The Bibliographical Society generously supported ‘The 1820s: Innovation and Diffusion’ with three bursaries to support attendance by doctoral students working on topics related to the history of printing, publishing and illustration, and the broader fields connected with the history of the book. We asked the three recipients of these bursaries to provide brief responses to the conference; we’re very grateful for their kind permission to publish these below.
Lindsay Middleton (University of Glasgow)
On the 11th and 12th of April, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at ‘The 1820s: Innovation and Diffusion’ conference at the University of Glasgow, with the help of a bursary from the Bibliographical Society. The conference played host to academics, students and independent researchers from all around the world who gave thought-provoking papers on an impressively dynamic range of topics regarding 1820s life.
As a researcher, I am predominantly a Victorianist whose consideration of the nineteenth century begins in 1820. My knowledge of the 1820s, therefore, was limited to a brief overview of some prolific figures from the decade. Attending ‘The 1820s: Innovation and Diffusion’ was thus a perfect chance to improve my understanding of the 1820s; the conference sought to highlight a decade that has received a relatively small amount of scholarly attention despite its many innovations.
Over the two days I heard papers on cravats, lithophanes, the architecture of London, periodicals, poetry and science, and everything in between. The conference’s keywords: Power, Proliferation, Settlement and Doubt – addressed at different points by keynotes throughout the event – tied the disparate and interconnected papers together. These focal presentations highlighted the nature of the 1820s as a period of vast change but also connectivity in both literature and life, as the innovations and prominent figures that characterised the decade paved the way for the more widely-known revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century. My paper, ‘Feeding the 1820s: Bread, Beer and Anxiety’, tied my research on food to some pivotal developments of the 1820s. Using texts from William Cobbett and Friedrich Accum, I investigated the dual relationship with the past and the future that occupied the minds of eaters in the period. Followed by a paper on literary philanthropy, chimney sweeps and abolition, and another on magic lanterns – where the speaker sang a ballad about a baker and the devil – the multifarious panel captured the spirit of the event. A fun, engaging and diverse conference fuelled by intellectual curiosity, where no subject was too big or too small to investigate in order to better understand the innovative 1820s.
Amy Wilcockson (University of Nottingham)
As a first-year PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, I had never been to a conference before and was slightly apprehensive as to what to expect. However, the varied papers, international attendees and the efficiency of the programme meant that the two days of ‘The 1820s: Innovation and Diffusion’ conference were a wonderful investigation into all things 1820s.
The conference began with a keywords panel which encompassed four of the main themes seen frequently in the literary works of the 1820s. These keywords were Settlement, Power, Doubt and Proliferation, and were delivered by the conference organisers, Matthew Sangster and Jon Mee, and members of the steering group, Porscha Fermanis and David Stewart. From the off, this was a clear and engaging beginning to the conference which emphasised a number of the primary focuses of this decade.
The panels then began. The first day’s papers included Honor Rieley’s ‘The Poyais Bubble and the Literature of Emigration’, a stand-out for me as I had never heard of Gregor McGregor’s Poyais scheme prior to this paper, and was deeply interested in the tale of trusting investors taken in by McGregor. Rieley emphasised the use of the fictional guidebook, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, Including the Territory of Poyais, which furthered interest in the cause, and encouraged a number of unsuspecting advocates to emigrate to ‘Poyais’, where many of whom met their deaths in the wilds of Central America’s jungle.
Ernest De Clerck’s paper ‘Letters from Anywhere: Late-Romantic Letters Crossing Borders in the New Monthly Magazine, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and the London Magazine’ was also incredibly enlightening, particularly the references to the New Monthly Magazine which related well to my own paper the following day. I also enjoyed Charlotte May’s ‘Samuel Rogers and the 1820s: The Publication and Re-Publication of Italy’; as well as being an informative paper, it featured a mention of the poet I study, Scottish-born Thomas Campbell, whose main decade of intense literary activity was the 1820s.
