Around the Table: The Making and Knowing Project

This month on Around the Table, we have a very special treat. Many of our contributors have been a part of the Making and Knowing Project and we have enjoyed occasional updates on the project throughout the years. Here, we have an update and reflection provided by previous Recipes Project contributor Tillmann Taape, in coordination with his former Making and Knowing team.

In 2014, Pamela Smith founded the Making and Knowing Project, an initiative in pedagogy and research to investigate the intersection of “craft” and “science” in the Renaissance. Combining experimental laboratory work with more traditional ways of doing history, the Project has explored a unique manuscript source, BnF Ms. Fr. 640, a collection of notes and recipes on craft practices from 1580s Toulouse (see Pamela Smith’s introduction to the Project in a previous post on the Recipes Blog). Over the past six years, the Making and Knowing Team and students of Columbia University’s “Craft and Science” seminar have accumulated insights into early modern materials, making processes, and the relationship between nature and human artifice. Some of these previously featured on this blog, in posts on making powder for hourglasses and the role of sensory perception in artisanal expertise. The sum total of our work has recently been published in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France: A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, containing intensively marked-up versions of the manuscript text (diplomatic and normalised transcriptions plus an English translation), over a hundred essays by collaborating scholars, “expert makers,” and students, as well as other resources such as a glossary of over 13,000 technical terms in Middle French. [1] Looking back over the past years, our intense experimental, historical, and digital engagement with this fascinating text has changed the way we think about recipes and how to read them as historians.

Recipes, instructions, observations: texts of action

Fig. 1. A page from BnF Ms. Fr. 640 showing headers and text units. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Source:

Ms. Fr. 640 consists of around one thousand semantic units of text, usually with a heading in a distinct italic script, followed by anything from a few lines of text to several pages of densely-written observations, corrections, and marginal annotations (see Fig. 1). Are these recipes? We started out calling them that, and to be sure, many of them have the structure and elements one would expect of a recipe: a statement of the end product(s), often in the header, enumerations of ingredients, with or without indication of the amount, and instructions for what to do with them, in more or less the intended sequence – sometimes the “author-practitioner,” as we call him, gets halfway through a sentence of instructions and only just saves himself with a “…having first done x.” [2] There is even a group of entries/text units on making varnishes and colouring wood that fits the definition of a recipe like a glove: the great majority start with the imperative prens or prenes (“take!”), the French equivalent of the Latin imperative recipe that gives us the English word for recipe. Four of these are explicitly labelled as a “recipe” (recepte), as in “Another recipe for making varnish” (fol. 73v).

But there are also pages filled with magic tricks, pranks, silly puns, and early modern equivalents of the dad-joke (How do you fix a candlestick to the wall without making a hole? – Have a servant hold it). Other passages break out of the recipe form through their sheer meandering length. Once the author-practitioner gets going on his favourite topic – different types of sand for making casting molds – he often does not stop for at least a few pages. What starts as a note on “experimented sands,” for example, promptly grows into a lengthy discussion of diverse sands and their merits, including the author-practitioner’s own observations and speculations about future improvements, more closely resembling detailed field notes than a mere recipe (fol. 85v–87v). Given this variety, we eventually decided to call these units of text “entries” – a more neutral and capacious term that takes its cue from the overall structure of the text more than the content.

It is clear, however, that the vast majority of entries – “recipes” or not – have one thing in common: they are texts of action. Whether walking potential readers through metalworking techniques or observing how different artisans (from day labourers to goldsmiths) do their jobs, these entries encode sequences of gestures and material processes. The challenge for historians is that writing encodes action imperfectly. However detailed the recipe, there is always much that remains unsaid, and perhaps cannot be said, but only known and experienced by the body performing the action. This is true of modern recipes, of course, but add a few hundred years, and a recipe becomes like a fossilised, flattened husk of a once-dynamic process unfolding in real time. Much of the Making and Knowing Project’s work has focused on how to re-hydrate this instant noodle of practical expertise to the extent where it makes a certain amount of sense to modern historians. Reading alone, it turns out, doesn’t get us very far. With their sparse prose and minimal structure, often only amounting to a list of ingredients and a handful of imperatives (chop, mix, heat, etc.), recipes deflect the kinds of analytic tools that historians are used to unleash on their sources. In a sense, the Project was founded around the idea that recipes and other texts of action become more fully accessible when we place them back in a context of action, reading them with our hands rather than just with our eyes.

