Reformist Objects

Reformist Objects: Gender, Knowledge, and Politics in Spain (1787-1808)

The large disinfection apparatus by Guyton de Moreau for military hospitals and other public spaces. Museo Galileo’s Photographic Archives: Pressure receiver (Inv.3778).

The large disinfection apparatus by Guyton de Moreau for military hospitals and other public spaces. Museo Galileo’s Photographic Archives: Pressure receiver (Inv.3778).

Focusing on “reformist objects” and their handling by actors who have been largely out of focus—mostly women and entrepreneurs—my project explores the relationship between technology, politics, and gender in three crucial themes for 18th-century actors: the managing of the poor, the education of the future citizen and the creation of a healthy environment.

 These reformist objects are an oven for saving fuel considered ideal for cooking the popular “economic soups” for the poor (Rumford oven, Rumford soups), the bestselling childrens book Robinson der Jüngere designed by the famous pedagogue J.H. Campe and translated into Spanish, and a device for “purifying” the air (Guyton’s apparatus).

The objects have been chosen because of their epistemological, social, and political relevance in 18th-century society. The three objects come from other cultural contexts (Paris, London, Hamburg) and were adapted, redesigned, and marketed in Spain. They were depicted as crucial for reforming Spanish society, increasing the population, its work force, and its scientific and moral instruction. They arguably affected traditional feminine spheres of action–caring and education. Originally designed by well-known savants, they were flagged as useful applications of scientific theories on hotly debated topics.

Using this mosaic of reformist objects, my project will explore the processes of re-designing, testing, using, announcing, and selling as a way of exploring the production of knowledge and meanings in peripheral societies, that is, societies that arguably were not at the centre of knowledge production in a specific historical context. What did it mean making these objects work in a new cultural context? Soups recipes were adapted to local ingredients for making them palatable to the local poor, a Guyton modified apparatus for disinfecting bedclothes was tried out with prisoners in the city of Cádiz jails and the Spanish translation of the German Robinson der Jüngere needed to be approved by the Inquisition. In which ways did these processes of changing things produce knowledge? How were they made fit into the moral and material reforms that contemporaries thought critical for overcoming the perceived decadence of Spain?

Looking at how these “Reformist Objects” circulated from different cultural contexts and to the processes that made them work in Spain, this project aims to add to our understanding of the role of technology in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, political ideologies, and gender identities in peripheral societies.