Louder than words: ways of seeing women workers in eighteenth-century France

In an era when trade guilds in France largely excluded women as members in their own right, the images depicted in Diderot’s Encyclopédie and other contemporary French sources reveal what the statutes and archives of the time obscure: that women played integral, essential, and varied roles in the worlds of craft, manufacture, and commerce. Geraldine Sheridan, recognizing the need to recover the history of working women through alternative sources, employs period engravings to document and interpret how women contributed to the preindustrial process—as sources of power, as skillful workers, as finishers, and as managers of business. Sheridan draws not only from the well-known Encyclopédie (published in Paris between 1762 and 1772, with a supplementary volume added by Panckouke in 1777) but also from the Descriptions des arts et métiers, detailed studies of specific trades (published between 1761 and 1788 by the Académie royale des sciences and incorporating some plates engraved as early as the 1690s). More than twenty plates prepared for the Descriptions but never actually published, along with original manuscript drawings, are gathered here for side-by-side comparison for the first time. The images analyzed in Louder Than Words retain their freshness, the power to inform and to mystify, to enthrall and to frustrate. They bridge time, arching beyond the cultural and epistemological context in which they were created to provide an invaluable glimpse of the irrepressible women workers of the eighteenth century.

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