One of the more interesting items I’ve come across lately is a beekeeping handbook from 1798 entitled Manuel de l’éducation des abeilles, ou, Manière sûre et facile de les conserver, de les multiplier et d’en tirer un grand profit (Case FRC 15998). Not only is beekeeping a topic on which I know very little, thus rendering it by turns exotic and bizarre to me, but the pamphlet was written by a woman author, Augustine Chambon de Montaux. Since the vast majority of pamphlets we’ve cataloged so far have been authored by men (aside from the occasional petitions by women for reparations or widows’ pensions), I was especially intrigued to come across a woman writer presenting herself as an expert on a technical and scientific subject. A cursory Google search of Chambon de Montaux reveals little more than a few contemporary articles mentioning that she holds a patent for the invention of an “economical foot stove,” which she aptly named the augustine. Her husband, respected doctor and one-time Paris mayor Nicolas Chambon de Montaux, wrote the footnotes for the handbook, which was approved by the Institut de France.
Chambon presents her work as a more accessible synthesis of previous academic research on bees and beekeeping, intended to encourage a less educated rural audience to take up the practice. For me, the twist came just as I was wondering what beekeeping had to do with the French Revolution (although our pamphlet collection does contain a number of works on similarly offbeat topics). Chambon explains in her preface that increasing domestic production of honey and beeswax would reduce France’s reliance on foreign imports, a significant issue for France in the midst of a war with England and other European powers set in motion by the Revolution—all of which was making international commerce a touchy subject. In particular, she notes that the production of honey would diminish the threat of an impending sugar shortage brought on by troubles in the overseas colonies. In this way, she frames her work as a labor of patriotic love, all the while apologizing for her (supposedly) amateurish writing style.
I have no way of knowing how unusual it may have been for a woman to pen such an authoritative treatise, nor whether beekeeping was considered a suitable or even fashionable hobby for women. In any event, I was especially entertained by one chapter on how to bathe bees. In case you were wondering: first dunk your beehive in a bucket of water until the bees lose consciousness, then remove them with a passoire, or slotted spoon. (Don’t worry about drowning the bees; according to Chambon, they can be revived after up to nine hours underwater.) Lay the bees out on a towel and dry them off, then use a silver spoon to transfer them to a homemade drying compartment. Once the bees have woken up, usher them back into the hive. N.B. If you’d like to color-code your bees, painting them is easiest while they are unconscious. Make sure to use a fast-drying paint, though!