Performative reading and emergent knowledge

Thus the Making and Knowing Laboratory was born. Housed in a 1940s chemistry lab at Columbia University, it has been home to cohorts of students’ hands-on reconstructions of objects and techniques described in Ms. Fr. 640. In its drawers and shelves, a peculiar material microcosm has accumulated, from tiny vials of pigments to counterfeit jasper made from buffalo horn to preternaturally preserved plants and animals.

While it seemed obvious from the outset that reconstructing or “acting out” recipes would tell us more than simply reading them, precisely what the payoff would be was not at all clear. In that sense, the Project was itself a true experiment. In a recent article that forms part of a special issue on “Rethinking Performative Methods in the History of Science,” the Making and Knowing Team had occasion to reflect on what we have gained from our reading-by-doing approach to recipes, for both pedagogy and research.[3]

Fig. 2. Foot of a life-cast lizard showing traces of the pin used to fix the animal in place during moulding (detail). Wenzel Jamnitzer, Writing box, c. 1560, silver, 22.7 x 10.2 cm x 6 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer, 1155 bis KK 1164. Photograph by Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes.

One of the key outcomes of hands-on work is that it recalibrates our eyes and hands in a way that allows us to appreciate the material literacy artisans of the past must have possessed. Early on in their research on lifecasting, a technique whereby a real animal or plant is molded in plaster and then cast in metal, Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes noted hitherto unexplained knob-like protrusions on the feet of lifecast lizards (Fig. 2). Their reconstruction of lifecasting instructions in Ms. Fr. 640 revealed that these protrusions were caused by metal pins used to fix the dead lizard on its clay base before molding.[4] This performative research produced a more informed reading not only of the text, but also of surviving lifecast objects whose subtle traces of the making process now revealed themselves to the attuned eye.

Starting out as a way of answering pre-formulated questions, reconstruction also turned out to be a powerful way of raising new questions that do not arise from reading alone. The work of making hourglass sand according to a recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (introduced in a previous post by Stephanie Pope on this blog) involved mixing salt with molten lead. Having got this far, our students balked at the instructions to wash this mixture in water. Would this dissolve the salt and thus undo their work? As it turns out, it does not, but their question sparked further research into the interaction of hourglass sand and water, turning up a fascinating story: until the middle of the eighteenth century, it was impossible to blow an hourglass in one piece, and since there was always a danger of moisture entering through an improperly sealed joint between the two halves, it was imperative that hourglass sand be non-hygroscopic, i.e. non-reactive with water. Thus the hands-on reading of the recipe led to detailed questions about materials, production, and calibration – questions that would not have been raised by a “dry” reading of the recipe.

Other entries encode cultural and spiritual meanings that emerge fully in doing rather than reading. A recipe for burn salve, for example, includes instructions to wash with holy water for specific intervals, measured by the time it takes to recite the paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer in Latin). The connections to religion and timekeeping practices are obvious at first read, but the full extent of their relationship with the process and the final product only emerge when we immerse ourselves in the making process. As we add holy water while reciting prayers, we can witness the dramatic transformation of the transparent yellowish mixture of wax and linseed oil into a thick, fluffy substance of an opaque white – a vivid material instantiation of the spiritual purification implicit in the use of prayers and holy water (Vid. 1).

Vid. 1. Burn salve made according to the recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (fol. 103r). Note the transformation of the transparent yellow mixture of melted wax and linseed oil into a thick white salve (beginning at around 04:15). (c) The Making and Knowing Project (CC BY-NC-SA).

Such insights from our own experience into the mental and cultural worlds of people in the past are powerful and evocative, but they need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Historians have shown that early modern people had diverse and completely different ways of understanding and experiencing their bodies compared to us moderns. For a start, few of us trained our bodies to specific manual tasks and expertise through years of apprenticeship. And that is before we get into problems of historical authenticity surrounding the use of pure modern ingredients and reading the paternoster off a laptop screen rather than reciting it by heart from lifelong habit. Properly considered, however, these limitations of reconstruction can be turned into a virtue, especially in a pedagogic context. They force students to think carefully about the historicity of materials and embodied experience, and thus help them problematise terms such as “body,” “craft,” and “nature” – categories that historians take for granted at their peril. Future researchers leave the laboratory with a greater critical awareness of what it means to understand material processes and to know by doing rather than through text, both in the present and the past.

