Ordinary Pathways to Science in the Victorian Era

A review of Object Lessons: Sensory Science Education, 1830-1870, by Melanie Keene.

Historically science popularization was often viewed as a top down model of diffusion from those who knew and did science to those who did not. That approach has become increasingly untenable over the past decade or two, especially when applied to the Victorian era. What has become increasingly clear is that science was practiced by people of different social classes, in many different contexts, and with many different purposes in mind — from natural theology’s study of nature to gain knowledge of the Divine to a political economy inspired study of nature to learn of one’s place in society. As important, and threading through other purposes, was that of rational entertainment.

Melanie Keene’s Object Lessons: Sensory Science Education, 1830-1870 both adds to the literature on non-elite approaches to science and provides a welcome shift in focus, one that connects to the day-to-day experiences of children. Keene’s category of “familiar science” broadens our ideas of who could participate in science and what constituted such participation in Victorian Britain. Rather than separate spheres of elite science and popular culture, Keene argues convincingly for a “continuum of knowledge and expertise” (p. 23).

Through object lessons using familiar items such as tea, soap, oranges, a candle, or even a tree, children were encouraged to use their senses to re-imagine the world around them in terms of science. As children learned about tannins in teas or how tallow was turned into candlelight, they also discovered their enmeshment in the empire’s trading networks and the processes that powered the Industrial Revolution. Keene writes that object lessons “taught of the scientific forces and substances present and at work in almost every activity of daily life — from morning ablutions to night-time reading by candle light —and which made possible the contemporary world” (p. 249). In addition, the use of oranges in geography lessons and ivory balls in astronomy brings into question just what is a scientific instrument. Oranges were carefully peeled in such a way as to provide a map of the continents; ivory balls were spun on a string around a candle to give a sense of the earth’s spinning and its motion around the sun.

Everyday habits of sociability, such as family conversations, playing games, making a cup of tea, or going for a walk in the woods, could be recruited for the purposes of familiar science. Through touch, sight, and smell, the ordinary was enchanted via its new status as an object worthy of scientific study. From sense impressions, children could then move on to understanding and reasoning.

Each chapter of this dissertation covers a different aspect of familiar science, while the overall objective is the analysis of “object lesson teaching to elucidate the practices of mid-nineteenth-century domestic science education, arguing that learning things was achieved through learning with things” (p. 14). Chapter one focuses on the art of seeing — both literal and imaginative — as an entry point into the vanished worlds of geology. Chapter two concerns itself with the use of fairy tales to make wonderful the otherwise unremarkable or to make visible the hidden wonders of science. Chapter three focuses on a sensory introduction to the everyday chemistry going on in the home, from lighting a candle to making a cup of tea. In the fourth chapter first-person narratives gave objects the opportunity to speak directly to children. Trees and fossils could tell their own stories and this approach allowed authors to give a religious gloss to their chosen version of nature. The last chapter focuses on the training of children’s hands and speech through play, which included carving oranges and the playing of astronomy board games. Success in object learning gave children the ability to tap into the “deeper, complex and, crucially, embodied narratives… evoked by daily encounters with common things” (p. 257).

Keene shows how a pebble could be a convincing stand in for geology, one that could be handled and tucked away in a pocket. Gideon Mantell’s Thoughts on a Pebble (1836) was written in present tense, first person form and included the child in the historical journey of the pebble. A different approach to the otherwise unapproachable deep time of geology was given in fairy tale form in which a reincarnating fakir spoke directly to readers as a series of historical creatures. Keene points to the literary techniques used to give an impression of the increasing complexity of life — as the creatures moved up through the geological strata thoughts and sentences grew increasingly complex.

Possibly the most famous object lesson of all has been Michael Faraday’s Royal Institution talk and demonstration on the chemical history of a candle, which was given to an audience of boys and girls. It soon appeared in Charles Dickens’ Household Words and provides a good example of Victorian culture’s porous boundaries when it came to science. While famous men could provide familiar object lessons, it is clear from Keene’s wide-ranging explorations that scientifically inclined women also found a welcoming audience among parents and children.

Keene’s detailed study of the objects, literary genres, and games familiar to Victorians is backed by her knowledge of the literary and cultural history of the period. She writes: “The scientific, just like the poetic, vision, dealt not only with over-arching vistas and grand sweeps, but also with the commonplace” (p. 69). In addition, different approaches could be recruited for familiar science in ways that loosened traditional genre boundaries. Chapter two in particular examines the educational spaces that could be fruitfully populated by fact and fantasy. For example, Arabella Buckley’s The Fairy-Land of Science (1879) used fairies as a stand in for the invisible forces of physics, allowing her to infuse a difficult science with a glorious sense of wonder while retaining scientific accuracy.

Object lessons extended beyond what we today would consider science. This dissertation examines the creative and thoughtful ways that familiar knowledge was used to teach about science and how science in turn was used to teach about the world. The science within a water drop formed a background to mid-century sanitation reform while learning the chemistry of tea allowed one to better judge its quality and to be on guard against then rampant food adulteration. In addition, Buckley’s invisible forces fitted well with a growing spiritualist movement. As Keene writes, “Rather than being seen as the destroyer of supernatural stories about the world, through these fairy tales the sciences were presented as being the way to understand both contemporary society and the invisible recesses of nature” (p. 105). Familiar science and the wider culture fed into each other. Keene’s dissertation complements the work of Bernard Lightman and Jim Secord, both scholars of Victorian science popularization, and also creates a space for new scholarly exploration.

Michal Meyer
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2009. 283pp. Primary Advisor: James A. Secord.

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