Pot lids

In the latter half of the nineteenth century items like toothpaste and cosmetics started to be packaged in small ceramic pots.

These pots are sought after by collectors of nineteenth century ephemera and good examples go for a couple of hundred dollars

Being ceramic they are fairly indestructible and regularly turn up in bottle dumps and online auctions – the example above was found on ebay and claimed to come from a bottle dump in Claremont WA.

Of course, it’s a rarity for any of these pots offered for sale to come with anything resembling a provenance, but because they’re sought after by collectors we can track how the design changed over the years, giving us a rough chronology – for example, though S Maw.Son and Sons sold their cherry toothpaste for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century we can date this particular pot lid to the 1870’s, which tells this that someone was importing and selling their toothpaste in Western Australia, or just possibly, someone migrating from England brought some with them.

Sometimes of course, the lid tells us something more

Some chemists (this one is from St Andrews in Scotland) made up and packaged their own products. This particular item is unprovenanced save to say that Smith and Govan were pharmacists and druggists in South Street in St Andrews, and just to add interest, Mr Govan was a noted early calotype photographer in the 1850’s.

Provenanced however, thes pots tell us more – when out of area they let us tie bottle dumps to migration patterns.

Most of these ceramic pots seem to hail from the UK. I’ve done quite a bit of searching over the weekend and most of the examples seem to be from UK firms – there are examples from the United States, but again they seem to be from collectors disposing of their collections.

Initially I only found one unambiguously Australian example

and none from New Zealand. Searching a little more widely I came up with a number of other Australian examples, including this one from FH Faulding

dfc27171be2a892c16e9d397f0ffcb4f

I suspect that as Australia was a much smaller place in those days – under four million people as opposed to the UK’s near forty million in the 1890’s – there were simply fewer local manufacturers and and as we’ve seen with patent medicines, local brans were always at risk of being outcompeted …

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Open science citizen science and stuff

This is a post that has been knocking round the back of my brain ever since I ended up paying $16.50 to get a thesis from the University of Queensland.

First, some terminology:

Citizen science

This term is used in two ways. The first one is really just crowdsourcing where individual sign up on a relatively large scale – say to collect sighting of songbirds in spring.

The second is more interesting. Start delving into local nature clubs, field studies groups, astronomy groups, archaeology and local history societies and you rapidly discover that there are a substantial number of people spending quite a lot of their own money, to do something that looks a lot like something that might well get funding in an academic context.

For example, comet tracking. Amateurs have often beaten the professionals to this by using relatively simple equipment, often based around cheap computers such as the Raspberry Pi and off the shelf telescopes and cameras.

These people are often highly knowledgeable in their field and have serious contributions to make. The work is, on the whole, not cutting edge, but solid observational work documenting things – worth that a nineteenth century scientist, many of whom were themselves gentleman amateurs, would recognise as science.

And this second group can be described truly as members of the scientific community.

In my own work cataloguing the contents of Dow’s pharmacy I’ve had a lot of help from both amateurs – eg the Australian expert on Remington typewriters, professionals such as museum staff particularly cataloguing and research staff, and academics with expertise in nineteenth century Australia, and in this we all treat each others as equals and members of a community of interest. While it might not strictly be citizen science, it’s certainly community cataloguing and archiving.

Open science, Open access

The open science movement really started as a means by which academic libraries wished to wrest back control from the oligopoly of academic publishers, who each year demanded more and more for subscriptions to ‘must have’ research journals.

In the open model, researchers pay to publish their results in journals to which access is itself free. They pay because producing these journals, even if online, costs money to defer the costs of refereeing, peer review, the publication process, and keeping the servers running.

When I used to manage academic repositories for a living, I’d estimate the cost of running the servers, the content management, archiving, backup and all the other sordid minutiae of IT at around $200,000 per annum.

Basically that would get you a couple of highly skilled software engineers to work part time on keeping the lights on, upgrading systems, supervision contents ingest, plus a server to run it all on.

Now an academic repository is just a specialist content management system. An online journal is much the same but with editorial and content control, and while I’m no expert that probably adds another $200,000 to your running costs – bottom line people are expensive, and they want pensions, holidays, in some countries health insurance, as well as just being paid.

However, the costs are a lot less than those charged to libraries in aggregate for subscriptions by some of the major publishers.

There is also the case of what to do with research data. Due to a panic over reproducibility there’s an increasing requirement for researchers to deposit their supporting data. Again all you need is a repository and some people to look after it. If you’ve already got an academic repository you can probably capitalise on existing experience, and while you might need to hire an extra person, machines and storage are relatively cheap these days.

But this gives us a couple of problems.

