Women in the printing trades plates of the Encyclopédie

In the first of a series of blogposts about women in the book trades, we are looking at images showing women employed in the printing and paper industries in 18th-century France, as depicted in engravings from the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, published between 1751 and 1772. The engravings show workers in the industrial spaces, as well as the tools of these trades.

Our first picture is a modern take on these images, as seen in a small risograph booklet which uses details from a modern facsimile edition of the Encyclopédie plates, (Recueil de planches sur les sciences, les arts libéraux et les arts mécaniques, avec leur explication, published in Paris by Inter-Livres in 2001). The booklet was produced by graphic designer Dario Utreras at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press in 2017.

Utreras isolated individual figures from the plates. In the upper corner of one page we notice a female figure, copied from the plates showing ‘Papeterie’, the paper-making industry, (in the online version of the Encyclopédie produced by the ARTFL project)*.  Utreras comments on the reason for extracting these figures, ‘One has to go and find the women (and their work) across most strands of history. Women in Typography. Avant-garde composers. Radical poets. Indigenous musicians. This booklet is a small exercise in observation.’

Geraldine Sheridan has examined the historical accuracy of the Encyclopédie engravings. [“An Other Text: Rationalist Iconography and the Representation of Women’s Work in the Encyclopédie,” Diderot Studies (2003): 101-135] ‘We see  the « delisseuses » cutting up rags for maceration… [and]  women work in the drying room, separating and hanging up sheets of paper…’. [Sheridan, p. 128] Sheridan finds that in the case of papermaking, the portrayal of women workers in the industry reflected historical reality in the 18th-century French paper industry.

In other Encyclopedie plates, women are depicted in the type-foundry, (‘Fonderie des caracteres d’imprimerie’). This also fits the historical record. [Sheridan, p. 125] Sheridan explains the type of work that is depicted in the Encyclopédie: “one woman breaks off the jets of metal from the newly-cast type letters, while the woman beside her at the bench then rubs the shanks of each letter smooth on a grindstone. … The second image … shows a woman composing the newly cast letters into sets, and suggests that she had a level of literacy.”

*Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

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