Periodicals as a source base for research are endless fun. Victorian periodicals in particular are loaded with odd stories written by characters that you tend not to hear about that often in histories of science. When I was starting my research for the ConSciCom project – which focuses on the use of illustrations within 19th century natural history periodicals – I came across a periodical full of interesting people, images, and even an object!
While perusing the pages of one particularly intriguing periodical, I encountered something I wasn’t expecting. Pressed between the pages of two issues, was a fern – placed there by a yet unknown (and likely never to be known) collector.
For a historian of periodicals, this is treasure indeed! Periodicals are notoriously bad at retaining traces of their readers – or, in this case, users. Unlike books, periodicals were more often than not discarded – unless they were originally purchased by a library. The placement of the fern on a page – incidentally entitled “A Thing of Beauty” – acts as a reminder for me in my research. When I’m reading the articles or looking at the illustrations – which constitute the central focus of my research – I need to keep in mind that these texts are three-dimensional. That they held knowledge, and that readers could add to this by using the pages of periodicals to their own ends.
The periodical containing the fern is called Science Gossip. It was written for a broad Victorian audience interested in all things natural history.
Boasting an enticing blue cover with a golden embossed name plate, this object on a shelf really drew my eye. Of course, this would not have been the way that a Victorian would have first encountered this periodical – they were only bound after a year’s run was complete. And often – unless the subscriber was a library – they would never have been saved week by week, let alone bound in garish fashion.
So what first attracted my attention on the rolling book shelf in the basement of the University of Leicester library, has little to do with why a Victorian would have spent the two shillings (about £8 today) for their monthly issue of natural history knowledge.
The most enticing aspect of the Science Gossip, for both Victorian and modern readers, is the illustrations dotted across almost every page of the journal.
What a reader could see on any given page ranged from Diatoms to imagined 17th-century apes, and everything in between.
The illustrations constituted an essential part of Science Gossip’s appeal, which in turn encouraged a wide range of contributors. Over a 15-year period – beginning in 1865 when the periodical was founded – Science Gossip gave space to over 550 individual authors. Finding out more about the range, social, economic and scientific position of these authors will be a central part of my research over the next three years. But a cursory investigation shows that the authors for Science Gossip are largely unknown. For a project looking at the relationship between the production of images and the production of science by the non-professional, Science Gossip offers a great starting point!