One is kind of a non-problem.

Citizen scientists need access to journals and research publications. Some might even on occasions co-author with an established academic researcher. The simple solution is to let them have access to the contents, both online and physical of academic libraries. Yes, we probably do need a gatekeeper mechanism to keep the numbers manageable, but organisations such as Museums Australia are probably well placed to do this – basically membership of a learned society or a professional body is probably the only criteria required.

The other problem is what to do with these citizen scientists’ data. It’s not a new problem. If you google me hard enough you’ll find me mentioned in a 1988 Linnean Society report as a biological records co-ordinator in mid Wales. (Actually I wasn’t, or rather not any more, I’d moved elsewhere by the time the report came out so no one ever contacted me about the long term custodianship of their data).

However, the problem of what to do with the data is an ongoing problem.

The costs of hosting a repository on Amazon are trivial – for example Dspace costs around 20 cents an hour or a little under US$1800 per annum. Adding a reasonable amount of storage would cost a bit more, but not eyewateringly so.

Hosting is of course not the same as running and maintaining a public repository. Human beings are expensive, and ones that know what they are doing more so.

The costs are probably beyond most learned societies, simply because of the need to employ people to manage the repository solution.

I don’t have an answer to this, except to say that I don’t think charging people for access is the solution …

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Citizen science and access to libraries

Recently I’ve become interested in the development of natural history in nineteenth century Australia.

After all not only was the Victorian era the heyday of natural history, but in Australia it had an importance in people trying to understand how the ecology of this wide brown land worked and in describing what they found.

There were individuals such as von Muller who was employed as the colonial botanist to carry out a botanical survey of Victoria, the numerous local clergymen, doctors and phramacists who did a little botany, entomology, or zoology as a hobby, and the numerous watercolourists (mostly but not exclusively female) who painted the plants they found in their area.

Put together, they assembled a picture of Austalia as it was before it transformed from a lightly populated pastoral country to the post industrial country it is today. It also gives us an ecological baseline from which to gauge the effect of climate change.

But it’s not only local naturalists. Ships’ naturalists visited as well, including Hooker, Huxley and of course Darwin.

Now the interesting thing about ships’ naturalists is that they were usually employed as assistant surgeons by the Royal Navy – which meant that they had some medical scientific knowledge, and some knowledge of botany and zoology. What’s more, their conmtracts of employment meant that all their journals and records became property of the British government on the end of their contracts – which is why quite a few of the early records are in London.

So, I thought I would do a little bit or reading about ships’ naturalists.

Well there’s not that much written. There’s a book and what looks to be quite an interesting PhD thesis held at the University of Queensland. The abstract certainly suggested that it would be worthwhile downloading.

Except for one little problem – access was restricted to staff and higher degree students at UQ.

So I emailed the UQ library to ask if I could have access to the thesis. They replied that they didn’t handle requests from individuals and that I would have to ask my local library.

We’ll ignore the fact that the thesis was already digitised and it would have been as easy for me to download it directly rather than get it through my local library, but its their data, so its their rules.

Asking my local library was fun. I’m no longer affiliated to an academic institution, but my local library is a member of the Swift consortium, and had been able to get me a book on nineteenth century paleography from the State Library of Victoria in the past so I reckoned I was in with a chance.

So I talked to them. They’d never done this before, but UQ did have a page explaining how libraries could request a copy of a digitised thesis.

And they did give it a go, very successfully. I now have a copy of the thesis sitting on my OneDrive account.

But I do have a little niggle. The process cost me $16.50 in processing charges, which is something I’m happy to pay once. After all I’m basically a dilletante – but on a repeated basis, perhpas not.

And that raises a larger question about citizen science – people doing it are funding it out of their own pockets, and paying for access to materials, and, in these days of open access should that really be the case.

Equally the other thing about citizen science is, what happens to the data?

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A very tangential connection to the Russian Revolution …

Visiting family always seems to involve a boozy dinner with alittle too much red wine, or at least ours do.

And as always with coneversations involving a decent red, sometimes they take some slightly odd turns.

And so it was a few days ago, ironically on the 101st anniversary of the Russian revolution.

We were talking about family history and where various strands of the family had come from. Most of us have been fairly ordinary hardworking folk, in Scotland, or the north of England, or by marriage, Ireland, or more accurately London Irish.

And the story was that when he was small, the great grandfather on the London Irish side worked as a newspaper seller and used to sell Lenin a copy of the Evening Standard most days.

I’m not sure how you would ever prove this, but the dates fit – the London Irish GGF was born in 1894 making him eight or nine in 1902 when Lenin was in London.