Being scheduled at 9:30am directly after a delicious conference dinner at an Indian restaurant, Balbir’s, the night before could have been a challenge, but after delivering my paper ‘Thomas Campbell and the “authorless” New Monthly Magazine’, I received a number of helpful questions and comments from delegates. These queries have allowed me to think in greater depth about my PhD project researching and editing the letters of Thomas Campbell. Similarly, the conference as a whole allowed me to disseminate my research for the first time, alongside networking with delegates relevant to my period of study, and interested in my PhD research.
The two keynote speeches, from Ian Duncan and Angela Esterhammer were enlightening and incredibly interesting. Both scholars took on large topics, with Duncan investigating the concepts of history and anachronism, whilst Esterhammer focused on the use of truth in the 1820s (referring back once again to the scurrilous antics of Gregor McGregor and Poyais).
All the papers I attended were clearly well-researched, incredibly diverse and interesting, and I enjoyed the fact that there were delegates from a variety of career stages presenting their work at the conference. Overall, I couldn’t have hoped for a better first conference, and would like to thank the conference organisers and steering group for their inclusivity and excellent choice of topic – clearly the 1820s as a period has been woefully neglected until now! I would also like to thank the Bibliographical Society for awarding me a bursary which covered a number of fees associated with the conference, allowing me the opportunity to attend a compelling literary exploration of this momentous decade.
Phillip Roberts (University of York)
The 1820s was a hugely significant period in literary, cultural, technological, and political history that is sometimes unfairly neglected by literary and cultural historians. The decade comes too early for Victorianists, but rather too late for scholars of the first industrial revolution. It falls just outside the post-war period, too far from the heat of political oppression and economic depression in the 1810s, and too much before the explosion of the railways, the emergence of photography, and the usual markers of the transforming world.This was a moment in time that linked the louder transformative events of the century; an uneasy hush that fell after the great political and economic revolutions that preceded it. But it was profoundly important for that reason. The 1820s was the moment when the longstanding effects of these revolutions started to unroll themselves fully and begin to grow into the something like modernity. It was a moment of quiet transformation.
How these transformations occurred, and how they can be understood today, was explored through forty-three papers ranging across the decade. Some presented meticulous studies of key texts, writers, figures, or artefacts, some ranged across cultural, literary, and philosophical history. The conference revealed that there is an awful lot of important work being done on the decade. Lacking a convenient umbrella (as scholars of the Victorians or the long eighteenth century may enjoy), these many diverse studies had never been brought together before. But thanks to this project, and the generous funding provided by the Bibliographical Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, we were able to make all of these ideas and cases and discoveries talk to each other and see what greater understanding of the decade we can build together.
My own work focuses on the emergence of new technologies in the early nineteenth century, particularly the magic lantern and other commercial technologies, so this is the aspect of the conference I was most interested in. What follows is a somewhat idiosyncratic account of how these idea were explored over the course of two days. This report is not exhaustive and much of great interest was said that falls outside of it.
For me, the key contribution of the whole event was to show how the 1820s incubated a series of new concepts (technologies, ideas, social structures, literary projects). Many were born long before the decade began, but they had significant enough effects within the decade to emerge from it reborn. The decade was a moment when these new concepts solidified, spread widely, became commonplace, and triggered the next wave of transformations in the 1830s and 1840s.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The conference opened with a very novel panel of short papers on key concepts that defined the decade. These were: Power (by Jon Mee), Proliferation (by Matthew Sangster), Settlement (by Porscha Fermanis), and Doubt (by David Stewart). Not only was it extremely charitable for four major scholars to agree to deliver highly condensed versions of their thought in a combined half hour at the beginning of the conference (thus opening up time for many more less-established scholars to contribute later), it also delivered a useful set of ideas to help us begin to navigate the decade.
