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Women and Botany in 18th and Early 19th-Century England
In the Enlightenment, learning about science became part of general, polite culture. Many authors wrote books for young children, women, or girls to introduce them to the new scientific discoveries about plants. Prior to the 18th century, in England, women’s role with plants had been as providers of home-based health care using herbs to cure diseases, ameliorate physical discomforts, or to make dyes.
Beginning in the 18th century botanical knowledge made a woman a better conversationalist, a better mother-teacher of her children, as well as a better illustrator of beautiful things. Women read and wrote botanical books, went to lectures about botany, corresponded with naturalists, collected and drew plants, developed herbaria, and used microscopes to examine plants. They worked alongside husbands and fathers interested in these pursuits, sometimes even learning Latin. Women frequently wrote about botanical subjects in "informal forms," in poems, introductory books or essays, novels, or books containing letters to, or conversations with, other women or children.
The new ideas to be conveyed included the Linnean system of plant order and classification, plant physiology and reproduction, as well as facts about newly discovered plants from North and South America, Africa, and Asia. After 1830, as botany became a modern science, a serious occupation for men, women’s status in this field began to decline, along with their cultural contributions.
We hope you will enjoy this exhibit of works from the M.S.U. Libraries’ Collections by women writers and by male writers of works for women, girls, and young children. Most of the books come from our Special Collections. Those represented by photocopies are from The Eighteenth Century or Landmarks of Science microformat sets. Selections are based upon information from Ann Shteir’s Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1996, Blanche Henrey’s British Botanical Books and Horticultural Literature Before 1800, London, OUP, 1975, and various other reference works.
Agnes Haigh Widder, Humanities Bibliographer