However I’m sure he didn’t know at the time who the foreign gentleman he sold his paper to was – however he did go on to be a trade union shop steward, and probably realised afterwards that he might have been selling Lenin his paper.

But memory of course can be a funny thing. It could have been Trotsky, or indeed any other memorable delegate to the 1902 RSDLP party congress that was held in exile in London …

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Opera girls …

We’ve started watching the ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair on BBC First.

The lead protagonist, Becky Sharp, is described as the daughter of an ‘opera girl’, a term clearly designed to be redolent of illicit sex and debauchery.

It’s the sort of term that, when reading nineteenth century books, you immediately realise means something sleazy and disreputable, even if you don’t exactly know what it means, and move on.

Well, maybe it means something something more.

Thackeray, as we know, was born in Calcutta and had East Indian connections, and if you look up ‘opera girl’ on the free dictionary, it come up with opera girl being used as the name for a species of ginger, Mantisia saltatoria (http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl/record/kew-253041).

Given Becky Sharp’s character, I wonder if Thackeray had this plant in mind when choosing to describe Becky Sharp as the daughter of an opera girl, rather than some other declassé profession ….

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Chloroform

One aspect of the Catherine Morton case that puzzled me was just how common was chloroform in colonial Australia.

So I did some digging.

The key date in the story of chloroform is 1847, the year when Simpson first started using chloroform for pain relief and anaesthesia in childbirth.

The discovery clearly took the world by storm – as early as 1848 there were adverts in the Sydney Morning Herald for dentistry under chloroform:

Screenshot 2018-09-29 13.19.04 SMH 03 Jul 1848 via trove.nla.gov.au

and wholesale druggists were advertising its availability as in this advert from the Colonial Times (Hobart) of 16 February 1851

Screenshot 2018-09-29 13.19.51

So, when Meard asked Mr Witt the chemist for chloroform to anaethetise a favourite dog he wished to castrate, the use of chloroform was most definitely common knowledge – after all Queen Victoria had used it as early as 1853 to relieve the pain of childbirth …

[update 01 October 2018]

Just for fun, I ran a querypic search on the word chloroform, and as expected it confirmed that the discovery of chloroform was an overnight sensation:

chart

with mentions (in Australia) peaking in 1848 and  minor peak around 1853, doubtless as a result of Queen Victoria being administered chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold …

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Magic Lanterns on easy terms

I recently came across a study carried out by a researcher at the University of Exeter in the UK where, by searching old newspaper adverts, they found evidence that people in Victorian times could hire magic lanterns and slides for an evenings entertainment.

I fund this idea mildly intriguing, so I thought I would try a quick and dirty search of the NLA’s Trove to see if the same thing was happening in Australia.

First of all I used querypic to have a look at the occurrence of the phrase magic lantern in the newspapers of the time:

magic lantern

which shows that the phrase certainly was in use from the 1850’s to the 1900’s, when it started to tail off, perhaps because of the advent of the movies.

Naively, I though it would be quite easy to see if magic lanterns were being hired out. I thought that if I restricted my search to only advertising between 1850 and 1900 in Trove’s collections of digitised newspapers I would find evidence of people hiring out magic lanterns and slides.

Not a bit of it. All these lectures by worthy Victorian vicars on the lives of the indigenous population, or missionary work in China overwhelmed any adverts for the hire of magic lanterns.

There is of course the questions as to where the aforesaid vicars got their magic lanterns from. Did they buy them?, where they hired out by missionary societies, did they get the slide sets separately from the lanterns?

All questions for another day.

One thing that was clear though, was that by the 1890s, stores were advertising magic lanterns for purchase, as in this example from the Daily Commercial News of 11 May 1899:

nla.news-page000016981110-nla.news-article157436879-L3-bd09a20ca383ac69390112fe555d1b71-0001

which suggests that if people bought them for home use, they must have hired sets of slides separately.

Which of course begs the question of what sorts of slides. While undoubtedly some of the slide set would have been worthy, we know from the example of stereoscopes in the 1850’s, that one of the drivers could well have been to provide a means of viewing pornographic images at home.

While people might have been quite happy to got to an illustrated talk on missionary work in China, it was after all a social occasion that provided an opportunity to meet people, what people did behind closed doors and the sorts of lantern slides they looked at may well have been different …

[update]

A little more searching, this time for the phrase magic lantern slides has revealed that, as in this advert from the Express and Telegraph of 24 June 1868 in Adelaide, that slides and magic lanterns were hired out

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.19.59

and that there were retailers of slides, both new

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.19.05

and second hand

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.18.38

what’s also interesting is that some of these must have come with pre written lectures to accompany them …

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