All of this underscores a key point about recipes as texts: they are texts of action, and to fully read them, we have to get our hands dirty, however imperfect our modern ingredients and bodies may be for the job. The knowledge encoded in recipes is practical and, to use Pamela Smith’s term, emergent: it unfolds not in the reading, but in the doing. At best, reconstruction allows us glimpses into past worlds of materials and expertise; at worst, it shows us the gaps in the recipe that most early modern artisans or householders would have easily filled in, and the gaping holes in our own mastery of the requisite materials, gestures, and ideas.

The Making and Knowing Project is committed to sharing its own “recipe” for the kind of historical, practical, and digital work that we have been doing. In addition to the Digital Critical Edition, we are preparing a “Research and Teaching Companion” – a scalable template for hands-on teaching and online editions that teachers and researchers can adapt to their own needs. It will be ready in about a year’s time, and we look forward to bringing it to the “Around the Table” series.

Thanks, Tillmann, for the update on Making and Knowing! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.


[1] Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020),

[2] Francisco Alonso-Almeida, “Genre conventions in English recipes, 1600–1800,” in Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550–1800, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 68–90.

[3] Taape, Tillmann, Pamela H. Smith, and Tianna Helena Uchacz, “Schooling the Eye and Hand: Performative Methods of Research and Pedagogy in the Making and Knowing Project,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 43, no. 3 (2020): 323–40.

[4] Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2010): 128–79.

Waste Not, Want Not: Physics and Fruitcakes

By Simon Werrett

In 1767, the Winchester writer Ann Shackleford gave a recipe for clear fruit cakes in her Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767). A candied fruit juice should be placed ‘upon glass plates, or pieces of glass’ and dried in a stove or oven, ‘or by setting them in a window where the sun comes, keeping the window shut’.  In 1666 Isaac Newton bought a triangular glass prism and after darkening his room, he let in a beam of light through the window shutters and passed it through the prism. This created a spectrum of colours, and when Newton passed one coloured beam through another prism, with no change, he concluded that white light was made up of a series of fundamental colours.

Newton’s scientific experiment. Light dispersing through a triangular prism. Image credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the difference between these two performances? In one sense the answer is quite obvious – one is a cookery recipe, and the other is a famous scientific experiment. One is not very interesting – unless you like fruitcakes – and the other is a profound moment of human discovery. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light’. But there are many similarities. Both happened at home – Shackleford’s recipe would presumably be done in a kitchen and Newton did his experiment at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. Both made use of glass items that were ready to hand (prisms were a toy and Shackleford was probably using pieces of old bottles or glasses). Both used a window to manage light, either in terms of generating a beam of light or to dry out the fruitcakes. Both Newton and Shackleford wrote accounts of these events so that someone else could repeat them.

In fact recent research by historians is revealing how early modern householders might not have viewed these two episodes as differently as we do today. People in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed both Newton and Shackleford’s activities as ‘experiments’. Experimenting was something expected at this time of all good householders. Books of advice on ‘oeconomy’, or household management, encouraged ‘thrift’, which meant not so much saving money as finding a balance between buying new and making good use of the things one already possessed. Thrifty householders should make a point of finding out new uses for things and looking after them to ensure they could be useful for as long as possible. So men and women recorded recipes for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and making medicines which might be carried out by all the family. Contemporaries called this an experimental enterprise, because it involved trying out recipes, testing cleaning methods, trialling medicaments, and figuring out what you could do with old and broken possessions. In 1662, for example, the writer on oeconomy Hannah Woolley published a recipe book called The Ladies Directory, in Choice Experiments & Curiosities of Preserving in Jellies And Candying both Fruit & Flowers. Newton and Shakleford were both householders, and from this perspective of thrifty household management they were both experimenters. They were both finding out new uses for things (prisms, broken glass, light, fruit juice), and they both ‘made use’ of their homes (windows, sunlight) as a kind of experimental apparatus.

