She’ll Work at Shellwork: 18th century women’s education
When we think of schoolwork today, we probably think of textbooks, homework, and quizzes. But in the eighteenth century, education, and particularly the education of women, was very different. While undertaking research for my Furniture Block project, I came across a method of women’s education that I hadn’t been aware of before: shellwork, or intricately designed creations using natural botanical matter, wax, and various shells.
My object, an exhibit case featuring shellwork, is a particularly elaborate example of this sort of education. It was likely produced by a grown woman, but she would have used all of the skills she learned during her “lady’s education” to create it.
The Young Lady’s School of the Arts, an instructional book written by Hannah Robertson in 1777 and used for the education of the middle and upper classes, includes a lengthy section on which shells to use for what, and where those shells might be procured. She also recites a poem:
See with what art each curious shell is made,
Here carv’d in fret-work, there with pearl inlaid:
What vivid streaks th’enemel’d stones adorn,
Fair as the painting of the purple morn!
Yet still, not half their charms can reach our eyes,
While thus confus’d the sparkling chaos lies,
doubly they’ll please, when in your grotto plac’d
They plainly speak their fair disposer’s taste;
Then glories yet unseen shall o’er them rise
New order from your hand, new lustre from your eyes.
How sweet, how charming will appear the grot,
When by your art to full perfection brought!
Here verdant plants and blooming flowers will grow,
There bubbling currents thro’ the shell-work flow.
Here coral mixt with shells of various dyes,
There polish’d stones will charm our wond’ring eyes.
Delightful bower of bliss! Secure retreat!
Fit for the Muses and Statira’s seat.
As this poem demonstrates, shellwork was more than just a handicraft. In creating shellwork scenes, women participated in literary and scientific spheres. Shellwork grottoes like the exhibit case above often alluded to mythical locations: according to a 1764 invoice for wax and shellwork in Winterthur’s Downs Collection, one eighteenth-century schoolgirl created “Calypso’s Grotto,” showing her knowledge of ancient cultures and literary works by representing Calypso, the nymph who held Odysseus for seven years in Homer’s The Odyssey.
Shellwork was also a means of exploring the natural sciences, as girls studied species of shells and collected specimens from all over the world. They learned about plant life as they attempted to create biologically accurate flowers from their shells.
This poem also speaks to the cultural values represented in teaching young women how to create shellwork displays: beauty and wonder, in their proper places, were of the utmost importance. Work like this was meant to instill patience, because such projects took hundreds of hours to complete. Other examples of ladies’ educations can be found at Winterthur: stitching samplers, needlework, and maps, for example, all of which required the same level of dexterity to complete. These skills were sometimes vital to a young girl, who would use her sewing as a wife and mother, but other proficiencies, like the geography in mapmaking or the knowledge of shellwork, were superfluous and were intended to show her aristocratic nature. How different it would be to undertake these projects in grade school, rather than making flashcards and writing essays!
By Brooke Baerman, WPAMC Class of 2019