Mee started us off by pulling the concept of power out of the industrial revolution and into this seemingly quieter decade, nestled twenty years after the birth of the steam engine, but before the growth of the railways. The 1820s, he says, is when people started to pose the machinery question and when they first started to apply the term ‘industrial revolution’. The tremendous transformative effects of Newcomen, Murdoch, Watt, Heaton, and Murray’s innovations were only now becoming clear and this was manifested by growing discussion regarding the role of machines in society. Sangster followed with a note on proliferation, explaining that one key social effect of machine power was in increasing the output of printed literature. The steam press and new paper-making machines increased book and periodical circulation, grew reading audiences, and produced new forms of popular literature. This, says Fermanis, was closely tied to population growth and the continued export of settler colonialism around the world. As 1820s Britain thrashed out its own conception of itself in an unrolling modernity, different concepts of labour, whiteness, capitalism, and protest grew in the colonial territories. Imperialism is founded on concepts of whiteness and power that were established over the decade. Stewart concluded with a short note on doubt. He points to the Weights and Measures Act of 1824 and how it sought to establish certainty in a world that had been set in spin by the preceding revolutions. The era wanted to fix time and space, but these remained uncertain, as machine power outstripped people and competing forms of knowledge grew. Traditional and longstanding certainties, including fair prices, land ownership, and political representation, were being challenged by new forms of power, new economies, and emerging solidarities. Doubt ruled, even as the earth was mapped and measured and set out in cheap almanacs.
The parallel sessions began with a paper by Sammi Scott on domestic lithophanes and the reproduction of artworks. A lithophane is a translucent porcelain image that is typically viewed illuminated from behind, like a greyscale paper transparency. Scott explained that these typically reproduced popular or prestigious artworks for the domestic market. Such reproduction transformed how these images were consumed, investing images previously viewed in religious or artistic contexts with new connotations of novelty. Scott argued that novelty is a marginalised concept in art history, but that it is crucial for understanding this cultural moment. The lithophane opened artworks to the everyday sphere. Moreover, they were only one of numerous emerging commercial media forms in the 1820s.
Cheap printing was ratcheting up, as also demonstrated in a compelling paper by Danielle Schwertner on popular periodicals in Glasgow and in Angela Esterhammer’s keynote. The Kaleidoscope, Phantasmagoria Lantern, Myriorama, and Thaumatrope all generated popular media crazes as they emerged in sequence between 1817 and 1824. Paper novelties, transparencies, peepshows, and anamorphic views were growing in popularity alongside chapbooks and broadsides. Schwertner’s research on the Glasgow Looking Glass showed how emerging literary forms also used longstanding printing cultures. The Looking Glass was both literary and pictorial periodical; it was sold on the street, like the old catchpenny prints, and in sedentary shops. Jonathan Topham, in his paper on the technology of science illustration, similarly reported how shifting possibilities among engraving and printing led to the revival of the woodblock printing tradition. Thomas Bewick, and others, carved out a new niche in high-quality woodblock prints, eclipsing the distinction between and high and low printing. The literary world of the chapbooks and penny prints was no longer throwaway.
Esterhammer presented a close reading of the new satirical periodical John Bull, showing how the diffusion of popular literature built concepts of truth and reality from constellations of text and fragments. The proliferation of new media and literatures helped the 1820s to build its own vision of itself. Esterhammer argued that the 1820s invested in a media that melted time and space — bringing the far side of the world and all of its possibilities into sharper focus amid proliferating doubt and uncertainty. Life became the famous bubbles that amused John Bull. People consumed glittering trifles and satirical pictures and these served to remake the world anew. This could be rooted in very specific literary cultures, as Gerard Lee McKeever explained regarding the Dumfries and Galloway Courier, which toyed with the boundary between the literary and the factual, and built a self-conscious literary regionality all of its own. Esterhammer explained that in the case of the Poyais affair, a scam that sought profit from an imagined new territory in Honduras, popular satire could have very real effects on people’s lives. In each case, the real-world effects of literary imagination were increased by the acceleration of printing and readership. And these effects reached beyond imagined or satirical worlds. As Ian Duncan argued in his keynote, anachronistic recreations of the past were engines of meaning-making in the present. How historical imagination wielded ideas in Walter Scott’s work, or how historical discourse addressed the achievements of James Watt, as Mee had earlier said, helped people to articulate what the 1820s meant in relation to the past — where the decade stood on the stage of world history.
