gendered Practices in the History of Knowledge

Bittel, Carla; Leong, Elaine; von Oertzen, Christine
Anzahl Seiten
310 S.
$ 55.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tom Tölle, Arbeitsbereich Europäische Geschichte, Universität Hamburg

This edited volume brings together contributions by thirteen historians of science to address the intersection between the materiality of paper and the gendered nature of working with this material from Europe’s early modern period to the twentieth century. As the editors’ introduction formulates, and as the contributions echo throughout, knowledge was “never just about words or writing”, but “inseparable from material and social practices embedded in daily life” (p. 1). This statement suggests departures: first, from a solely contextual understanding of science; secondly, from one divorcing texts from their social modes of production; and, thirdly, from a focus on (allegedly scarce) paper that existed worlds apart from gendered everyday experience. Exploring a variety of paper – ranging from ornate letters to royalty over census cards and paper plasters to papier-mâché models – allows the individual contributors to show in detail that people of many walks of life made knowledge with paper, and that they did so with very specific purposes, at times reifying, at others eroding gendered assumptions.

The publication grew out of both a working group and a conference at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Berlin): This intense format for discussion shows in the many intriguing conceptual borrowings and cross-references that tie the contributions together. The volume is divided into three parts focusing on the socio-material history of paper, its role as a tool and technology, and its interplay with power – a division which does not seem clear-cut considering the actual contributions.

An article by Heather Wolfe seamlessly brings together the nuanced, material world of early modern (elite) correspondence and the gendered aristocratic household. She hones in on a moment of failure, when queen Elizabeth’s favourite Cecil, then in Savoy, acknowledged that he was unable to seal a letter with silk-flossing as he would have done at home. From this remark Wolfe works out a rich array of papers used and sealing techniques “embedded in the family economy” (Ruth Oldenziel[1]). Some, like Cecil’s silk-flossing, could involve a male letter-writer and an aristocratic – literate and skilled – female seal-maker, but concluding from this case that letter-writing was overall “a gendered activity does not point to the complexity of the letter-writing environment” (p. 24), which Wolfe makes out to have often been more tacit and, thus, much harder to pinpoint.

Elaine Leong introduces her readers to an array of what Anke te Heesen has called “paper technologies”.[2] At the intersection of medical knowledge and housewifery, her text erodes the distinction between codified, organised, and collected knowledge and manual household tasks. Tracing the uses of paper for plasters, in medicine- and foodstuff-making, and in note-taking on loose slips that were ready for constant use and reorganisation, negates a traditional historiographical line drawn between male and female domains.

Employing a concept by Wanda J. Orlikowski, Simon Werrett hones in on the “sociomateriality” of scrap papers in eighteenth-century England.[3] Looking at the manifold uses of paper in hairdressing, wrapping, cookery, and child’s play, he suggests how uses of paper carried moral overtones already in the eighteenth century: overtones which connected technology to matters of morality. He suggests that seeing paper predominantly as a carrier of texts, which ignored these overtones, itself constituted a gendered practice.

Gabriella Szalay anchors conflicts about alternative ways of paper production in the honour-conflicts between artisans, seeking honour in labour and quality, and scholars, seeking it in intellectual accomplishment, as they unfolded in the eighteenth-century, state-driven “quest for improvement” (p. 62). Szalay attributes much of the ensuing conflicts to these competing “multiple masculinities”[4]: Artisans in the Holy Roman Empire accused paper-projector Jacob Christian Schäffer of still using linen rags in his new paper, while he systematically spoke of a paper crisis and marginalised the artisans’ skill and involvement. A question seemingly about materiality (linen rags or a botanical substitute) turns out to be a question about “who had the right kind of knowledge” to decide (p. 74).

Elena Serrano opens part II with a study of Madrid’s foundling house and its elite female mistresses around 1800. Her contribution is largely a discussion of paper in its social environment. She contrasts the economical practice of recording children – with a label affixed to the body and a line in a ledger – as they entered the institution and following their, often multiple, exits as they transitioned to wetnurses and back with attempts at lowering child mortality by recording in more detail the children’s biographies.

Carla Bittel focuses on different uses of phrenological charts. Providing a vital link between the physical world and the mind, they ought not be, Bittel insists, divorced from the social practices that created them (as many have done). Paper mediated and, crucially, preserved the medical encounter. But these charts also worked and fostered sociability at home as well as in correspondence. As Bittel shows for the phrenological box (reproduced in colour, plate 9) they turned into adorned gifts and souvenirs, which women bought and used. They “concentrated knowledge of the mind” and putting it “within reach” (p. 105) questioned gender boundaries between male practitioner and female patient.

In Christine von Oertzen’s text, a material previously used for playing cards takes on a new role in the Prussian census. Von Oertzen shows how the census office was not just overburdened with data gathered to advance social reform, but also with the material substrates – millions of cards in plain wooden boxes – underlying it. In addition to male labour on site, these census cards soon had to be distributed widely in Berlin, where wives, widows, and unmarried females contributed to the making of the census, all the while retaining “their” place within the domestic sphere. Even more so, von Oertzen’s chapter stresses that precisely these assumptions about women in an orderly household, especially in the exclusive parlour (“gute Stube”) allowed for these loci – often much less orderly in practice – to partake in such a vital state enterprise.

