Conference Report: Small Things in the Eighteenth Century

By Holly Day

On the 6th-7th June, CECS hosted the conference ‘Small Things in the Eighteenth Century,’ organised by Professor Beth Fowkes Tobin (University of Georgia), and our own Dr Chloe Wigston Smith, and funded by CECS and the British Academy. Brittany Scowcroft of CECS provided essential support. Speakers from several disciplines, including literary studies, history of art, history, archelogy, and museum studies gathered in the beautiful medieval setting of the King’s Manor in central York, and delegates were welcomed with the treat of a Yorkie bar in their conference pack. 

Yes, indeed – conference packs with a chocolate treat!

One of the strengths of the conference was its genuine commitment to interdisciplinary discussion and debate, bringing together a range of scholars interested in questions of size and scale, and working on objects, texts, and narratives that have often been overlooked in scholarship. The conference kicked off with a paper by Freya Gowrley (University of Derby) on the centrality of the fragmentary form in eighteenth century culture. Her insight into how language around such ‘scraps,’ ‘fragments’ and ‘morsels’ often diminished the status of these objects tapped into one of the significant themes that would emerge from the conference: the ways in which “the small” has often been used to denote “the lesser,” both within the cultural context of the eighteenth-century and within scholarship. This was explored particularly in papers such as those by Rebecca Bullard (University of Reading) on the eighteenth-century obituary, showing how the size of the obituary was relative to the social status of the deceased, and Henry Power (University of Exeter) on the ‘trifling’ cultural status of pins and their suitability for mock-heroic verse.

Yet smallness also operated as a means to condense complex ideas in print, as shown by Katherine Wakely-Mulroney (Nanyang Technological University) in her paper on children’s literature, in which she explored changing approaches to the material format and typography of diminutive children’s books, and Abigail Williams (University of Oxford), in her discussion of miniature books. In her vividly illustrated examples of small books for adults, Williams demonstrated how almanacs and miniature histories attempted to compact the world down into an accessible form. Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull (University of Oxford) introduced us to an unusual textual practice in the form of nutmegs that contained tiny versified tape measures, sometimes gifted as part of a courtship – and even presented us with a homemade model! Meanwhile, Kate Smith (University of Birmingham) examined lost property notices to show how a shared visual language underpinned the emergence of printed venues to describe lost or stolen small things.

Image: Still Life with Silver Wine Decanter, Tulip, Yixing Teapot and Globe, Roestraten, Pieter van, born 1629 – died 1700 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The ability of small things to traverse boundaries and spread ideas was explored by several speakers, including Thomas Whitfield (Newcastle University), who discussed the radical activist Thomas Spence’s political tokens. These coins, through their circulation, established a discursive space for Spence’s political ideals. Serena Dyer (De Montfort University) addressed the figurehead of Britannia as a symbol of commercial nationhood and patriotism across a variety of handheld products and domestically produced pieces. Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth (V&A & Royal College of Arts) focused on British produced mugs that depicted the French Revolution, illustrating the scaling down of political events to engravings and then to small ceramics. Anna Mckay (University of Leicester & the National Maritime Museum) turned our attention to the illicit industries on board British prison hulks to elucidate how prisoners organised their own production lines for craft. McKay’s vivid examples illuminated the prisoners’ range of small crafts for sale to the public, including miniature items such as bibles, chess pieces, and carved ships. In his paper on the English pauper home, Joseph Harley (University of Derby) analysed inventories to show how the material lives of paupers were improving and diversifying over the course of the eighteenth century. 

A panel on masculinity explored men’s relationship with small material objects, with Linzy Brekke-Aloise (Stonehill College) examining the display of watch fobs and watch accessories by enslaved labourers and men on the margins of transatlantic society; Benjamin Jackson (Queen Mary) addressing how snuff boxes were embedded in male sociability and debates around feminisation; Pauline Rushton (National Museums Liverpool) studying how leather letter cases signalled mercantile class identity; and Patricia Ferguson (British Museum) delving into the miniature porcelain toys produced by the Chelsea Porcelain factory. Rushton and Ferguson in particular drew our attention to the ways in which hierarchies of scale still feature within museum collections and displays. Meanwhile, Matthew Keagle (Fort Ticonderoga Museum and Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, History, and Material Culture) explored the emergence of distinctive military buttons and their role in the creation of a uniform regimental identity.  

Turning attention to women’s small things, Johanna Ilmakunnas (Åbo Akademi University, Finland) scrutinized the role of handiwork scissors in European women’s self-fashioning, and my own paper looked at self-accounting practices in women’s pocket memorandum books and their intertextual links. Ariane Fennetaux (Université Paris Diderot) turned our attention to women’s pockets, reflecting upon how pockets, and what women kept inside them, could destabilise established narratives about women’s agency and consumer choices. Indeed, a key theme emerging from the conference was that the small matters not just in spite of, but also because of its scale. As Fennetaux suggested, looking to the small ‘recalibrates our vision’ and prompts us to pose different questions of eighteenth century objects and society. 

Two superb keynote speeches by Hanneke Grootenboer (University of Oxford) and Dror Wahrman (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) concluded the conference, by tying these themes together. Grootenboer took us on a visual tour of the dollhouse of Petronella Oortman, revealing its many levels of interiority, with a particular focus on a small cabinet inside that contained collections of miniature shells, and blurred artifice and nature. Wahrman then considered the changing nature of miniaturisation in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, arguing that it signalled a wider move from sacrality to play in early modern Europe. 

Some of the miniature objects discussed in Wahrman’s talk

Though that brought our conference to an end, the Small Things theme was continued in spirit over the weekend at the Fringe Family Fun Afternoon on the 8th June as part of the York Festival of ideas, as a team of CECS students (Gabriella Barnard-Edmunds, Katie Crowther, David Barrow, and Holly Day) helped children aged 5 to 11 to craft miniature eighteenth-century style pockets themselves. Many thanks to the organisers of all of these events, and we hope to see the speakers and delegates at future CECS events.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s