Intersections between people, print and botany 1700 – 1900
“Are you ready now, mamma, to read a description of the Houseleek?”
Sarah Fitton, Conversations on Botany, 1820
How did people use print to structure and mediate their social relationships in Europe between 1700 and 1900? This exhibition offers some answers by presenting objects that document a range of interpersonal practices in the field of botany.
Against the backdrop of a global quest for botanical specimens and a popular preoccupation for botany, printed matter functioned in various ways to foster relationships between individuals. Both within familial settings and intellectual networks, across national boundaries, or among circles of friends, reading, studying, gifting, and producing printed matter established, reinforced, and even modeled relationships between distant strangers and close companions.
This exhibition, entitled Interpersonal Botany, puts on display a variety of materials – books, but also periodicals, letters, friendship albums and birthday books, to name but a few examples. They may demonstrate friendly, intimate exchange, act as guides for proper female conduct or enable the pursuit of scientific investigation. The rare items selected for this exhibit offer a view of the diverse social dimensions of botanical printed matter, suggesting they were something more than simply items to be read in a solitary fashion; rather they served as ways of creating community, forming bonds, and sharing information between colleagues and friends.
Networks of Correspondence
The eighteenth-century fashion for natural history as both a scientific and popular interest gave rise to a network of aficionados, whose bonds were formed through the exchange of correspondence and printed materials. Naturalists, such as the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, cultivated a vast network of correspondents in order to obtain new specimens and the latest scientific information. Linnaeus exchanged letters with explorers, merchants, professors, gardeners, artists, and dilettantes. Printed matter, including books and scientific articles, circulated alongside these letters, manuscript notes, drawings and plant specimens and became a commodity of exchange. These exchanges were highly reciprocal in nature and therefore constructed enduring relationships among disparate people engaged in a common pursuit of botanical knowledge. One effect of these relationships is that they often served to distribute printed matter beyond the traditional boundaries of the regional book market. In pursuit of this project, Linnaeus also sent his students out on collecting trips with explorers. Not only did they procure plants directly for him, they also advocated for his project, articulating an order of the natural world that, when fixed in print, would serve as foundation of reference for this emerging science.