women, gender, technology, printing, coloring, history of science, botany, book history, material texts, American Medical Botany, Jacob Bigelow
In the common parlance of the twenty-first century, the word technology evokes the innovations of scientific industry in the digital age—laptop computers, smartphones, augmented reality devices—machines that have become hallmarks of industrial, economic, and often national progress. But technology in its most generic sense is the practical application of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, for useful and creative ends; historically, the word referred to systematic knowledge of process. By the early nineteenth century, English usage of the term began to narrow, shifting away from craftwork broadly to emphasizing scientific and industrial production and machine-centric processes. Americans living through this transition perceived book technologies as a crucial pillar that supported the development of culture and society; these included typecasting, binding, engraving, lithography, and letterpress printing. Color printing, whether executed in relief, in intaglio, or planographically, was still relatively novel in the early republic and often signified a work’s technological sophistication. In the case of Jacob Bigelow’s American Medical Botany (1817–20), Bigelow changed the method of producing color plates partway through serialization, switching from hand-coloring to aquatint. A close examination of the illustrations produced for this title, as will be undertaken in the second half of this essay, can illuminate how evolving American attitudes affected the nature of women’s labor on this work as colorists—a technology in the traditional sense of the word.1 [End Page 783]
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Generally, early Americans enshrined the technologies of the book in deterministic and optimistic ways, depicting printing and, more particularly, the invention of movable type as mobilizing forces for the widespread dissemination of knowledge. Jacob Bigelow, a Harvard professor and scientist whose lectures on the practical application of science to trades were published as Elements of Technology (1829), described printing as the art “which was to give permanency to all the rest,” and as being “at the root of all [End Page 784] human knowledge.” Roswell Park, of the University of Pennsylvania, concurred in Pantology (1841), his taxonomy of all branches of knowledge. According to Park, without printing, history would have been “mere tradition,” information garbled to the point of being useless, if not lost entirely. Narratives about book production became so fantastic that they prompted a book-centered retelling of the popular fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk. In 1841 a Boston publishing firm advanced a version of Jack who scaled a beanstalk not to trick an ogre and obtain material wealth, but to learn how type was cast, how paper was made, and how books were printed, bound, and sold. Jack’s treasure was the moral enlightenment he gained through reading the books he helped craft. How better to know a book than to insert oneself in every stage of its creation?2
Along with the lofty appreciation of book technologies came the study of them. Roswell Park argued that technology was the “study of arts which relate to material objects.” Prefiguring modern scholarly study of the book, Park suggested that the study of the “external form, different editions, kind of paper, printing or binding” should be called material bibliography. As these technologies essentially conveyed the “thoughts, inventions, or discoveries of any individual . . . to the whole civilized world,” close study of the physical book in an antebellum context could be imagined as the meta-study of knowledge making. Book objects and their related technologies clearly occupied a significant space in early American thinking about the spread of society and culture.3 [End Page 785]
As American perception of what technology constituted began to change, what rested on the production of books could, at times, become distanced from human actors. Technologies that made...