Kitchen ‘experiments’. Gerrit Dou, Woman Pouring Water into a Jar (c. 1655). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course we don’t remember Newton and Shackleford today as doing the same thing: far from it! Why is that? It seems that in the seventeenth century, some male householders decided to take these family experiments outside the home to new places like universities and academies where they argued that domestic know-how should count as a form of scientific knowledge. Science already took in things like mathematics and astronomy, but it was controversial to say that mundane everyday knowledge of the kind found in household recipe books should count as science. The seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, for example, explored the optics of eggwhite bubbles and experimented with eggs, coriander seeds, distilled liquors, wine, beer, vegetables, jars of oil, and vinegar. Contemporary wags lampooned him for investigating the phosphorescence seen in rotting fish and meat because this wasn’t the sort of thing normally associated with doing science. Nevertheless, over time, men like Boyle divorced elements of domestic knowledge from their original homely settings and ‘experiment’ came to be seen as an exclusively scientific, and male, enterprise.

While most experiments happened at home in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth this new profession of ‘scientists’ built specialised laboratories and insisted that kitchens, parlours and basements were no longer acceptable as spaces to investigate nature. Today we find it hard to imagine a time when cooking fruitcakes and studying light could be seen as a similar sort of inquiry. But for early moderns, household oeconomy encouraged making use of things to find out what they could do. That could mean exploring light or inventing new recipes for fruitcakes. Recognising this demands a new recipe for the history of science: if we want to understand experimenting, we’ll need to pay more attention to the home as a place where people studied nature, and we’ll need a bit more room for forgotten female writers like Shackleford.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice—Famine Prevention and Common Knowledge in Edo Japan

By Joshua Schlachet

If you’ve browsed The Recipes Project in the past several weeks, you may have raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar black and white squiggles that decorate the top of our page (written, by the way, in a cursive form of premodern Japanese). As my October editorial duties slowly draw to a close, I couldn’t let the month go by without spoiling the mystery of this little recipe collection…of sorts…as economical in its prose as in its outlook.

Consisting of a single broadsheet (what you see above is the whole thing), Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice (Daikenyaku meshi no takiyō), was likely produced around the time of Japan’s Great Tenpō Famine in the 1830s as a no-nonsense guide to help households squeeze a little more out of their staple grains. Rice prices could fluctuate wildly from season to season in time of scarcity, and to the extent that ordinary people could afford to eat (usually brown) rice at all, cutting it with cheaper vegetables and coarse grains became a strategy for survival.

Very Frugal Ways of Cooking Rice. Photo courtesy of the Waseda University Library Digital Collection of Historical Japanese Books.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice was one of many vernacular publications—meant to help regular folks combat famine conditions—that circulated through the vibrant marketplace for commercial print during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). If it wasn’t given away for free, it was available for cheap, meaning a family could likely recoup what little they spent on the pamphlet itself in as little as a single meal. This was no small claim for those in need, and economizing became both a key premise in enduring food shortages and a central feature of every recipe listed here. 

What are the Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice? The guide “instructs” readers on how to prepare rice seasoned and combined with a variety of inexpensive beans, roots, grains, and leaves, similar to the contemporary Japanese dish takikomi gohan. Each recipe indicates the proper proportions (five parts rice to four parts barley, for example) and basic directions for foods like barley, sweet potato, tofu lees, fava beans, millet, daikon radish, carrots, cow peas, red beans, as well as two kinds of “very economical” porridge that could stretch rice even further. Based on which ingredient one mixed in, a household could save a hefty thirty to eighty mon (a common denomination of copper coinage) on ten portions, a significant sum worth as much as $10 to $25 in today’s currency.

Contemporary image of Japanese mixed, seasoned rice (takikomi gohan). Photo courtesy of Ajinomoto Park.

Yet one thing continues to bug me about these very frugal recipes: why go through the trouble to teach people what they already knew? The directions themselves are so simple and intuitive as to border on obvious: cook beans, mix with rice; cut potatoes into chunks, mix with rice; boil leaves, season, mix. What’s more, families likely prepared such dishes in their homes already, making Very Frugal Ways redundant knowledge that didn’t bear repeating. Barring anything earth shattering within the recipes themselves, communicating frugality was itself the point. In a society where rice was not only the staple food but the basic unit of taxation and exchange, where running out signaled destitution, economizing as a lesson was worth reproducing the same old recipes, even if everyone already knew what was on the menu.

