Waste Paper in Early Modern Science

Waste Paper in Early Modern Science

Simon Werrett

What were the gendered conventions and practices associated with the use of waste paper in mathematics and chemistry in the early modern period? Scholars often used scraps of paper for calculations and to record receipts. This project will consider scraps as a genre of scientific writing, by identifying and comparing the conventions of scrap writing and use in mathematics and chemistry. Scraps entailed distinctive ways of organizing text and images and, unlike books, had diverse non-literary uses.

The gendering of these conventions will be explored by comparing men and women’s uses of waste paper and by examining their social contexts. Scholarly use of scraps reflected a broader domestic thrift in early modern homes. Husbands and wives exhibited thrift in different areas, prompting epistemic productivity and frustration. Mathematician William Oughtred used scraps to make calculations. But his wife refused to allow him to burn candles at night, so that he was unable to work after sundown. Scraps were also enmeshed in social relations outside the home. In 1726, the daughter of “a great Chymist” debated her right to inheritance by determining whether “a Scrap of Paper” listing chemical receipts was a valuable property or just “so much Wast Paper.” The case debated laws on marriage, female inheritance, and the value of chemical recipes in relation to their mode of communication—by word of mouth, in print, and on scraps. The materiality and genre of waste paper will thus be examined in relation to negotiations of gender identity and status.