The Great Exhibition of 1851 displayed nothing less than the “Works of Industry of All Nations.” It celebrated “industry” in the widest possible sense. Any goods produced, extracted, or cultivated by human labor were included, and the most unlikely items rub shoulders in its displays: sculptures of mythic figures and bushels of wheat; Jacquard looms and handmade lace; railway carriages and hand-carved tooth brushes. In page after page of the quirky and seemingly fantastic lists that make up the Catalogue,1 we can find things like “a portable self-supporting pulpit” contributed by an individual inventor; a “carved book-tray, executed by a ploughman, in the evening, by candle light … solely with a pen knife”; “a variety of miscellaneous articles” by Mary Jane Cannings, who, it is noted, is “blind, deaf and dumb.”
These “modes” of production were clearly important in the social imagination of mid-Victorian Britain. The quirky inventor; the ploughman working at night with only a penknife to aid him; the blind and deaf handicraft worker who had only the sense of touch to guide her work: These contributors to the Exhibition are emblems of innovation and resourcefulness and are as significant as the machines and the many machine-made goods on display. These kinds of work were important enough and, even more critically, still representative enough of British industry (in 1851) to deserve notice in the Exhibition along with the newer forms of production, forms that caused, unbeknownst to the general public in 1851, an industrial revolution.
Yet the fact remains that in 1850, less than half of British textile workers were employed in factories.2 The production of clothing (other than hosiery), shoes, building materials, and household furniture continued to be produced
1. Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 2nd ed.
(London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1851).
2. Deborah Valenze, The First Industrial Woman (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 98.