Vicissitudes in Soldering. Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Thijs Hagendijk and Tonny Beentjes

In 1721, the Dutch craftsman Willem van Laer (1674-1722) published a Guidebook for Upcoming Gold- and Silversmiths. Intended as a manual to educate young novices, the Guidebook discussed a variety of different practices, techniques, and skills that ranged from assays to determine the quality of precious metals to sand mold casting and polishing (Figure 1). Four different editions, including one pirated copy, appeared in less than fifty years, attesting to its popularity. The book was explicitly aimed at teaching young readers how to do and make things. Van Laer reassured readers by saying “there will be few young gold- or silversmiths, who won’t find anything to their liking and benefit while reading this book; they will be led by hand to the knowledge of many things.”[1] Yet, however confident Van Laer might come across in this passage, there is sufficient reason to question the actual success of Guidebook at explaining and delivering these skills. Practical knowledge is often better demonstrated than written down. Van Laer was very well aware of this fact and offered disclaimers warning his readers that full comprehension of the text was only achieved when complemented with manual instruction. This begs the question of what could, in fact, be learned from the Guidebook.

Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

The best way to answer this question is to look at historical evidence, primarily in the form of marginalia or other signs of usage, that indicates how the Guidebook was read and used on the shop floor. Unfortunately, not much of this evidence has survived for reasons that historians Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell have observed in their study of early modern didactic literature. They note an irony in the fact that books that were most read and used did not make it to our libraries.[2] Indeed, most Guidebooks that reside in Dutch libraries are neat and almost spotless copies – we even found a copy with its pages still uncut! (We ended up cutting its pages almost three hundred years after publication, but that is another story). This virtual lack of historical evidence pushed us in a different direction. We decided to approach the Guidebook experimentally by performing historical re-enactments. By reading and working with the text as if we were learning how to make and do things, we were able to get a better grasp of Van Laer’s potential audience and the role the book might have played in historical learning practices and the acquisition of practical skills. The re-enactments gave rise to various insights.[3] In this post, we discuss one specific result, which is a story involving both success and failure.

Part of Van Laer’s discussion of soldering features the introduction of a “convenient soldering lamp.” Even though the better part of soldering usually happened in the forge, Van Laer presents his soldering lamp so that “the maker won’t need to put the entire piece back into the fire for a tiny leak or mistake only.”[4] For a silversmith, putting a soldered piece back into the fire was always risky as the soldered joints could melt again and cause more trouble than initially was the case. The preferable method was to repair a soldered piece without having to expose it again to relatively high temperatures, which is where the soldering lamp comes in. Basically, the soldering lamp resembles a modified oil lamp with an extended snout. To reach temperatures high enough to melt the solder, one had to use a small blowpipe to blow additional air through the flame. Skillful blowing would subsequently result in a second tiny yet feisty blue flame hot enough to locally melt silver. That is, at least, what Van Laer seemed to suggest: “when the tip of the flame of such burning Lamp is blown against the spot that needs to be soldered, it makes it hotter over there and the solder will easily run.”[5]

Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

To find out whether we could indeed solder this way, we decided to build a soldering lamp following Van Laer’s instructions. Luckily, Van Laer was meticulously detailed with respect to the lamp, discussing its dimensions and the materials needed to produce it. According to him, the lamp should be made from brass and should measure 3 inches across and 1 inch in height. Additionally, there should be a wooden handle at its back and at the front a snout of about 5 or 6 inches long. To make sure he was well understood, Van Laer also included a schematic engraving of the lamp (Figure 2). We had more than enough information to work with, and based on his drawings and instructions we produced a much-desired replica of the lamp (Figure 3). We also laid our hands on a few historical blowpipes. Now that we had the materials, we could learn to handle the tool.

Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


We filled the lamp’s reservoir with olive oil and stuffed its snout with a cotton lump. When we finally lit the lamp, the burning oil filled the room with a scent of grilled food. As an initial exercise, we took a small brass strip and tried to heat it until it started to glow. Here is how it went down, as recorded by Thijs in our fieldnotes:

Glowing the metal strip did not happen before we learned our first big lesson. Intuitively, Tonny and I started out by blowing hard through the blowpipe. The more air, the hotter the flame we thought. After trying for quite some time, it seemed as if we weren’t making any progress. We could steer the yellow flame, but were not able to get the blue flame where we wanted it. Yet, after I tried some more, it suddenly appeared that I had been blowing way too hard. By blowing rather softly on to the flame, suddenly the little blue flame emerged. In general, the blowing required much exercise. When later that afternoon a visitor dropped by for an interview, we saw the amount of skill that we already acquired. She too tried to produce a feisty blue flame by blowing through the flame, but did not succeed. To my own surprise, I was immediately able to point out what went wrong. The tip of the blowpipe should almost touch the pit of the flame, while one should blow out of the flame, both from beneath and from the inside-out. Cheeks filled with air, meanwhile breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, filling the cheeks again and keep blowing at the same time. A rhythm occurs in blowing and breathing, which maybe most resembles what happens to your breathing when running.(Fieldnotes Thijs, April 4th, 2017).

