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Object lessons: sensory science education 1830-1870



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Keene, Melanie Judith 


The Victorian nursery was filled with the potential for scientific lessons. From the bookshelves, children could listen to fairy-tales of wondrous forces and minuscule creatures; from the toy-chest, they could play with hoops and tops that demonstrated the laws of motion; at the table, they could taste and smell the chemical constituents of a cup of tea; in the garden, they could pick up a pebble and envision long-vanished lands. Through practical interactions with the objects of domestic life, imaginative stories of the wonders of nature were revealed, scientific knowledge was communicated, mental modes of rational reasoning were enhanced, and bodily skills were entrained. Thls dissertation analyses how such lessons on common things provided sensory introductions to the sciences in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. The 'object lesson', I argue, was a crucial genre of elementary educational practice and literary representation in this period. It emphasised that children acquired knowledge directly through sensory impressions, and advocated conversation and play as effective means of developing structured skills of attention, logical reasoning, and expanded vocabularies; hence, practical scientific subjects were particularly appropriate for this style of teaching. I begin with visual education, analysing how children were trained to open their eyes in the 'art of seeing' the geological past; wondrous tales of forces and fairies that fired childish imaginations to rethink the commonplace objects of the world form the focus of chapter two; hands-on domestic activities appear in the third chapter, which explores household chemistry via tasting tea and smelling soap; the fourth chapter considers speech and the voices of nature through first-person narratives from trees and salt and fossils; and finally, in chapter five we will learn about the astronomical meanings artefacts could hold when held and manipulated, as boys and girls played among the stars. Mirroring this diverse array of topics, the dissertation deals with a rich collection of historic material, which spans the spectrum of Victorian childhood experience and complicates abrupt distinctions between instructional and amusing texts and pastimes: my sources include didactic tracts and manuals, gift-books and periodicals, pocket globes and chemistry sets, caricatures and terrible puns, novels and fairy-tales, foodstuffs and beverages, songs and board games. These often fanciful, occasionally funny, usually fact-ridden expositions articulated the process of how to gain knowledge from singular, concrete, common things. Thus, they can teach us how to interrogate Victorian artefacts ourselves, with a similar sensitivity to their histories, materiality, and hidden wonders, glimpsed under their surfaces. Moreover, through their overt emphasis on the science of common things these lessons were simultaneously revelations of and arguments for the interpenetration of scientific and everyday life: the objects of the home were scientific, and men of science were domestic experts. This identification between the specialist and the quotidian supports an argument for 'familiar science' as a helpful analytic category when studying this period. Emphasising both the family context and the exploitation of already-known ideas and already-owned artefacts, as well as a particular mode of writing - that of the 'familiar introduction' - I reflect on how such a term can solve some of the acknowledged problems associated with labels such as 'popular' or 'commercial' science at this time.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge