Craft and Curiosity: A Dedication to Laura Bridgman

By Claire Penketh

Histories of art education reflect and reproduce normative assumptions that making and appreciating art is dependent on sight. Such beliefs are founded on ocularnormativity, defined as an ableist predisposition towards the visual that renders us incapable of imagining or valuing a world without vision. In essence, ocularnormativity is an epistemological position that delimits the parameters of human value and worth (Bolt 2014: 14). This key concept has been employed to support my reading of histories of art, craft and design in the nineteenth century, alongside two texts: Pioneers and Perseverance, Michael Royden’s history of the Royal School for the Blind (1991) and Perkins School for the Blind by Kimberley French (2004). This short piece centres of the creation of a craft response to some of the themes emerging from this work. 
Craft from the earlier form ‘cræft’ suggests a form of power and skill (McDonald 1970: 306) present perhaps in its resistance to ocularnormativity in early institutions such as the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool and Perkins School. However, whilst histories of institutions chart the role of non-disabled teachers and pioneers there is little acknowledgement of the role disabled people may have played in teaching craft in early institutions. For example, John Pringle, a teacher who was blind, was employed to teach crafts at Perkins School in 1832, yet there is little information available regarding his life, role or teaching methods. Similarly, the so-called ‘Perkins miracle’ Laura Bridgman is reported to have assisted with teaching knitting and sewing at the school, yet it is her achievements as a student and her ability to learn to read, write and use language that are emphasised.  

Craft and Curiosity 

The work has taken me to an exploration of the collection available at Perkins School and more particularly the Laura Bridgman Archive. As the first deaf-blind pupil to learn to read and write, Bridgman came to exemplify the successful methods of Samuel Gridley Howe, the first director of the school. Much has been written about Bridgman, although there are contrasting perspectives on the extent of the value Perkins School brought to her life (see Gitter, 2001 as an example). She became a celebrated example of the school’s success. In a history of Perkins School, author Kimberly French describes Bridgman at seven years of age, incapable of communication and unable to learn. She appears as an isolated and tragic child prior to her experiences of the benefits of Howe’s methods. Less well explored is the example of her early lacework, evidence that Bridgman entered the school already able to knit and sew; crafts most likely learned from her mother. Although there is significant attention given to Howe’s contributions to her literacy development there is a distinct lack of curiosity in the familial learning that had already taken place. As the trophy of Perkins, Bridgman became a shining example of the school’s worth, not as a result of her fine craft work but because of her ability to read, write and communicate through sign. The narrative of Bridgman as isolated and ignorant and the dismissal of material forms of learning are central to the construction of Howe’s reputation as saviour and pioneer. 
The fact of Bridgman’s prior learning is only made present through the inclusion of a photograph of some of her lacework, with little underpinning narrative, yet early examples of her craft contradict the assertion that she was isolated and uneducable. These artefacts clearly evidence Bridgman’s educability and signify a form of pedagogic relationship with her mother who must have employed a range of approaches to demonstrate and model craft techniques to her daughter. The mother/teacher and daughter/learner are too easily dismissed, reinforcing the low status of craft and female, familial learning. Whilst Bridgman’s lacework creates an aesthetically pleasing illustration for the book, there is a distinct lack of curiosity in its making. 
The Perkins’ digital archive offers a significant number of examples of Bridgman’s craft including tatting, crocheting and needlework. What is disconcerting, however, is the inclusion of two images of a cast made of her brain after her death in 1889. These are included in a range of images including lacework collars and dolls clothes and seem incongruous and macabre additions. An extensive report, Anatomical Observations on the Brain and Several Sense-Organs of the Blind Deaf-Mute Laura Dewey Bridgman (Donaldson, 1890) describes the dimensions of Bridgman’s brain in an attempt to discern any distinctiveness caused by her impairments. The contemporary preoccupation with phrenology had driven a very particular kind of interest in reporting scientific investigation of Bridgman’s brain, described in the report as ‘the material’. This preoccupation extends to a note in the biographical details in the report which noted that her father had a small head and that her mothers’ head ‘was not large’ (ibid.: 2).  
My initial shock at stumbling across the images of the brain cast turned to sadness and incomprehension but also wonder at the levels of curiosity that her literacy had generated. I continue to reflect on the contrast between the interest in her ability to read, write and communicate via signing and her ability as a maker. The need to know and observe Bridgman from the inside out seems a macabre reminder of the dominance of observation in the scientific method and the occlusion of the arts by literacy. Donaldson’s extensive report reflects the clinical gaze in all its glory.  

Curiosity (I, II and III)

Reading about Bridgman and reflecting on the occlusion of craft from representations of learning and teaching brought me back to arts practice to explore the sensation of making. I can’t help but think that such limited curiosity in her ability to sew, knit and crochet would have left her safe from medical intrusion. The following images relate then to my ‘thinking knitting’ akin to generative writing or in art terms perhaps Paul Klee’s ‘taking a line for a walk’. There is no sense to these knitted pieces and no utility beyond their role in enabling me to think about craft processes and the relationship between materials and the senses. They sit between a crafted homage and a knitted lament; a means of processing the dehumanising and shocking appearance of the cast of Laura Bridgman’s brain amongst her handmade doll’s clothes and delicate threads. 

This black and white photograph shows a small knitted piece made on hatpins from metal yarn. The image is edited and silver in tone and the work is displayed on the worn surface of an old upholstered chair. The roll of metal yarn is visible at the left-hand corner of the image.
  Curiosity I (metal thread on a hatpin in a domestic setting)

cream knitted piece still on two knitting needles displayed with a small ball of wool. The knitted piece is displayed on spoon hooks on a vertical piece of drift wood that also shows a yarn wrapped shell also obscured by the knitted piece.
Curiosity II (cotton yarn, driftwood bought object and shell) 

cream knitted piece, bunched abstract knitting formed in the shape of a cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem displayed diagonally top left to bottom right on a knotted wooden surface.
Curiosity III (knitted brain bonnet, cotton yarn on wooden display chest)

This work is a development of work presented as part of the Disability Futurity Seminar Series for the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies. A recording is available here.

Claire Penketh is Associate Professor and Subject Lead for Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University. She is a core member of the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies and member of the National Society for Education in Art and Design. She is author of A Clumsy Encounter: Dyspraxia and Drawing (Penketh, 2011) and Co-editor of Disability, Avoidance and the Academy with her colleague Professor David Bolt (Bolt and Penketh, 2016).


Bolt, D. (2014) The Metanarrative of Blindness – A Re-reading of Twentieth Century Anglophone Writing Ann Arbor: Michigan Press. 
French, K. (2004) Perkins School for the Blind The Campus History Series Charleston South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing.
Donaldson, H (1890) Anatomical Observations on the Brain and Several Sense-Organs of the Blind Deaf-Mute Laura Dewey Bridgman [ accessed 10.10.2021]
Gitter, E. (2001) The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Macdonald, S. (1970) The History and Philosophy of Art Education University of London Press.
Royden, M.W. (1991) Pioneers and Perseverence – A History of the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool 1791 – 1991 UK: Countyvise Ltd.

Recommended citation:

Claire Penketh (2021): Craft and Curiosity: A Dedication to Laura Bridgman. In: Public Disablity History 6 (2021) 10. 

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