Until this point, then, the story was quite successful. We were able to reverse-engineer the soldering lamp, and, like Van Laer explained, we could reproduce the feisty blue flame. Moreover, the blue flame proved rather hot indeed, as indicated by the different oxidation colors on the brass strip. However, as soon as we tried taking it to the next level, we ran into trouble.

Still happy with the progress we made, we now wanted to solder a very basic joint. We took another brass strip, hammered it round, and set out to solder its ends together to make a tiny cylinder. We fixed the cylinder in a standing pair of tweezers to free both our hands so we could steer the soldering lamp and hold the blowpipe. A little piece of solder was put on top of the joint, as well as little bit of borax, which is a flux used to facilitate the flow of melted solder. We lit the lamp and started blowing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

One hour later we were so out of breath that we stopped, but the cylinder had not yet been soldered. We failed. Even though we raised the temperature high enough to make the solder curl up like a drop, we never reached the final state in which it flows out and runs into the joint. Using the soldering lamp appeared less straightforward than we thought it would be.

We were curious to know what went wrong, but after several more days of trial-and-error, the list of questions and issues had only grown. We turned to the Guidebook and read and re-read the passages, only to discover that Van Laer was actually quite silent on the matter. Indeed, he carefully described how to assemble the soldering lamp, but spent hardly any time on how to handle it in practice. Should the object be pre-heated, or could the soldering lamp be used on cold objects, too? We blew and soldered against a piece of charcoal to create a reverberating heat source, but was this also how Van Laer meant to use the soldering lamp? Moreover, what type of solder should we use? Van Laer listed three distinct recipes for solder with different melting points, but did not indicate which one to use in combination with the soldering lamp. To date, we still have not been able to solder a proper joint using the lamp.

Interestingly, if we compare the above experiences with other re-enactments we performed, a general pattern starts to emerge.[6] For example, with respect to sand mold casting, Van Laer vividly described how to prepare and process the sand, but left his readers hanging when it came time to assemble a mold from it. Moreover, in his discussion of chasing, he meticulously described how to transfer a design to silver, but gave no guidance on how to perform the actual chasing process. Why would Van Laer alternate between exacting detail and virtual silence? What does this say about the usability of the book? And what could, in fact, be learned from this text?

The soldering story followed a similar pattern. While Van Laer carefully discussed each and every condition needed to succeed – the soldering lamp, recipes to prepare multiple types of solder, different sorts of fluxes – we failed once we arrived at the procedure itself. Is this due to our lack of skill in operating the blowpipe and soldering lamp, or are there aspects of eighteenth-century soldering that we no longer understand? In any case, the Guidebook’s guiding principle seems to be that core operations are best demonstrated rather than put into words. Van Laer did in fact confirm this with respect to the casting procedure. Just as he came to the very heart of the procedure, he abandoned his detailed exposition, stating that “the molding and casting cannot be learned as well as through manual education.”[7]

During our re-enactments, we therefore came to interpret the Guidebook as a text containing advanced practical knowledge, including tips, tricks, and best practices. Learning new skills from scratch, such as soldering, casting, or chasing, is still best done through manual education, but once mastered, the Guidebook can indicate new routes, spell out different paths, and show new variations on a theme.


[1] Willem van Laer, Weg-wyzer Voor Aankoomende Goud en Zilversmeden: Verhandelende veele wetenschappen, die Konsten raakende, zeer nut voor alle Jonge Goud en Zilversmeeden (Amsterdam: Fredrik Helm, 1721).

[2] Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, “Introduction,” in Didactic Literature in England 1500-1800, edited by Natasha Glaisyer, Sara Pennell (London: Ashgate, 2003), 7.

[3] For a more elaborate and contextualized overview of the re-enactments performed on the Guidebook, see Thijs Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books. Historical Re-enactment of Functional Reading in Gold- and Silversmithing,” Nuncius 33, no. 2 (forthcoming Summer 2018).

[4] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 125.

[5] Ibid, 126.

[6] Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books.”

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

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