At the beginning of the second day, I stood in the dark with a magic lantern and tried to articulate how I thought the new media forms of the era helped to circulate and popularise all of the various ideas and concepts that had been raised so far. This new Improved Phantasmagoria Lantern appeared in 1821 and brought a new mode of immersive and ephemeral media into the everyday public consciousness. Like other forms of popular visual and literary culture, it brought visions of the distant world, history, natural science, astronomy, and scientific knowledge into a domestic space, where it could be cut up and reimagined by amateur performers. But the great innovation of its emergence, I argued, was misleading. This machine was made by lowly tinsmiths, brassfounders, glass grinders, and japanners. Its slides were printed with a borrowed process long used by the enamelers and hand-coloured by poor women in little workshops. This innovative machine was the product of an entire production infrastructure that has been obscured by historians’ focus on great inventors. Similarly, the steam engine, steam press, woodblock prints, lithophanes, and lithography were enabled by legions of anonymous professionals making and operating machines, making prints, colouring them, and selling them on street corners. There was a huge infrastructure of professional practice that is clearly visible in the 1820s, as all of the innovations of the preceding decades pass into everyday use. There were other worlds that we wanted to pull into sharper focus, operating beneath the chattering of literary and media discourse.
Lindsay Middleton showed how discussions of food adulteration in the 1820s could be excavated to reveal something of the experience of food insecurity felt by many. She introduced Frederick Accum’s 1820 treatise on adulteration as a kind of anti-cookbook and showed how it reveals the hungers and fears of people in an age of unease. Food encodes doubt, she argued. Its importance raises people’s lack of trust in authority to new levels. Discussions on altering food for profitability, or other reasons, was only the latest in a wave of food disputes. Earlier food crises (the corn laws and land enclosures) were repackaged for a new era. As I had argued in my own paper, these disputes had long been articulated by the working classes themselves, in magic lantern shows and broadside ballads, but the shifting media ground of the 1820s was irrevocably changing these forms of popular discourse.
Further subterranean graveness and prejudice was outlined in James Thomas’s paper on the cravat. Thomas had discovered an obscure series of treatises on cravats and their knots that passed between English and French translation over the decade. The constant translation and remediation of the texts revealed how neckties and knots communicated concepts of dress, class and moralism. The style of a cravat knot became a marker of class, to be picked apart and analysed by these texts. The Irish, or mathematical, or Napoleon tie each expressed something of the nature of the wearer. Except, as Thomas explained, most of these were not actually existing knots and they really told us about attitudes to the world (as shown by the Oriental tie, American tie, or Maharatta tie), all bound up in a knot and hung about an imagined neck.
The 1820s expressed, in countless scattered texts and fragments, a chattering decade trying to make sense of itself. We have as little sure understanding of what the decade was about today, but this may be its great interest, as we look back at a mess of a decade unencumbered by revolutions and study its life in microcosm. Each piece tells us something about this halted breath in the passage of the nineteenth century. That a loosely-tied cravat was a symbol of radicalism tells us something the importance of dress and ideas around ‘looseness’. Anxiety around bread adulteration, or Paul Pry’s intrusions and scrutiny, as Sara Lodge told us of the social theatre of the 1820s, tell us something about attitudes towards trust and authority. Alison O’Byrne similarly showed how the city could reflect commercial magnificence and the confidence or unease it brings. This was a decade of increasing noise, still recorded today in countless periodicals, books, prints, and media artefacts. It was, as James Grande argued of the 1820s city soundscape, a vast chattering theatre of life. Such noise was deeply political, as every discursive thread tied itself up in a great knot to remake the world anew.