‘The Caoutchouc of Commerce’: India-Rubber and Economic Botany in Nineteenth Century Britain
Founded in 1847, the Kew Museum of Economic Botany dedicated its collections to useful plants, with its displays aimed at ‘the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description.’ Among the array of vegetable products was a collection of natural rubber, known as ‘India-rubber’ or ‘caoutchouc’, including raw material, ethnographic objects and British manufactures. Blocks of raw rubber sit next to objects such as animal figurines, surgical articles, moulded portrait plaques, vulcanite rubber jewellery and an inflatable cushion, linked by the plant name Hevea brasiliensis, the primary tree from which latex was tapped to source the material.This dissertation frames itself around Kew’s collection, tracing the objects’ biographies to form a history of Victorian applications and perceptions of rubber.
The first half of this study analyses the implications of rubber’s position within a botanical institution, Kew’s link to rubber manufacturers, and the ways in which Kew aligned itself with industry, turning rubber into an imperial opportunity.The spectacle of economic botany is explored, not only at Kew but at international exhibitions, where India-rubber was presented as a material of wonder and curiosity, with innumerable applications.The second section examines the museum’s rubber accessions throughout the mid to late nineteenth century, detailing their makers and donors and comparing them with other manufactures from the same period.Through gathering details about the collection, exhibition and consumption of these objects, changing perceptions surrounding the desirability, utility and potentiality of rubber are revealed.
School of Humanities
MA History of Design, 2017
Helen Butler is a design historian and artist. Her research focuses on botanical history, exhibitions and material collections.
Her second-year dissertation surrounds intersections between botany and material innovation in nineteenth century Britain. This research project traced biographies of natural rubber objects in a number of museum collections, placing them within histories of economic botany and Victorian material culture, whilst revealing networks of botanists and manufactures involved in the project of cultivating South American rubber trees in plantations throughout the British Empire.
- BA Fine Art, University of Leeds, 2015; BA Fine Art (Study Abroad Year), University of California, Berkeley, 2014
- Gallery assistant, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2016–17; Exhibitions assistant, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds, 2015; Curator, The Debut Series, Leeds, 2014–15; Intern, Worth Ryder Art Gallery, Berkeley, California, 2014