How we made ‘Craftswomen: Uncovering Hidden Labour in the History of Science’

We here at TOK are delighted to receive the 2023 BSHS Exhibiting Excellence prize (Small Exhibitions Category) for Craftswomen, a display at the Whipple Museum, Cambridge.

Craftswomen reveals the important role played by women in the history of scientific instrument making. One of the main findings of TOK has been the identification of a ‘backbone’ of workshops that allowed skills to be passed on and workshops to survive beyond the lives of individual artisans. We’ve used network analysis and other techniques to explore the ways in which this happened, and Craftswomen shows that very often it was women who were pivotal in these key moments of continuity.

In light of the subject matter of the exhibition we have always been keen to ‘show our working’ and acknowledge our debts. First and foremost we have relied on the stellar work of Gloria Clifton, Jane Desborough and Alison Morrison-Low. These three curators have written a great deal about women instrument makers, and you can read an excellent synthetic piece in the Science Museum Group Journal, here.

But there’s something else to say about the idea behind Craftswomen – and we think this makes it quite a novel exhibition. Although we know the names of many early-modern women instrument makers, there are vanishingly few signed instruments that we can definitely say were their work (not to mention that we don’t really know how the division of labour worked in this period – but that’s another question!).

The Whipple has no early signed instruments made by women – so what is in the exhibition? It has two showcases full of instruments, after all.

One way to select instruments was to illustrate the point made above, about the women who ensured that instrument making could continue generation to generation. So we have a trade card for John Yarwell – a craftsman trained by Mary Edwards (Fig. 1); and we have a sundial made by Edmund Culpeper, who worked in a shop owned by Jane Hayes, who was also his master.

Fig. 1: Trade card for John Yarwell, 1683. Whipple Museum inv. no. 3806.

The other showcase has the real treasures, however. These are instruments that we have identified as possibly being made by women. The way we did this was to use the known working dates of craftswomen, as recorded by Gloria Clifton in the SIMON database, and then to do a careful search of the Whipple Museum’s database in order to identify candidates. For example, a microscope signed ‘Sterrop’ and dated c.1750 may well be by Mary Sterrop, who took over her late husband’s shop in 1725 and ran it successfully for many years (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Culpeper-type microscope signed ‘Sterrop’ – possibly Mary Sterrop, c.1750. Whipple Museum inv. no. 0354.

The Adams family is perhaps the most storied in complex in the history of instrument making, and the women in the family were just as important as the men. The name George Adams is ambiguous – it could refer to father or son, or even (we conjecture) the collaborative work of one of the Georges and either Ann or Hannah, mother or daughter-in-law. One drawing set signed simply ‘Adams’ is likely to date to the period when only Ann was running the family business (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Set of drawing instruments signed ‘Adams’, possibly Ann Adams, c.1775. Whipple Museum inv. no. 0345.

In other parts of the exhibition we showcase books, prints and advertisements that also show the work of women makers. It’s a very rich display with other highlights such as Mary Cooke’s extraordinary engraving of the Moon (Fig. 4). But it is the detective work, conjecture and even uncertainty of attribution that make the instruments themselves so exciting, and makes Craftswomen a unique exhibition.

Fig. 4. Engraving, entitled ‘The Moon in her mean libration’, drawn by John Cooke, engraved by Mary Cooke, published 1st September 1808. Whipple Museum inv. no. 6745.

One response to “How we made ‘Craftswomen: Uncovering Hidden Labour in the History of Science’”

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