Beth Linker traces the fate of nineteenth- and twentieth-century posture science through Celia Mosher’s “schematograph”, which draws human forms onto a tracing paper. Mosher outspokenly resisted the use of photography in analysing female posture, which she perceived as an attack on women’s privacy. While, ultimately, she did not succeed establishing her technique, allegations against photographic examinations of women were also voiced elsewhere and led to a resistance to posture studies in its entirety, which her alternative paper technology may have precluded.

Elizabeth Yale’s highly suggestive piece – opening part III and echoing Deborah Harkness’ work[5] – shows John Ray’s family home as a “living laboratory of insect metamorphosis” (p. 148), in which guests, for instance, offered the Ray women glass lenses to study insects’ sexual organs. This collaborative enterprise also translated into the correspondence in which, as Yale shows, naturalists involved one another’s households. This rich and oral mingling of learned and household worlds that has also recently been studied in different scholarly contexts[6], became muted only when published correspondence reduced Ray’s letters to its allegedly scientific context and stripped his findings of their rich domestic context.

Matthew Daniel Eddy uses one exceptionally detailed source – a father’s letters on female conduct and Margaret Monro, his daughter’s copying them out – to trace how this Scottish young woman used the textual toolkit available to her through family, education, and reading to engage with papers. Dan Bouk, meanwhile, explores twentieth-century paper population models, which he also practically recreated in his history workshop. Bouk suggests how the many marginalised women working in the Scripps Foundation Studies that he discusses, in turn, contributed to “a global network of population control” limiting the “fertility choices of poor women of color” (p. 207).

Anna Maerker’s text on papier-mâché anatomical models is in critical conversation with Ludmilla Jordanova’s classic book on wax models.[7] Rather than the reified gender boundaries of Italian wax models, she sees the nineteenth-century invention and uses of papier-mâché, which produced less expensive and more robust models of the human body as emancipatory: They gave people tactile knowledge about the human body. A female audience in particular, Paulina Wright Davis being a case in point, connected ideas about “female physical autonomy” to a critique of a “doctor’s monopolies” (p. 189).

Jacob Eyferth’s afterword adds an East Asian context conversant with the volume’s contributions as he works out – with reference, for instance, to Dorothy Ko’s study on inkstones[8] – the many similarities regarding female manual labour “under male supervision and tutelage”, while “the symbolic and material value produced by it tended to be appropriated by men” (p. 220). But he also sees major differences: Less female epistemic paperwork was done in China before the twentieth century. And generally, less of a bifurcation between wage labour and domestic labour existed due to the overall scarcity of wage work.

In line with many of the volume’s findings, Eyferth argues that while disciplining, monitoring, and correcting, “paper power” is actually “capillary, dispersed, and contingent” (p. 223). Seamlessly, the volume challenges the disciplining power of paper (in a Foucauldian sense). That few “written instructions” that tell us “how to interpret the relationship between substrate and text, between quality and expense” (p. 31) survive, should also not put scholars off, as Heather Wolfe reminds the readers. Few such sources, after all, would survive from the present.

Overall, this volume allows historians to see some of the tacit knowledge about paper’s rich materiality alongside its manifest social effects. The publisher, lastly, is to be lauded for including a set of 17 colour plates alongside black-and-white illustrations to the volume.

[1] E.g. Ruth Oldenziel, Why Masculine Technologies Matter, in: Nina E. Lerman / Ruth Oldenziel / Arwen P. Mohun (eds.), Gender & Technology. A Reader, Baltimore 2003, pp. 37–71, and her own “Neatly Sealed, with Silk, and Spanish Way or Otherwise”. The Practice of Letter-Locking with Silk Floss in Early Modern England, in: Susan P. Cerasano / Steven W. May (eds.), In the Prayse of Writing. Early Modern Manuscript Studies: Essays in Honour of Peter Beal, London 2012, pp. 169–189.
[2] Anke te Heesen, The Notebook. A Paper-Technology, in: Bruno Latour / Peter Weibel (eds.), Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, Cambridge (MA) 2005, pp. 582–589.
[3] Wanda J. Orlikowski, The Sociomateriality of Organisational Life. Considering Technology in Management Research, in: Cambridge Journal of Economics 34 (2009) 1, pp. 125–141.
[4] Karen Harvey / Alexandra Shepard, What Have Historians Done with Masculinity? Reflection on Five Centuries of British History, circa 1500–1950, in: Journal of British Studies 44 (2005) 2, pp. 274–280.
[5] E.g. Deborah Harkness, Managing an Experimental Household. The Dees of Mortlake and the Practice of Natural Philosophy, in: Isis 88 (1997) 2, pp. 247–262.
[6] E.g. Richard Calis, Reconstructing the Ottoman Greek World. Early Modern Ethnography in the Household of Martin Crusius, in: Renaissance Quarterly 72 (2019) 1, pp. 148–193.
[7] Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions. Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Madison 1993.
[8] Dorothy Ko, The Social Life of Inkstones. Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China, Seattle 2017.